Regrowing a Greenhouse | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper




Maybe it was the early years in a school too close to the open-hearth furnaces in Homestead, or the adolescent afternoons spent washing commensurately sooty cars for extra money. Whatever the reason, a hankering for cleaner air and buildings led Ernie Sota to study environmental design and architecture at Penn State in the 1970s. When he returned to Pittsburgh, he built a greenhouse out of wood and plastic panels on the roof of his South Side Victorian. Inspired by the ecological design principles of Dr. John Todd and Nancy Jack Todd, it was a yard for a house built without one, a good place to grow plants, and a source of pleasant, loamy air pumped through the building to counter still-sulfurous Pittsburgh.




Fast-forward 30 years or so. Sota Construction developed into a successful company whose projects, such as a $22 million historic renovation for the Felician Sisters motherhouse and high school in Moon Township, frequently feature recycled materials, efficient mechanical systems and other features contributing to the LEED program of environmental certification for architecture. The old greenhouse, though, was beginning to fall apart.


Legendarily, Greek temple builders tore down their wooden structures and rebuilt them in stone. Sota opted for steel and glass, and he enlisted Gerard Damiani of Studio D'Arc architecture to produce a design. Though the two had not worked together, Sota knew Damiani's work from his rigorous yet rusty (because of its Cor-Ten steel) home and studio on 21st Street. Damiani's enthusiasm for a really tiny addition, just a few hundred square feet, indicates that the two are kindred spirits. "It's not the size of the project," Damiani says, "it's the willingness of the client to explore ideas."


Here, the idea was to make a structure with an ecological ethos into something beautiful, livable and elegant. It presents a large-scale, saw-tooth profile to the low-rise skyline, appearing as like three adjoining glass boxes held in balance at about a 45-degree angle. A prow-like metal projection over the house's front is actually a combined bench and planter, at the edge of one of two porches that connect with railings to the larger structure. Inside, there is one very bright living space serving as a common room for the rental units in the house.


This exuberantly metallic and angular new construction on top of a nicely restored historic building is a great object lesson for the neighborhood, where too much new construction is fake historical. Let the old be old, but let the new be new. Even better, the forms make a unity out of the structure's various purposes. "You lean it toward both the sunshine and the view," Damiani says. So while it opens to great views all around the South Side, it is also a very effective source for heat in the winter, ventilation in the summer.


Sota boasts that you can "get warm for free in January and February." The comparatively makeshift fan and duct system of the 1970s has given way to a more sophisticated energy-recovery ventilator, which can recapture waste heat from exhaust air and circulate air throughout the building in response to the need for increased or decreased temperature. As with the rooftop itself, the good intentions of the 1970s meet the advancing art and technology of the new millennium.


The overall impression is of an effective synthesis of design and ecology. Thanks to Damiani's meticulous sense of material, composition and detail, a skyline structure that works with surrounding roofs and churches is also crafted with great precision -- especially in such elements as steel skin, window mullions and joist mounting points. Not incidentally, recycled and low-toxicity materials are used throughout, including tile, drywall and deck surfaces. Fans and lights, the latter of which make the structure into a beacon at night, are specified for low energy use. Yet, unlike some environmentally conscious projects, which end up seeming dull and somehow self-abnegating, this one is dynamic and adventurous. This is undoubtedly because the client and the architect pursued a vision rather than a checklist.


Says Sota, "If you have a goal that is not explicit in terms of money, it takes you to a goal that is better than what you originally envisioned."

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