Sustainability is a relative measurement. As a guiding principle, its pursuit is defined by what was built, and what can ultimately be maintained. It’s a threshold with an ever changing target, a point of compromise between our heritage and our values. Sustainability is a conversation, and its conflicting priorities are foundational to advancing ever higher standards of design.
Photo: Anthony Musmanno
At the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, we’ve lived that dialogue for more than 10 years, refining our vision for learning and community with each project that we undertake. At the center of our current debate is a 120-year old Richardsonian Romanesque building (ca 1890), known to the city as the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny. In 2006, lightning struck its stately granite clock tower, tearing open the slate roof and prompting the library to relocate. This cataclysmic event gave rise to museumlab, the Children’s Museum latest example of hands-on learning that aims to transform education for children of all ages (1). It is an ambitious adaptive re-use project, which also needs to respect the building’s history, adapt to inclusive design, and actively contribute to Pittsburgh’s sustainable future.
In the spirit of experimentation, the team identified four key design goals: be authentic and visible (and be a beacon to the community), be active and dynamic (but also adjustable to the needs of the visitors), be open and provide perspective (by breaking down walls), and be nurturing (by providing safe and healthy spaces). The Museum also targeted a number of regional and national certification programs, including LEED, WELL, the 2030 Challenge, and Innovative Solutions for Universal Design (isUD) (2). We anticipated significant overlap between guidelines, with achievement of one guideline providing momentum for others. Despite the obvious synergy, the team also grappled with conflicting impacts, trade-offs, and ultimately, genuine un-tested innovation.
Photo: Ed Massery
Our first challenge: Movement. One of the founding principles of universal design is the equal and unsegregated access to space, no matter the user’s ability. The original vision sought to restore the building’s grand marble staircase, which had been replaced with a partially functional elevator in 1974. The stairs supported goals for activity (WELL Building) and perspective, however they limited less mobile users. The solution? Introduce both a new monumental staircase and a new central elevator in a highly visible and accessible location. We placed the elevator with access through a newly constructed atrium and central gallery that is the centerpiece of the building renovation as well as a crossroads for all visitors to the building.
Our second challenge: Energy reduction. To present a sustainable model for the community, we strove to meet the 2030 Challenge’s new construction goals, despite renovating a historic building. The challenge outlines an 80% reduction in energy use by 2020, which is a significant undertaking even for a modern office structure. With an imposing granite face, deep interior window wells, and stunning crown molding, our dedication to the building’s beauty posed the most formidable impediment. After considering and rejecting an insulation nanobead used by NASA (deemed not durable enough for an exposed surface), the team decided to test a natural thermal plaster, marking its first application in the United States. The plaster more than doubled the building’s insulation value, and its cork, clay and lime base provided a comfortable learning environment for museumlab’s visitors. Along with new roofs, attic insulation, windows and efficient mechanical and electric systems, the building is projected to achieve a 60 percent reduction in energy use upon completion.
As the team worked through each conflict, we ultimately weighed design decisions against an overarching commitment to health and wellness. museumlab will offer daily educational programming, in addition to hosting 140 middle schoolers from the Manchester Academic Charter School (MACS). Each space needs to create a nurturing and inspiring place to learn, starting with the building’s indoor air quality. The team faced a classic sustainability trade-off, balancing the benefits of increased ventilation with energy conservation. In accordance with the WELL Building Standard, we increased air circulation by 30% above the level required by building code. However, the ventilation system almost completely negated the team’s ambitious energy reductions from the rest of the project. To reconcile these competing outcomes, we added an energy recovery wheel to the makeup air unit.
Photo: Larry Rippel
The more difficult requirements included controlling lighting glare and managing acoustics in the educational spaces. The classroom ceiling heights are unusually high (18 feet), and we were committed to preserving the original spatial proportions. By pairing up and down lighting with dimming capabilities, the classrooms are flooded with diffuse but bright light. High ceilings and historic skylights, combined with handsome terracotta floor tiles, also compromised healthy classroom acoustics. We addressed these issues through a spray-on acoustical treatment surrounding the skylights, and limited carpet flooring to reveal the floor tiles at the classroom perimeter.
Throughout the design and construction process, we struggled to promote activity and openness without ignoring inclusivity and equity. We grappled with the desire to preserve the architectural beauty while also reducing energy usage. And we worked to reconcile the size, volume and architectural heritage of the building while creating healthy spaces conducive to learning. No single guideline, standard or certification program took precedence, and though conflicts inevitably arose, each collision of values ultimately forged a stronger solution. Within the natural tension of these design guidelines, the Children’s Museum found a creative approach to transforming place and space to inspire the next generation of problem solvers.