The New Forest Hills Borough Building – A Net-Zero Energy Solution

The following guest blog post by Patricia DeMarco, a member of the Forest Hills Borough Council, describes the process the borough undertook to arrive at a sound decision for their community members: a new net-zero borough building.


Forest Hills Borough, a community of about 6,500 people located seven miles east of Pittsburgh, is approaching its centenary in 2019. Once a rural farm area, it subsequently became a company town for Westinghouse, with settlement intensifying after WWII. Long associated with innovation and Westinghouse engineering feats, it has been shaped by a legacy of parkland and public property donated when the company moved on in 1985.  The Forest Hills Borough Building on Ardmore Boulevard has stood as the center of community functions since 1922, but now faces the limitations of an inefficient and costly energy system, as well as other structural problems.

Architectural drawing for the new Forest Hills Borough Town Hall, under construction January 2017. Credit: Pfaffmann & Associates

Needs Assessment
In August of 2014, a general annual review of borough properties revealed significant cost escalations in several buildings: the magistrate and borough buildings on Ardmore Boulevard and the library and senior center on Avenue F.  The magistrate offices moved to a larger space with better parking and access, while Allegheny County consolidated the senior center with Turtle Creek, closing the Forest Hills location and two other small centers. With the latter change, the C. C. Mellor Library was left alone to operate at 20 hours per week in a building that was expensive to run and had accessibility and functional service limitations. The borough building on Ardmore Boulevard had significant storage and accessibility (to the second floor council chambers) constraints, even with an elevator.  And the police functions were significantly limited in space, security arrangements, parking, and pedestrian access. Most concerning, however, was the increasing cost of operations and the unsuccessful adjustments to the heating and cooling system in the interior space. Even with repairs and adjustments in recent years, inefficiencies and space pressures were unlikely to be resolved in the existing space.

A plan emerged to build a new borough building on property Forest Hills owns on Greensburg Pike, adjacent to the Westinghouse Lodge and Park. It will consolidate the borough’s administrative and council functions, police offices, and library/community space into one efficient building that can serve the community’s needs for the next 50 years. Through such a relocation, the sale of the existing properties will contribute to financing, while the Ardmore Boulevard location will return to a taxable business use. The council’s goal was to achieve a functional municipal services building for the next five decades without increasing the tax millage rate. A target cost of $4.5 million was set as a goal.

Public presentations on the concept began in February 2015, with concept discussions presented by Town Center Associates.  Soon after, the Borough retained Pfaffmann & Associates to work with council to define a plan.  In addition to monthly public meetings at council sessions, two community planning meetings were held – one in September 2015 focusing on the building’s site plan and one in April 2016 focusing on functionality and design.

Site Planning
The New Forest Hills Borough building site is on a gravel parking area formerly the location of a Westinghouse building on Greensburg Pike. At the site planning meeting, there was considerable interest expressed by several residents in restoring the Westinghouse Atom Smasher structure as a site feature.  The Atom Smasher is currently on the ground on a property under consideration for development by a private entity that has no interest in preserving the historic artifact.  A designated location for this atom smasher is included in the site plans, however, the cost of  moving it from its current location and refurbishing it for safe installation on the new Forest Hills Borough building site has been estimated upwards of $200,000.  Private sources of funds are being sought for this project. Many citizens are interested in seeing the new building reflect the history of innovation that has been part of Forest Hills over the years.

The site was evaluated for a passive solar building design, and was deemed suitable, if the building could be oriented on the property to allow a south-facing roof. If a geothermal earth heating and cooling system would be included, soils testing and evaluation of the site for coal shafts under the area would be necessary. This site sits at the top of the Turtle Creek watershed, therefore, the area was also evaluated to address storm water management with bio-swales and green management techniques to control storm water runoff.  The location already has direct access to Greensburg Pike with ease of traffic movement and is served by a public transit bus line. The site is large enough to accommodate parking, and has sidewalks for safe pedestrian access from multiple directions. Its proximity to the Westinghouse Lodge and park create a campus of Forest Hills Borough public services.

Functionality and Design
At the community planning workshop, groups of citizens drew concept plans for the functions to be served in the new building. Imaginative proposals included a coffee shop/internet café, a history walk capturing images of Forest Hills over the last century, and interpretive exhibits explaining building features. The Forest Hills Borough administrative staff, police department, and council had an opportunity to add their thoughts and have participated in all stages of design planning. The group quickly agreed that sustainability and cost efficiency should take high priority in the design. Citizens familiar with features of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ Living Building and Chatham University’s Eden Hall added credibility to the concept, while some were concerned that such ambitious sustainable goals would be too expensive for the community.

A focus on the building envelope with an emphasis on sustainability took a “reduce consumption before renewables” approach. Design parameters were set around energy, water, materials, and indoor air quality.  Considerations included the need for adequate storage and natural daylight in work spaces, and areas to serve the public both through borough administrative functions and the police department.  Library and community gathering spaces were discussed in terms of how they would relate to the council chamber under different use configurations. The preference for natural materials and locally sourced materials provided guidance for the building envelope and interior design.

Forest Hills Town Hall Sustainable Features

The Building
The building will be a 12,746 -square-foot one-floor structure aligned with a south-facing roof and a clear story of translucent recycled plastic to filter incoming light into interior space.

Energy Features
A passive solar-designed building first focused on the building envelope. The structure will have an energy use intensity of 36.78 kBtu/ft2, with an estimated annual operation cost of $10,670. The overall operating cost will be $0.97/ft2, compared to the current building cost of $2.21/ft2 – or the cost of operating a building designed to the conventional 2009 building code standard of $1.42/ft2. Forty 100-foot deep geothermal wells will provide heating and cooling and require 118,555 kWh annually to operate. The 125 kW photovoltaic array on the roof will provide 151,947 kWh annually, which will cover the geothermal HVAC plus the other electrical loads in the building for a net-zero energy operation. The building will be connected to the utility grid with a net metering tariff for electric service, while a gas line will be connected to an emergency generator to support police operations.

Water Features
 Storm water management will reduce the peak discharge rate into the Turtle Creek watershed by more than 64% over the 100-year storm level.  The volume of water from two- and five-year storms will be entirely infiltrated, as will nearly all of the 10-year storm volumes.  A system of sand and limestone infiltration beds will reduce runoff acidity and temperature, and rain gardens and plantings will provide additional water filtration benefits.  The site will be planted with trees and drought-tolerant and native plants in bio-swales surrounding the building and parking area.  Enhanced pedestrian walkways and some of the parking lot will be made of permeable surfaces to augment storm water infiltration.

Indoor Quality
The building is designed to conserve energy as much as possible and therefore will be super-insulated, with the roof at R-50 (conventional is R-38) and walls at R-40 (conventional is R-19). Natural daylight and views to outdoor plantings will enhance the ambiance and provide attractive work spaces. The clear story along the roofline will consist of translucent plastic material that allows light transference, but prevents interior glare. Windows are of insulated glass set in wooden frames and have sashed sections to open for ventilation in season. The southern roof overhang allows shading in the summer and sunlight to enter in the winter. Sustainable nontoxic materials are used throughout for walls and structural materials.  All the wood is from sustainably grown sources and recycled-content, locally sourced, and environmentally beneficial materials were selected. Lighting is designed to use natural daylight, with LED lighting and daylight sensing controls. Water management includes water-conserving plumbing fixtures with automatic controls. The lobby and reception area will be equipped with a “dashboard” and interpretive signs to explain how the building functions and allow visitors to understand the special energy- and water-conserving features.

Design plans were approved in November 2016 and a general contractor, Volpatt Construction, was hired.  Groundbreaking ceremonies held on December 3, 2016 marked the beginning of a new era for Forest Hills Borough.

Groundbreaking for Forest Hills Borough Building, December 3, 2016.


The new Forest Hills Borough Building will perform at the level of a LEED-Gold building, although certification will not be sought due to cost. The council has been in unanimous accord with this project across two administrations, while the community is well engaged. As construction proceeds toward an October 2017 completion target, excitement is rising for this innovative and fiscally responsible project. The new building will reflect the history of innovation that has shaped Forest Hills and pave the way forward for resilience in a changing world.


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