Wednesday, May 25, 2011

And for our Next Trick: The Green Tower

This is going to get G20-ish in a big hurry.

(Minus almost all of the protests I am sure.)

The PNC Financial Services website for the Tower at PNC Plaza is here.


To define what is beyond LEED Platinum, PNC's project team has three aspirational goals:

  • Community Builder: Support Pittsburgh's existing infrastructure, spur further development and business growth downtown and positively accentuate the skyline as a symbol of PNC's commitment to the city's sustainable future.
  • Workplace Innovator: Attract tomorrow's leaders to Pittsburgh by utilizing innovative space planning and building systems that promote collaboration and productivity, and set the bar for a healthy indoor environment.
  • Climate Responder: Tuned to Pittsburgh's climate by aggressively pursuing strategies and technologies that minimize resource use and maximize renewable energy opportunities.

PNC's design team is currently considering the following technologies:

  • Fuel cells, solar panels, geothermal systems and other alternative power generation sources that will significantly reduce carbon emissions
  • Optimally oriented building facades, operable windows, occupancy-based heating and cooling systems and other state of the art energy reduction technologies.
  • Rain water collection, water reuse and retention systems that prevent wastewater release into Pittsburgh’s three rivers when sewers are at capacity

Shovels in the ground:

Design Phase Began – April 2011
Construction Begins – Spring 2012
Open for Business – Summer 2015

No. Forty stories tall, ultra-green skyscrapers do not happen every day.

Figure this should hit the Planning Commission towards the end of the year.

I'm mostly excited about this as an environmental / technological / municipal-ergonomics Manhattan Project, or moon shot. That and like, way more Primanti's sandwiches sold.


  1. I don't follow this as closely as most, plus my memory is a bit hazy, but didn't Peduto make a similar statement (similar to Wagner's that is) back in the fall?

  2. Regarding this news, Anon 2:07? Yes, he did. To be fair however that was before PMRS's calculations came back a month later.

  3. Sorry for the non-sequitor. Wasn't paying attention to where I was clicking. But yes.

  4. Oh, not at all, the sidebar news links are also "topics".

  5. So I am promoting the notion of saving the facades along Forbes (only the ones along Forbes--not Wood except for the corner with Forbes, and not Fifth).

    This has been done before in other skyscraper projects, including in Pittsburgh (think the Primanti's building in Market Square). I think this approach would be consistent with the ambitions of the project as defined by PNC, and it appears to me they have left that section of their design essentially blank for now (at least I hope they weren't serious with what they released). I also think it would build on the success and feel of the revitalized Market Square, which is already moving up Forbes through developments like Market Square Place and the new Penn Avenue Fish Company, plus Point Park's plans for a new Playhouse.

    I even have a drawing:

    Their drawing for comparison:

  6. BrianTH - That's a pretty neat idea, and it does sound consistent with the project goals.

    I've got to imagine PNC would prefer much of its eye-level entryway to be glittery and modern, but there will be several long sides to this building with which we can play. What I like about your idea is, it helps mute the nagging notion that the construction of no 40-story skyscraper is REALLY going to be all that green -- what will all the cranes and trucks and digging devices run on? Wouldn't the real "green" option have been to quietly renovate and update existing snatches of office space Downtown, and connect those better with zip lines and rickshaws? But this would be a firm nod in the direction of -- wait for it -- adaptive reuse.

    Keep us posted on the reception to your proposals.

  7. Looks good Brian TH. I suggest that you do another drawing showing the actual building facades on that side of Forbes between the new building and Market Square. That would show you proposal in more of a context with the rest of the neighborhood, rather than the geometric shapes of PNC's rendering.

  8. Zip lines would rule, but let's be clear that reuse can only continue for so long before the inefficiencies of maintaining something old make it less green the building something new. Very old buildings that are preserved are almost always saved for aesthetic or historical reasons (and neither of those conditions apply to low-rise retail/office buildings in downtown).

    Building downtown is almost certainly greener than building elsewhere, if only because the public transit networks run there. That, combined with the central location saves a great deal of gas. If we inhibit new construction in the core areas, that does not help the environment.

    Lastly, as near as I can tell this is the only piece of construction between Monroeville and Cranberry that hasn't asked for a direct public subsidy.

  9. Bram,

    That was nicely put. PNC has already committed to deconstructing and reusing the materials from the buildings on site to the extent possible, but this would really add to that general category of greenness/sustainability factors.


    That is an excellent suggestion. However, I have no skills in this area and frankly it was a miracle I managed to do what I did. I might take a shot at it anyway, but I am kinda hoping someone who really knows how to do this stuff will take over at some point.


    These low-rise buildings, once renovated and integrated into the overall project, really shouldn't pose a significant penalty in terms of operating efficiency.

    As for aesthetics, that is a matter of taste, but again lots of people seem to like Market Square and what they have done with projects like Market Square Place. So I do think there is at least some demand for this kind of street-level treatment.

    As for history: this stretch of Forbes (aka Diamond Street), does in fact have a long history as an extension of the retail district centered on Market Square (aka the Diamond). These particular facades date from the early 20th-Century, except for the Rite Aid building which got a new Art Deco facade in 1937. Again, whether that history matters to you is a somewhat subjective question. But it would not be arbitrary to try to create a cohesive street-level retail district extending up Forbes from Market Square that preserved some sense of that history.

    Finally, part of the purpose of the sketches was to demonstrate that this proposal is in no way intended to inhibit the project as PNC has conceived it. All that I have to modify was the Brutalist street-level section along Forbes, and I can't imagine that is what PNC really wants to do in that area (I think it was just a placeholder in their design).

  10. History does matter to me, but going to extra work to save early 20th century architecture in Pittsburgh is like putting pigeons in the Aviary. In that part of town, the PNC plan looks to have something that is in short supply, a sidewalk wide enough that slow people can’t block me.

    Your idea does have one virtue. Where there are preserved facades, nobody can put public art.

  11. Of course there is no real point arguing matters of taste. I'll just note again that I think it is important to consider the issue in context, meaning in light of what has been developing in Market Square and along nearby sections of Forbes. Of course if you don't like all that to begin with, you may just want to see those other "pigeons" roasted eventually too.

  12. Of course there is no real point arguing matters of taste.

    Have you read the internet?

  13. Are you saying if it is happening on the Internet, it must have a point?

  14. I'm saying it doesn't really need a point.

    But, I'm not just talking matters of taste but what seems to motivate people, structure-wise. Apparently, things can crumble for years and that's not a problem. Nobody notices until somebody wants to replace a building.

  15. Um, people have been debating what to do about this part of Downtown for a long, long time. I don't know of anyone who likes it as it is, but the issue is what vision for the future do we have.

    By the way, as further evidence that PNC may not be inherently opposed to my proposal, I will note that one of the promotional images they released showed the new tower framed below by the renovated Market Square Place buildings:

    So we have the "pigeon" sentiment, but maybe like me, PNC can be persuaded to go for some "pheasant under glass".

  16. PNC might actually intend a brutalist street-level look. D.C. is chock-a-block with preserved facades fronting new high-rises, but not at the glass box that PNC just opened. Maybe such buildings didn't exist at that particular block, but given it's recent erections, including PNC3, it looks like the bank is sold, for the moment, on "green" glass walls.

  17. Um, people have been debating what to do about this part of Downtown for a long, long time.

    That's my point exactly.

  18. Not that I'm required to have a point.

    But, debating stuff like that is kind of like putting in a (not UPMC) non-profit. It's what you do when nobody can actually get real money.

  19. Anonymous,

    But that's the thing--the section in question apparently doesn't have a glass facade (which wouldn't be Brutalist). It is really out of keeping with the rest of the design, and I would note that in the press release, PNC said they would be seeking public comment on the street-level retail component. So I really think that was just a placeholder.


    I'm having a lot of trouble following you. At one point you said: "Apparently, things can crumble for years and that's not a problem. Nobody notices until somebody wants to replace a building." When I pointed out that people had actually been discussing these issues for a long time, you responded: "That's my point exactly." I have no idea how to reconcile those two statements.

    Anyway, you now seem to be claiming that this proposal is "what you do when nobody can actually get real money."

    This, of course, is wrong. I have previously pointed out that Market Square Place, a Millcraft project that cost them real money, opted to preserve and renovate similar historic facades. The Penn Avenue Fish Company building just went through a similar process across the street. Here are some before and after pictures:

    Point Park University is in the midst of spending a lot of money on its expanding Downtown footprint, and it also plans to incorporate historic facades in its new Playhouse, which is on the other side of the street:

    This is very common in other cities as well. Here is a project in Vancouver which will have a similar look:

    To sum up: if you don't like it personally, you don't like it. Fine. But you are wrong to suggest that this isn't an option that people with money to spend would never choose. There really is a market for this stuff, even if you aren't part of that market.

  20. Incidentally, there is an unintentional double negative near the end of my last post (I suspect the point was clear anyway).

  21. By 'real money,' I mean somebody who isn't asking for a public subsidy.

  22. Like PNC did in building 3 PNC?

    I think I will now take you at your word that you personally don't think you need to have a point before you post something on the Internet.

  23. That's fine.

    But I don't understand the impulse to preserve something that is hugely abundant and not obviously attractively, especially in a region where the average building is poorly maintained. If they manage to replace/repair the Greenfield bridge, I hope you’ll call on them to preserve the underbridge that was to stop cars from being pummeled by chunks of the real bridge. That at least crosses into Dada.

  24. Again, whether or not you personally like the look of these buildings is not something I think is worth discussing.

    As for your "abundance" argument, is the following issue really so hard for you to understand?

    People sometimes create historic "districts" (or zones, or so on). Within such a district, various structures will be deemed to contribute to the district as a whole. To understand why that makes some sense, you just need to understand that as people move around such a district, they don't see each structure as entirely divorced from its context. Indeed, it would take an unnatural and constant effort for people to filter out the context.

    In that context, "abundance" isn't a vice, it is a virtue, because the more contributing structures within the district, the more cohesive it will be. And as it so happens, there is already a city-designated Market Square Historic District:

    So one way of putting what I am proposing is that this Market Square Historic District could be expanded up Forbes a bit more, formally or informally. And in fact, I think that is already happening on an informal basis, so I am basically just proposing that PNC join in that process with these facades.

    Now are you claiming you really just don't understand that concept at all? That the very idea of a historic district strikes you as strange or perverse?

    Or is it just that you are saying that you personally wouldn't like such a district? Because that would just take us back to your personal tastes.

  25. I understand the concept and it makes great sense if something were actually historic (say 150 years old or more) as opposed to just old. Even something ugly (and downtown Pittsburgh is mostly ugly) could make sense to save if it were unique, but half the cities in the U.S. have block after block of that type of building.

    The same impulse that fills the Louvre also leads to people with 800 cats in a two bedroom ranch.

  26. Perhaps we'd better take a closer look at what lies on that block presently and evaluate how worthy of attention it might be. I concede the point that arbitrary preservation can be plenty brutal. I also think we should concede that sometimes once you sweep and polish the place some nice wood and fixtures can be noticed.

    On a related note, has anyone noticed if there is less vagrancy and panhandling in Market Square since its makeover, and if there is indeed less, has it or they been displaced anywhere in particular?

  27. MH,

    So it comes down to you personally not liking the look of commercial buildings from this era. Enough said.


    Here are some pictures of the facades in question (taken from streetview-type programs, so a bit crude):

    Here are some brief notes that cover three of the four facades in question, taken from a PHLF self-guided walking tour brochure:

    #7 2T Jewelers
    305 Forbes Avenue

    Formerly occupied by Bolan’s Candies, this is one of the finest examples in Pittsburgh of the Beaux-Arts style. This small but imposing building of c. 1905 looks like a jewel box. Compare the Ionic pilasters (flattened columns) with those on the Neo-Classical building of c. 1915, next door (Penn Wig & Fashions), originally the F & W Grand 5 to 25 Cent Store, Inc.

    #8 Rite Aid Pharmacy
    313–17 Forbes Avenue

    In 1937, the J. C. McCrory Company had its architect
    (name unknown) apply this up-to-date Art Deco geometric
    buff brick façade to what was originally the Olympic
    Theatre building.

    Again, though, I think it is important to consider them in context as well. So here are a couple more pictures showing a bit of the context. I've added a red outline to indicate buildings that are currently within the Market Square Historic District. The purple outline is a sort of proposed extension of that District (note I've included everything on the other side of Wood, but that is a detail we could discuss on another occasion). Underscored in yellow are the facades in question.

    By the way, nothing about this is arbitrary. When it first became clear that someone was buying up a large parcel in this area, I looked at the facades, and I also looked at a variety of historic photos (which can help one determine what might be lurking under a facade). At that time I concluded that only this stretch along Forbes was worth preserving--the rest of what is along Wood and Fifth is not worth preserving in my view.

    As it turns out, PNC's current design isn't making use of the relevant space. That is probably just a coincidence, but it means that at least as far as these sketches are concerned, the facades I identified as worth preserving don't interfere with their design.

  28. 1905 to 1937 isn't history. It's the recent past.

  29. It's the last time there was a Republican in City Council. By some measures we are living in the Year of Our Party 75. Some enterprising archaeologists should explore around the walls of those buildings for the fossils of top hats, monocles and self-reliance.

  30. MH

    Aside from the fact that is an arbitrary and absurd definition of what counts as historical--I have this odd recollection of learning about WWII in my history classes--it also raises the obvious issue of how anything could survive to become historical by this arbitrary and absurd definition if nothing is going to be preserved before it becomes historical.

    But trust me, I get it--you personally don't like and aren't interested in commercial buildings from the early 20th Century. Your personal preferences have been duly noted.

  31. I agree with BrianTH, but I'm rooting for MH. SWEEP THE LEG!

  32. By the way, to say something constructive: one of the things I love about the architecture Downtown is its eclecticism--you can see buildings from all sorts of different eras and in different styles in close proximity. To maintain this feel in the future--and I understand some may prefer otherwise--we need to strike a balance between preserving the variety that exists and allowing room for present and future contributions to the mix.

    Again, in this case I think such a balance will be easily achievable, which is fortunate.

  33. And to Bram:

    Don't forget to breathe. Very important.

  34. Something becomes historical once it has outlived 95 to 99% of its contemporary whatevers. And I'm being generous on the lower bound. You have to have some criteria that separates preservationists from hoarders. And obviously too many people have horrible taste so you can't go by that until when get a philosopher king or TV dies.

    Personally, I've spent my life surrounded by early 20th century commercial architecture and late-middle 20th century residential architecture. They're nice enough, but both should be pushed down if you can get more density in that area.

  35. Perfect example of modern liberalism. Someone else produces, someone else takes risk, someone else designs and builds and the liberals all chatter and criticize.

  36. I used to think that before the bailout made it obvious that you get returns based on how much you have to invest as opposed to how much risk you took.

    But, it is indisputable that Pittsburgh needs new buildings more than it needs to save old ones. We may as well have the banks build one or two nice buildings before we either nationalize all the banks or are impoverished to pay for the yachts of AIG counter parties and the retirements of the team that designed the 1983 Chevette.

    Plus, a 40 story building with operable windows at least makes defenestration a going option.

  37. Thanks Brian TH. Just this weekend I biked downtown and photographed the facades in question. While I was doing that two workers who were gutting a small retail space across the street (in preparation for expansion of a hair salon) were marveling at the architectural details topping the Farmers Bank Building. It seemed that these guys were not from the city and were not preservationist-types, yet they still appreciated good urban art and fabric when they saw it.

    Overall, I can't understand the visceral revulsion expressed in this thread toward saving the fronts of a few old buildings on half a block of downtown. Where's the harm in saving a bit of history and visual variety for future generations?

  38. Sorry, not Farmers Bank, the Arrott Building.

  39. It seemed that these guys were not from the city and were not preservationist-types, yet they still appreciated good urban art and fabric when they saw it.

    More suburbanites who want the city to stay the same and then go home to new buildings you can actually use. Wheee.

  40. See MH, there's the basic flaw in your argument. Nobody's seeking to keep the city at a standstill. A new 40-story greenest building in the world, with a sliver of four old storefront maintained at one corner of the glass tower, does not equal "staying the same". Rather, it recognizes the value of the old, as well as the new.

    And the workmen that I referenced were not suburbanites. I talked with them for quite some time. They were making a rare excursion into town to complete a demolition job. Our conversation started when they stopped me during my picture taking to point out the craftsmenship and dedication that went into creating the decorative elements of the Arrott Building (they put it in cruder terms, but that's what they were getting at). The ultra-sophistication and visionary aspects of downtown's modern glass towers apparently failed to capture their attention. Typical hicks, I guess.

  41. They were making a rare excursion into town to complete a demolition job.

    I'm not going to complain about that.

  42. Good one! I'll bet they have a bunch of cats too.