In April I published this story about a contingent of students visiting Pittsburgh from the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) in Moscow. Their week long study trip included a half day at the Energy Innovation Center, which received its LEED Platinum certification yesterday. Below is an outtake from my first draft, much of which was edited out of the final version. (Nothing speaks to innovation and sustainability better than the adaptive-reuse of an old blog post!) Please note that this cutting room floor material that’s neither properly edited nor fact-checked. Please send corrections here. At the end is a press release detailing many of the EIC’s accomplishments.
Pittsburgh, like many so-called “rust-belt” cities, lost its footing when it was no longer a place defined by the things it made; where places for making largely became places for consuming. Amidst a vague national discussion about reinvigorating our country’s manufacturing legacy, the RANEPA students were exposed to several local initiatives that tie emerging industries to educational systems. A stop at the Falk School Wonderlab, where students from kindergarten through eighth grade learn through making, using wood, fabric and technology, led them to the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood.
Adapted from a public vocational school called the Connelley Center (built circa 1930), the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) is Pittsburgh’s most technically advanced building, and one of only a few nationwide that have attained a LEED Platinum sustainability while occupying a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. By training local students in more than twenty traditional trades, Connelley was very much about making things. Carrying that tradition through the twenty-first century, the EIC is an innovation center that is both a trade school and a Wonderlab for adults.
On the building’s southern facade is an expanse of glass that looks upon twenty-eight acres of the Lower Hill District neighborhood (adjacent to downtown) that have been razed and cleared for the second time. During the 1950s, thousands of residents and business owners, mostly immigrants and people of color, were displaced through eminent domain to make room for a civic music hall which was later turned into a hockey and concert arena. In 2012 the arena was demolished, and the site is currently being prepared for a large-scale redevelopment that will include residential, office and entertainment space. Many issues such as affordable housing, public park space and to whom the neighborhood belongs remain very much unsettled.
The EIC’s focus on sustainability extends from the building itself to the workforce development initiatives it promotes. Throughout the building, exposed ceilings reveal miles of piping, ductwork and valves ranging from one inch to three feet in diameter, painted a spectrum of colors coded to their purpose, and labeled with strange terms like “Glycol Supply to Farm.” The building systems are not only open for anyone to see, they’re not patented, and therefore free for others to copy, ergo make.
Early in its lifecycle the EIC has reduced its annual energy costs from more than a half of a million dollars to about seventy-thousand dollars, and is on its way to energy independence by way of making its own. Not only will the EIC draw from numerous energy sources (including natural gas, nuclear, wind and solar), it will be able to choose which sources to use at any given time.
In what was Connelley’s machine shop is now EIC’s conference room. The original wood plank shop floors remain, surrounded by two walls of windows with 770 panes of glass that provide a stunning view spanning from downtown to the Allegheny and Ohio River valleys, and the city’s Northside neighborhoods beyond. In his talk with the students, EIC’s executive director, Rich DiClaudio, said, “A community is only as good as its poorest residents.” A major focus of the EIC, he said, is to connect local communities with corporations and institutions of higher learning, which means outreach to immigrants, minorities and formerly incarcerated populations, which together form “blended learning groups.” The teaching of many traditional trades remains, along with new ones that center on energy, life sciences and additive manufacturing (commonly known as 3-D printing).
Making stuff is one thing; who owns the stuff we make is another thing entirely, and no one knows that better than industrial cities around the world that have witnessed conflict between the two. Presently, that stuff is composed of products and ideas, and the EIC provides a means for the makers to retain ownership of both. “Rapid prototyping” is a core component of the organization that allows for those with ideas to quickly transform them into things, primarily through 3-D printing, but other means as well. Often, Mr. DiClaudio explained, universities own neither their research and development nor the prototypes they produce; but here, universities, small organizations or individuals retain ownership of their intellectual property and their prototypes.
Of course, Pittsburgh still makes stuff, and something it makes a lot of are LEED-certified buildings. Transforming an historic school into a LEED Platinum facility capable of producing energy for all of its 200,000 square feet is remarkable, even by Pittsburgh standards, where LEED projects can easily be taken for granted. A point not stressed often enough is that the entire EIC design and construction team is local. From the basement swimming pool-turned-glycol farm to the stunning vistas overlooking the city, the EIC was made in Pittsburgh, by Pittsburgh.