A major chunk of PNC tower's new glass 'skin' being built in Pittsburgh

In a nondescript building in a city industrial park near Crafton, a big part of PNC's $400 million Downtown skyscraper is being assembled piece by piece.

Permasteelisa Group, one of the world's top contractors in the manufacturing and installation of building shells and interiors, has set up a mobile factory in the 80,000-square-foot warehouse to put together the 33-story Tower at PNC Plaza's "double skin" glass facade.

Roughly half of the building shell is being assembled at the site, with the rest being done in Windsor, Conn., Permasteelisa's North American headquarters.

Factory manufactures glass for new PNC skyscraper

A factory is busy manufacturing the glass for the Tower at PNC Plaza project, a new skyscraper under construction Downtown. (Video by Nate Guidry; 2/27/2014)

It's no simple matter.

The facade consists of two separate panes of glass separated by what Gary Saulson, PNC's director of corporate real estate, refers to as "no man's land" -- an enclosed space employees will be able to access through sliding doors to get fresh air, stretch their legs or take in the sights around them.

"It's going to be a great place to go," Mr. Saulson said.

While workers may find the space unique -- or, perhaps, unnerving if they happen to be staring down from the 30th floor -- the sophisticated facade is an integral part of the building's cutting-edge sustainability.

The interior windows are built with motorized "flap vents" that can be opened to allow fresh air into the skyscraper. The exterior glass also will have "pop out" windows for the same purpose. A light will tell employees whether they can open the sliding doors.

Working in concert with the double skin facade, a solar chimney will assist in ventilating the building. In the winter, it will absorb sunlight to help to heat the skyscraper. A mock-up installed at the top of One PNC Plaza topped 100 degrees even in this bone-chilling winter, Mr. Saulson said.

"Essentially Pittsburgh has gone from a place where we had smoky chimneys to a place where we have an environmentally friendly chimney," he said.

Mr. Saulson said the new tower, which PNC is billing as the "greenest skyrise in the world," represents the first true double skin facade in the United States. Part of it already can be seen on the east and south sides of the building, which is under construction on Wood Street and scheduled to be completed in summer 2015.

With the facade and solar chimney, PNC hopes to be able to naturally ventilate the building 42 percent of the time each year. It also estimates that it will be able to reduce the tower's energy load by at least 50 percent compared to a traditional office building.

"From our perspective, it is so exciting to work on this project. It's the first time we have approached a design looking at the building as a human being, as an organism, rather than just a stand-alone component," said Roberto Bicchiarelli, senior vice president and general manager of Permasteelisa North America.

The new skyscraper, he said, will be able to "adapt itself to the outside environment" and represents a "terrific way to reduce as much as possible the energy consumption."

At Permasteelisa's local plant, the tower's interior skin currently is being pieced together, assembly line style, starting with the flap vents, then a one-of-a-kind wood frame, followed by the glass pane, and sealants and glues.

Each panel is then packaged and stored, based on the floor of the building where it will be used, before it is shipped to the site. In all, 2,200 interior panels, 5 feet wide and 13 feet high, will be assembled at the plant. Another 600 exterior ones already have been completed. The company also is assembling the walkway between the two skins. All of the glass for the facade is being manufactured by PPG.

Italy-based Permasteelisa began its Pittsburgh operations in August.

The plant will stay in place until at least the end of the year, with an option to extend it as needed. It currently employs 16 to 18 employees and can go up to 20, depending on the workload, Mr. Bicchiarelli said.

In hiring Permasteelisa to do the facade work, PNC required the company to open a manufacturing facility locally, Mr. Saulson said.

"We really wanted to bring jobs to Pittsburgh. We also thought we would have greater quality control if we could send people from the building here to look at the curtain wall before it was shipped to the building," Mr. Saulson said.

If there are problems, they are easier to rectify when the work is being done locally, he added. As one example, a glass panel shattered at the tower's construction site was being repaired at the plant Wednesday.

While Permasteelisa has helped to develop skyscrapers throughout the world, including Hong Kong, Shanghai, London, New York, Taipei, and Chicago, this one has been a challenge in its own right, Mr. Bicchiarelli said.

"At the end of the day, we are building the facade for two buildings," he said.

Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.

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