North Side building is opened up to let the light in and create a serene living space


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Many Allegheny West residents love their North Side neighborhood's Victorian-era architecture. Mike Ramsey's taste, however, runs more toward fire and rock than lace curtains and clawfoot tubs.

When he bought a rectangular modern building four years ago, the planetary geologist decided to turn the second floor into a two-bedroom, two-bath loft and rent out the first floor as commercial space.

"He had a green agenda," said Peter Kreuthmeier, a principal in the firm of Loysen + Kreuthmeier Architects. "He had tons of great ideas. That made for a fascinating collaboration."

Mr. Ramsey travels from Alaska to Australia to study volcanos when he isn't teaching at the University of Pittsburgh. When he arrived here in 2000, he chose to rent a Squirrel Hill apartment. Eight years later, he found what he wanted in the 900 block of Western Avenue. Built in 1964 as an architect's office, it was later used as a bakery. Its roof was leaking.

"On the exterior walls, you could see some light through the brick," Mr. Ramsey said.

He talked with three local architects and chose Mr. Kreuthmeier. "We clicked sketching out ideas."

The architect soon realized that his client had a keen sense of design and had considered becoming an architect.

"He had things very figured out in his head. He even presented a thoughtful, logical PowerPoint that showed an organized approach into transforming an office into living space," Mr. Kreuthmeier said.

"A lot of his travels take him to Japan. He is very fond of the Japanese aesthetic, particularly the gardens. It was very important for him to bring some zen into this project. That was really the genesis of the courtyard."

At 22 feet wide and 120 feet long, the building was "like a cave in the middle," Mr. Ramsey said. To transform the space, a 20- by 14-foot hole was cut in the roof to create a glass-lined outdoor courtyard.

The Japanese zen garden is anchored by a boulder called a garnet schist, a dramatic specimen of metamorphic rock that weighs just under a ton and is surrounded by small pebbles that symbolize water. The schist had to be carefully placed above the intersection of three steel beams; otherwise, it would have fallen through to the lower floor.

This courtyard, which also functions as a light well, organizes the living space and illuminates every space in the loft.

"The project would be impossible without the courtyard," Mr. Kreuthmeier said.

The view from the living room, which faces Western Avenue, is through a 22-foot-wide bank of double-paned, energy-efficient windows that are 10 feet tall. Aside from comfortable modern furniture, a big-screen television and a bookcase, the living room's dominant feature is a fire orb, a circular fireplace suspended from the ceiling that burns wood logs and vents through the roof.

"If the Jetsons had a fireplace, that would be their fireplace. It's sleek and delightful," Mr. Kreuthmeier said.

Given a choice of a silver or black fire orb, Mr. Ramsey eagerly calculated the energy efficiency of each before choosing the black version.

Nine months passed between when Mr. Ramsey bought the property and lined up his financing for its transformation. In addition to a refinanced mortgage and construction loan through Lawrenceville-based Allegheny Valley Bank, he got help from the Urban Redevelopment Authority to improve the building's facade. He also took advantage of an Allegheny Valley Bank program called "Upstairs, Downstairs" that lends money to people who live in a renovated building that also has commercial space. Qualified buyers can get a 15-year loan at a fixed rate, said Andy Hasley, the bank's president. The program is still offered and has been especially successful in Lawrenceville, Bloomfield and Garfield.

At the back of the property, an existing car port was enclosed to create two parking spaces, one for Mr. Ramsey and another for a tenant. The commercial space remains vacant. It is in Allegheny West's main business district, a few blocks from the main campus of Community College of Allegheny County.

Demolition lasted three months; metal ceiling tiles and old light fixtures were recycled. Metal became scrap; light fixtures went to Construction Junction.

During construction, walls were torn down and steel beams revealed. Eight inches of new insulation were applied to cinder block walls. A "green" roof membrane was installed, then topped by a new steel roof, which has 48 Sun Tech solar panels that collect more energy than the building uses.

A fire sprinkler system was installed near the end of 2009, just as Western Avenue was getting new sidewalks, curbs and trees.

"We thought you didn't need a sprinkler system, but you do," Mr. Ramsey said, because one of the building's uses is residential. That added $40,000 to the project cost.

After a polished concrete floor with charcoal tones was stained and sealed, it was time to sculpt the interior space. To reach the loft, visitors enter through a street-level door, climb a stairway and enter a spacious living room filled with modern furniture.

The kitchen is elevated by 6 inches on a dais to distinguish it from the dining room and living room. Counters are made of Uba Tuba green granite that was flame finished to reveal its crystalline structure. Cabinets are made of bamboo, which also covers the refrigerator.

Beyond the kitchen is an airy bathroom with a white egg-shaped tub, a shower and dark bamboo floor that was scraped to achieve a wavy pattern. Charcoal gray slate tile contrasts with counters made of green recycled glass tiles. A shoshi screen hides the medicine cabinet. A variation on this theme is a sliding cork wall that conceals a washer, dryer and mechanicals.

A light-filled hallway serves as a gallery for Mr. Ramsey's color photographs, including images of Barcelona, Kyoto and Moscow. In his minimalist, spacious bedroom, a blackout curtain hangs over the windows so he doesn't hear the city garbage trucks. There's also space for his workout equipment.

A spiral staircase made of steel leads to the roof, where the geologist plans to eventually add a deck, outdoor kitchen, hot tub and green roof.

"In the summer, with all the concrete, it stays very cool. It's a nice, breathable building," Mr. Ramsey said.

homes

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published January 12, 2013 5:00 AM


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