Housing project in Pittsburgh's Uptown emphasizes energy efficiency

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Two buildings under construction in Uptown will provide 47 new apartments -- 23 affordable units in one and 24 units for young adults moving out of foster care in the other.

But the $12 million project by Action Housing will provide more than housing.

Each will be three stories and 30,000 square feet but built to different standards so Action Housing can determine the long-term value of passive energy design in one compared to current energy code standards in the other.

A passive house is built air tight with heat recovery ventilation. It is estimated to reduce heating energy consumption by 90 percent per square foot per year compared to a home built before code standards established in 2009, said Morgan Law, Action Housing's passive house consultant from Kaplan Thompson Architects of Portland, Maine.

As an update of the 2009 code, the 2012 energy code is "a pretty rigorous standard," said Linda Metropulos, Action Housing's director of housing and neighborhood development. The building being constructed to that standard meets the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency's green building criteria.

"But a passive house has a souped-up envelope, including triple-paned windows," she said. "We want to use this project as a demonstration" to track costs for 15 years. "They will be almost identical so we can make comparisons in construction, operation and maintenance."

The buildings will occupy nine lots in the 2000 block of Fifth Avenue, between Jumonville and Seneca streets. They are expected to be completed in November.

Action Housing is using low-income housing tax credits allocated by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency -- $1.2 million every year for 10 years.

To be called Uptown Lofts, this project is a continuation of Action Housing's larger mission to beef up housing in Uptown. It began with the renovation of the former Shanahan Building, now called the Mackey Lofts, on Forbes Avenue. That opened last summer with 43 units of workforce housing.

Workforce housing, which is not subsidized housing, is built to be affordable to people who make 60 percent or less than the county median income of $47,000.

Most of the apartments will have one bedroom; two will have two, Ms. Metropulos said.

One of the buildings will expand Action Housing's My Place program for young adults making the transition from foster care. There are currently 58 scattered apartments.

Action Housing will own and manage the buildings, said Andrew Shull, the agency's spokesman. Its partners in the project include FourtyEighty Architecture and Iams Consulting.

The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency chose Uptown Lofts for its first innovation and design award, recognizing the energy component, the commitment to underserved populations and the role Uptown Lofts will play as part of a broader vision for the neighborhood.

Brian A. Hudson, CEO of the housing finance agency, said the award was "intended to recognize an organization willing to try something new and different in its proposal for low-income housing tax credits. There were several excellent proposals, but Action Housing's application was especially compelling."

Action Housing's larger plan extends to 10 more parcels it bought along Fifth Avenue in 2012. One includes an existing house that will be put on the market. Three vacant lots will become market-rate townhouses. The others remain to be planned, Ms. Metropulos said, adding, "Our commitment to the community is to do low-income and market-rate housing."

Jeanne McNutt, executive director of Uptown Partners, a nonprofit community developer, said the neighborhood has been at risk and needs that balance.

"Our goal is to lift up the neighborhood but never so high that it prices out low-income residents," she said. "We have the Fifth Avenue [High School] Lofts, which is a great project for people in the higher and moderate ranges. The Mackey Lofts has a floor for people with disabilities. We are happy to have that diversity."

Nine vacant, blighted and tax-delinquent properties on Forbes Avenue are now in the city's land reserve for Uptown Partners while their titles are being cleared. Uptown Partners will switch the titles to Action Housing for redevelopment, Ms. McNutt said.

"One-quarter of the real estate in Uptown is parking lots," she said. "We'd love to see more verticals. We're hoping [Action Housing's] project sets the stage for future investment."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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