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Steel-Plated Penthouse

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Stand watching Braddock Avenue in Braddock, and you'll still see plenty of traffic moving along. But what really seems to pass this town by is time itself. The steel industry collapsed famously, and the buildings are following. Weather and neglect have caused so many downtown structures to cave in that the Historic District there lost its status with the state ... the first time that's happened. And with planners for the Mon-Fayette Expressway still promising to level a broad swath of downtown, though they are still $4 billion short, hardly anyone is willing to do anything to revive Braddock.

 


    Except, of course, for Mayor John Fetterman, whose house is a case study in turning industrial castoffs into the wave of the future. Think of him as George Jetsam. Fetterman's imposing skate-punk-turned-bouncer presence belies an articulate grass-roots organizer and urban visionary. His successes depend on collaborating with neighbors and activists on community gardens, arts initiatives and planning studies. But among these numerous enterprises, the mayor points out, his house is a metaphor for what's possible in the city as a whole. "It's a nice way to demonstrate what's possible in terms of architectural freedom and liberty," he declares.


    Purchased three years ago for $2,000, the small two-story warehouse was an abandoned, junk-filled lump of concrete block. But it sits across the street from the nation's first Carnegie Library, a beautiful and functioning building of 1888 by William Halsey Wood. For Fetterman, it was an opportunity. With sweat equity and a few $1 windows from Construction Junction, he transformed the interior into an industrial-chic living space with a didactic balance of Braddock historical photos, re-used tin-ceiling panels and purposely exposed graffiti.


    Phase II, now nearing completion, is the addition of two connected shipping containers as a living space on the roof. Various contemporary architects, including Japanese icon Shigeru Ban, Lower Manhattan hipsters LO-TEK and Australian firebrand Sean Godsell, have used the big metal boxes as ironic commentary on the anonymous and transient nature of 21st-century life. The architectural challenge is to reconstitute such faceless bins into something elegant. For Fetterman, the idea of a steel container, abandoned and then resuscitated, had particular resonance. "It's an adaptive reuse at the end of their commission."


    He called EDGE Studio of Pittsburgh because of a sense of shared architectural vision and the studio's specific experience studying architectural possibilities of shipping containers. EDGE principal Gary Carlough affirms that Mayor Fetterman "was right there ... and really focused on the idea." He bought two shipping containers at $1,500 apiece, and EDGE produced a design to mount them on the roof of the existing structure while connecting them to each other and the space below. They worked with structural engineer Steve Konefal to design the supporting steel structure and its position on the existing building's concrete-block walls. Contractor Just Mark Construction undertook the actual raising of the containers by crane from the narrow adjoining lot up to the roof.


    Now in position, the two 9-feet-by-40-feet boxes are placed parallel to each other with a connecting piece in the middle to make an irregular H.  Fetterman will use the spaces as his bedroom, living room and office, once some insulation, finish materials and HVAC systems are installed. Carlough admits that construction and buildout have raised the cost far above the initial $3,000. Fetterman says it's about $40,000 all told. But as he peers out the container ends, which will be glass-enclosed to overlook Braddock, the steel mill and the Mon Valley, he says, "It's a million-dollar view."


    Fetterman was delighted just last week to see a CNN special on the architectural possibilities of shipping containers. "It looks like they are just catching up to Braddock," he commented wryly.  


    With shipping containers, the mayor has hit the sweet spot of an architectural trend that also has special resonance for Braddock. The industrial boxes have been defined in their past incarnation by moving around. Now he has brought them home to stay. What he says about these new additions applies to the town as a whole. "Past their useful life?! I really don't think so."

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