Our future-thinking Clients, a couple who moved to Pittsburgh from Israel because of their jobs, fell in love with their new city. After living downtown for a couple years, they found this potential Southside Slopes site on Roanoke Street and asked us to design a unique home there that would take advantage of the spectacular city views.

Phase 1: Program and Structure

The project was live-work with the two portions of the project connected via an elevator and an exterior ramp only. The idea was to integrate work and home yet clearly separate them into two types of space. Integrated in the earth, the offices would have provided a comfortable, private place to communicate and collaborate. Up above, the home would have taken advantage of the view while still maintaining a certain amount of privacy and peace behind the screened walls.

The poor soil conditions and formidable slope were a perfect challenge. Although building here was permitted, the site was so steep that drillers and geotech folk were unable to access it. Our challenge was to design pier foundations for the home that could be drilled and poured entirely from the street. Together with our engineering team, we devised the structural strategy that resulted in the triangular shape of the primary structure. Additional construction below would
have been firmly tied both to the primary piers with grade beams and to the ground below with mini-piles. Once the first floor slab was poured, the contractor would have been able to use it as a staging platform to work on the site below.

Phase 2: Neuroscience

After the access road collapsed and the clients decided to abandon the project, we partnered with a neuroscience graduate to explore the impact of architecture on the human brain. The brain seeks a balance between familiarity and novelty, between order and complexity. The completed design aims to create a dynamic, enriching experience by applying three interwoven neuroscientific principles: biophilia, or nature-informed design; sensory engagement; and cognitive stimulation.

For example, the project’s perforated aluminum panels duplicate the pattern of the trees that screened the site prior to construction. The additional volumes that cascade down from the house emerge from the hill at irregular angles and with varying sizes, imitating rock formations.

We’ve made a point to fully engage the senses: The home, situated midway between earth, air, city, and forest, prioritizes exploration. With no visible windows from the street and no hint of the gardens below, its complexity is only hinted at as one approaches. An occupant can construct a conceptual map of the home only by entering and then experiencing each successive space in turn.

The wide variety of textures present in the materials used throughout the house enrich the visual experience, from the ceramic tile on the lower garden levels to the perforated facade fractals. Shadow and light play dynamically across the home interior as the sun moves across the sky. At night, the negative space of the pattern appears as the house is lit from within. There are numerous places where you are encouraged to touch the metal screen. And the sound of gently running water from the pools follows the project circulation, guiding visitors through the project spaces.

If the home had been built, it would have become a Pittsburgh icon. This project connects people and places together through metal, hills, and water.