Passivhaus Senior Housing to Revitalize Heart of Pittsburgh Neighborhood

Conventional wisdom says that high performance buildings are expensive. The reality is that in 2017 that needn’t be the case. The Passivhaus senior living project we’re designing with Thoughtful Balance in Pittsburgh’s Morningside neighborhood is the latest proof.

It’s not as if the Morningside Crossing project is short on ambition. The team is taking an abandoned 1897 elementary school recently acquired by developer AM Rodriguez, retrofitting it and its 1929 addition to the rigorous Passivhaus standard, and adding a new Passivhaus wing. The revitalized building will provide 46 units of affordable senior housing, a Neighborhood Center (a joint project with Pittsburgh Citiparks Department), a public plaza, and landscape features that will capture all storm water onsite.

How much will all this cost? The projected construction budget is $167/sf, lower than the average construction budget of $168/sf for other housing projects funded by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

The reason for this low cost has parallels in the world of clean energy, where wind energy and solar power keep getting cheaper. We as an industry are getting better at designing and building these projects. Because Passivhaus design sees the building itself – its skeleton and skin – as technology, innovation drives performance up and cost down. So Passivhaus buildings, with healthier interior air, superior thermal comfort, and 50-75% less energy use can be built at little or no added cost compared to conventional buildings.

All of this is exciting, and imbues Morningside with local and national importance. But the Passivhaus revitalization of a building is just part of the story. It’s also about revitalization of community.

Sometimes described as “undiscovered,” other times as “left behind,” the Morningside neighborhood has not experienced the renaissance that other parts of Pittsburgh have enjoyed recently. The reason may be geographical, as Morningside is isolated from the rest of town by a ravine. But the isolation has become generational as well. Much of the population is elderly now, living in the same big houses they’ve been in for years. Given the choice, many of these lifelong Morningsiders would downsize to more practical senior living in the neighborhood. This shift would free up houses for young families to move into. Morningside is an attractive community, with great housing stock, tree-lined streets, and still-affordable real estate. The problem is that no senior housing is available in the neighborhood.

Enter Morningside Crossing and its 46 units.

Morningside Elementary School has been at the center of the community for generations, standing at the spot where the Morningside’s residential and commercial centers meet. Thousands of local kids have learned their “three Rs” at the school over the decades, and lots of those kids stayed in the neighborhood, became adults, and now are elderly. Many of the seniors who will move to Morningside Crossing will be returning to their childhood school.

The rebirth underway at the site will reach beyond the building’s walls as well. The school closed in 2006 and became a drag on the neighborhood. That’s about to turn around. The Neighborhood Center and public plaza will provide a focal point for community life, including meals programs, fitness classes, arts events, neighborhood meetings, holiday tree sales in the winter, and outdoor movie screenings in the summer. AM Rodriguez’ aim is to give this old school building another hundred years at the center of civic life in Morningside.

Deep sustainability, intergenerational affordability, and urban vitality – when a creative community-based developer looks beyond “conventional wisdom” surprising results are possible today, in a way that makes economic sense.