Green Blossom of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA - Many environmentally conscious urbanites dream of how great it would be to utilize the untapped flat rooftops that span every urban block in our nation. Few and far between are the ones who successfully act on these thoughts.
In Pittsburgh it narrows to one, Ernie Sota, who in the late 1970s proposed to add a biophilic space to the roof of his Victorian-era row house. After buying the building for a mere $8,000 and renovating it with his wife, Jan, Ernie stood before the zoning board and requested four variances to integrate a new type of urban yard into the roof of the building. He was granted his request. By utilizing the flat space as a garden and capturing the heating potential in a greenhouse to supplement the gas furnace, the Sotas were able to reduce their heat bills, grow some of their own food and spend time relaxing in a natural setting above the bustle of the city below.
Inspired by ecology
Biophilia is the relationship of humans to nature. The term was not coined until 1984 when Harvard biologist Dr. Edwin O. Wilson began to examine the effects of the natural world on human health. Nature has been an integral part of the human experience since the beginning of time, yet this connection was interrupted during the industrial revolution when populations condensed in urban areas. The field of ecology was born from the observances of how detrimental machines and industry were to our consciousness, health and the environment.
The designs of Frank Lloyd Wright intentionally integrated the concept of natural systems into the built environment. The incredible popularity of Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Falling Water in Bear Run, Pa. can be directly attributed to the innovative harmony that was struck between the built environments and the sites surrounding them. Sota’s inspiration, however, came from John and Nancy Todd of the New Alchemy Institute who teach a pioneering science: integrating technology and biological systems to lessen the ecological impact of human waste and resource consumption. Sota visited both of the Todds’ creations, the Bioshelters, or ‘Arks,’ on Cape Cod and Prince Edward Island, prior to commencing construction on this project in 1977. The Arks were created by the Todds as greenhouse homes powered by the sun and wind. The Arks employed natural systems to produce food for the residents and treat the waste with ‘living machines.’
Green remodel for the greenhouse
Originally constructed by the Sotas 25 years ago from lumber and fiberglass panels, the greenhouse has retained its original sawtooth form over the years. The original version had retractable awnings to temper the space and a simple furnace blower which pumped warm sweet smelling garden air into the apartments below. Tilting the southern wall and clerestory windows at 45 degree angles maximized solar exposure. Time and weather took its toll on the space for over 25 years, when Sota contracted local visionary Gerard Damiani of studio d’ARC to redesign the space. By 2005, when the renovations were complete, Damiani and Sota won two AIA design awards for the innovative structure.
The greenhouse is more than a space to commune with nature — it also integrates nature with the apartments below! The original blower system was replaced with a fully programmable Energy Recovering Ventilator (ERV) which can limit the air exchange to times of least pollution and recover 90% of the heat from outgoing stale apartment air. The new design also incorporated skylights and solar tubes, which contribute to the overall biophilia for the residents of the upper apartment and reduced the electric bills dramatically.
Signing on as caretakers
My fiancé, Jennifer Montgomery, and I inherited the greenhouse caretaker role in 2006 after receiving an ‘invitation’ to apply for residence through friends. Jen and I had been caretakers of the sustainable living center at Slippery Rock University, where we both earned Masters of Science degrees in Sustainable Systems. With my background in green building systems and Jen’s in agriculture, we were a natural fit to investigate the potential of growing food and fine tuning the green building and agricultural aspects of the renovated greenhouse space.
With the assistance of Ginny Landis — greenhouse expert, master gardener and close friend of the Sotas — Jen and I took a one-of-a-kind crash course in downtown living last summer. Between the infrequent rains, the brutal sun and endless wind-stream that rushes over the rooftops, we found ourselves innovating solutions like irrigation and shading, arranging plants to minimize damage and dreaming of new ways to simplify the growing process. Once winter had set in, the sun was a welcome guest each day. Our downstairs neighbor, Ben Sota, who grew up in this building, has quipped that he enjoys being the only person in the Southside with a good natural tan in the winter.
Jen and I are seeing a new round of challenges as pests struggle to maintain a foothold on our tomatoes and peppers (which continued producing all winter). We stick to an organic/natural regiment of pest control, utilizing integrated pest management practices, soap sprays, borax and alcohol to keep our young plants growing strong. We installed a sink from a local reuse store called the Construction Junction and struggled to maintain the hydroponic crop system. Surrounded by a host of tropical houseplants, we’re also growing lettuce, parsley, dill, chard, basil, rosemary, nasturtiums, figs, limes and even bananas.
During the next growing season, we’re going to test pilot new soil and fertilizer mixes, construct windbreaks and expand the irrigation system. We’re presently working to establish a symbiosis of our predator species (wasps, ladybugs and praying mantis) and the sap-sucking population (whitefly and aphids) which is unintentionally stunting productivity. Our goal is to maximize biophilia — to achieve a space that simplifies maintenance while maximizing human comfort and exposure to nature. Despite the loud weekend nights on the streets below, there’s no place we’ve found in the city that brings us closer to nature than our apartment and the gardens at the top of the stairs.
Our sense of place in Pittsburgh’s heritage and our pride in the green industry continue to grow. Regional consciousness has blossomed from initial seeds like the Sota greenhouse to a point where it’s now very popular to be green.