Designing the Ultimate House: An Interview with Eric Booth
It comes as no surprise to anybody perusing our blog that we’re big fans of Pittsburgh. It’s where we’ve chosen to live and to work, and we’ve been fortunate enough to create spaces to help shape the place that we love. One such project is found at 2500 Smallman Street – the Pittsburgh Magazine 2016 Ultimate House.
Eric Booth, Principal & Director of Operations at Desmone Architects, is leading the charge on this project. His extensive experience on a wide variety of projects was especially valued on 2500 Smallman Street. Plus, as he puts it, “I’m fascinated with the dialogue between old and new, and the layers of meaning that exist between them.”
We recently sat down with Eric to discuss 2500 Smallman, his inspiration for the project, and what it meant to him.
Could you give our audience a little background on yourself?
I’m originally from Washington County, and grew up on a rural route between Cokeburg and Ellsworth. I spent a lot of free time as a child wandering the cornfields and strip mines of the area. My family left the area in 1986 and ended up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I attended high school in Salisbury, Maryland (where I met my now wife, Rachel), then left to study architecture at Cornell University. (Ed: What Eric failed to mention is that he graduated in the top 5% of his class there!)
I moved back to Maryland to work at an architecture firm called AES, where I became a partner in 2005. Rachel and I had our son,Mason, in 2006, and we decided that we really didn’t like living on the Eastern Shore. We moved to Pittsburgh in early 2008, where we lived Downtown. (Ed: Check out Rachel’s fantastic perspective on Pittsburgh here.) We currently live on the North Side, where we are building another house a few blocks over from our current house.
What made you decide that architecture was for you?
I considered myself a jack-of-all-trades and had an interest in a wide variety of topics – art, literature, history, science, psychology, mathematics – and architecture seemed like the most appropriate nexus of those interests. Frankly, when I went to Cornell, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Any preconceptions I had were obliterated within the first week of design studio. I’ve been trying to define what architecture means to me ever since.
Where did the idea for 2500 Smallman come from?
The owner gave us a pretty brief program: 8-12 residential units, a sense of community, sustainable design practices, and a project unlike anything else in Pittsburgh… but built in a non-descript 1950s warehouse using as much of the existing building as possible. Since we couldn’t control what happens outside the building, it made sense to create an environment within.
What were your influences & inspirations for 2500 Smallman?
The courtyard concept was influenced largely by two things that I observed during my time in Italy: the urban courtyard spaces that one would see off the streets in Italian cities (particularly Rome), which provided these tantalizingly lush and light-filled exterior spaces within the dense urban fabric, and Italian monasteries, which were often organized around a central court surrounded by layers of increasingly private zones.
The overall building was organized with an architectural “promenade” in mind, that is, the sequence in which one enters the building and moves through the spaces in a layered sequence of increasing privacy (for that I would say I was influenced by Le Corbusier). The steel work and bridge motifs are an obvious reference to Pittsburgh’s industrial past and iconography; the introduction of wood into those steel assemblies, particularly in a layered fashion, is influenced by the work of Carlo Scarpa. Regarding the bridges – I have to admit that I’ve always loved bridge structures, and studied them a great deal during my time at Cornell. I’ve always enjoyed expressed hierarchies of structural support.
For example – at Smallman, the deck boards (what you stand on) are supported by steel purlins; the purlins are supported by long linear beams; those beams are supported by deeper cross beams; the cross beams are supported by columns acting in tension; the tension columns are supported by arched beams which span the entire courtyard; the arched beams are supported by columns on the sides; the columns are supported by cantilevered beams from the units; the cantilevered beams are supported by the columns within the units.
While it sounds overly complex, it results in a design whereby the entire bridge appears to float above the courtyard; there is no visible indication of how the load is transferred to the ground. The purpose of this was to create something that was unlike anything else in Pittsburgh – which was one of the client’s core desires.
Once you have your ideas, how long does it take you to turn this inspiration into something more concrete? What does the process look like for that?
This can take 10 minutes or 10 days; unfortunately, inspiration is not always something that can be easily harnessed. My own design process tends to be a nonlinear, tortured one. Most of my “inspired” design work happens after hours, though I can also work through a lot of details and problem-solving exercises with my team during normal business hours. I typically work in a few media simultaneously – hand sketching, 3d modeling, and traditional CAD. The sketching allows for both loose concept generation and quick detail generation. 3d modeling permits rapid visualization from multiple perspectives. CAD provides a way to be incredibly precise.
I tend to go back and forth between all three, with the bulk of my time spent sketching and modeling. My hand sketches are a way for me to think graphically, and unlike the sketches of some architects, are not very attractive. In fact, I throw away most of my sketches as they are illegible to anyone but myself. I typically use the 3d models to communicate concepts to my team and to clients.
How long does it take to go from an idea to reality? Was 2500 Smallman unique in any way, in that regard?
This can take very little time or be a long, drawn-out and excruciating exercise. The original courtyard concept for Smallman didn’t take very long at all – it seemed like the most logical solution to the problem of providing an inward-focused development. Other elements, such as the boardwalk, developed on a longer time frame.
The first overall concept had the motor court completely covered with an expansive patio (i.e., open at the second floor but closed at the first). This resulted in something too large to program, but the bigger problem was that it didn’t allow for any light to reach the back side of the units at the first floor. Thus, the patio turned into something solid with holes, then became a series of centralized solid and void areas, and eventually evolved into a linear element that ran down the center of the courtyard and connected all of the private courtyards. This not only allowed natural light to reach the lower part of the units on the back side, but also created an element to literally and figuratively “connect” all of the individual units.
The bridge motif was a natural progression from that, particularly in light of Pittsburgh’s heritage, but at that point the element was still just a series of flat floor pieces supported by standard beams (and the original center columns) below. From there that central connecting element underwent a separate design exercise. We explored several different options and configurations, but none of them really clicked. The idea of having the central element suspended by overhead beams came during one of those late-night design exercises. The beams were originally straight and deep in keeping with a more typical design language, but lacked character. I went back and experimented with some curved forms, and the design as you see it now was born.
Since the process had yielded a lot of items that we wanted to incorporate (steel framing in keeping with the industrial imagery of the Strip; wood elements to soften the design and bring a warmer feeling to the space; planters and trellises to incorporate a natural element), the rest of the design evolved fairly rapidly. The conceptual framing for the boardwalk, the support beams and the unit bridges were worked out in a single evening… though the specific detailing of all those items would take months to fully design and execute.
A similar process occurred for many of the elements in the project – the louver screens, the interior facades, roof forms, etc. Most were fully developed and detailed by several of us on the team working together.
What was the most exciting part of this project, to you?
Frankly, the fact that it’s a real project. The entire concept was bold and required a bold design. Bold designs aren’t uncommon, but ones that actually get built by private developers are. I joke that it’s the kind of thing you’d see during a design critique in college, where the practicing architect on the jury would say “it’s nice, but you’re nuts. It will never get built.” And yet there it is. I’m fortunate to have even been a part of the project.
Did you learn anything new or execute a new technique or idea in 2500 Smallman?
Nearly every element of Smallman required a customized design solution; in that sense, we experimented with a lot of different concepts and techniques. For example, the louver walls on the individual unit courtyards. While the concept seemed solid, I was completely freaked out that they wouldn’t function properly when built – i.e., they’d be too heavy, or just not work the way we had envisioned. Luckily our design team was able to work closely with the steel fabricator and detailer to make it all work.
If you were giving a tour of 2500 Smallman, what would you most want people to notice or understand about the space?
That the design is a solution to a problem. Each assembly, material and component were designed and chosen based on a rationale that related back to the client’s desire to provide a unique residential environment.
I think it’s also essential to point out that while I may have created the overall concept and design, it took a team of incredibly talented individuals on the design team alone to make it a reality: Paul Bahn, Nancy Policicchio, Terry Oden, Melanie Panutsos and Katie Yatzkanic were all instrumental in making it happen.
More renderings of the project are shown below…
2016 Pittsburgh Magazine Ultimate House
Unit #5 of 2500 Smallman Street has been designated as Pittsburgh Magazine’s Pittsburgh Ultimate House – and we couldn’t be more excited. They’re calling it a “breakthrough concept in luxury city living,” but that’s not the best part: tickets from public tours will benefit the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Pittsburgh. The 2015 Pittsburgh Ultimate House raised $100,000 from sponsor donations and the sale of tour tickets, all helping to provide free care for children in need. Our goal is to help increase that number this year and continue to build on the traction Ultimate House has gained.
This year’s Ultimate House Tour will be held between September 9th – 18th. Tickets can be purchased HERE. All tour proceeds benefit The Free Care Fund at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
You can learn more about the 2016 Pittsburgh Ultimate House by visiting the Pittsburgh Magazine website. Learn more about Desmone’s upcoming and current projects throughout Pittsburgh, PA and Morgantown, WV, by subscribing to our email newsletter below.
About Eric: Eric A. Booth, AIA joined Desmone Architects in 2008 who was a board member of AIA Maryland and past President of AIA Chesapeake Bay. He possesses extensive experience in a wide variety of program types, including hospitality, industrial, commercial, community, educational, municipal, office, multi-family residential, affordable housing, and retail projects.