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John Folan

Constructing Community

UDBS student rendering of community porch

Arriving in Pittsburgh for the first time two years ago, Carnegie Mellon's John Folan was struck by the unique character of the city.

"I had never been to Pittsburgh before and I fell in love with the city immediately, with the distinctive character of each one of the neighborhoods. It's an amazing built landscape," said Folan, the School of Architecture's T. David Fitz-Gibbon Visiting Professor of Architecture.

Passionate about community design and bringing ideas to fruition, Folan linked two fifth-year courses, the planning-focused Urban Lab and the implementation-focused Urban Design Build Studio (UDBS).

"In the past, one of the challenges that the Urban Lab has faced is working with communities for just one semester," Folan explained. "The students do an excellent job, produce a report, and then disappear. Many of these communities have been studied repeatedly. In some cases they suffer from 'plan-fatigue.'"

Tangible signs of his progress can already be seen in the Wilkinsburg neighborhood, at the brand new Hamnett Homestead Sustainable Living Center (HHSLC). The turn-of-the-century Victorian home is being developed as a community gathering place and example of sustainable living practices.

Importantly, Folan is also demonstrating the re-use of Pittsburgh's valuable housing stock.

"You have enormous wealth here in existing structures that are impossible to replace, and a lot of it's vacant," he explained. "People in most areas of the country would find the level of quality and durability in the masonry-mass construction extremely desirable. With these projects we're focusing specifically on adaptive re-use."

Fifteen Carnegie Mellon students completed construction on the facility's porch over the summer, using new and reconstituted materials from deconstructed local buildings. The starting-point was chosen with a purpose.

"We made a strategic decision to establish the front door to this project to be highly visible in the public arena," Folan noted. "We're also trying to reinforce the urban continuity of the sidewalk and the porch culture that exists in this region, which is one of the most unique aspects of the social dimension in Pittsburgh."

Plans are to expand and develop the facility within five years, and resident feedback thus far has been decidedly positive.

"Once the [residents] saw it in person, they really appreciated it," said Folan. "They thought that it captured the essence of what the community was about."

This year's crop of fifth-year students are beginning work with residents in the Homewood area. Folan will continue work on the HHSLC, however, with help from his students and a local contractor.

Folan lauds the Carnegie Mellon culture.

"I've found that Carnegie Mellon truly is a collaborative environment. In the two years I've been here, I've accomplished more with people in other departments than in many years elsewhere. I've appreciated the almost universally positive attitude toward research initiatives. I think that's unique to Carnegie Mellon and where this university draws its strength," he said.

Photo: UDBS student rendering of community porch.

Related Links: School of Architecture  |  Urban Lab  |  John Folan

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