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July 6, 2006

Engineering profs put students to real-world test

VANDERGRIFT — Like many of western Pennsylvania’s steel towns, this tiny community (population 5,400) is seeking to reinvent itself. Unlike most, it has turned to sustainable design and green construction principles as its hope for the future. And, Pitt engineering professors and their students are part of the plan.

The School of Engineering and its Mascaro Sustainability Initiative (MSI) are working together with the volunteer Vandergrift Improvement Program (VIP) in partnership with Sustainable Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation to position this Westmoreland County town for a revitalized and sustainable future by finding ways to incorporate energy-saving concepts into historic buildings and seeking unique solutions for reducing Vandergrift’s energy costs.

Teams of Pitt engineering students led by industrial engineering assistant professor Mary Besterfield-Sacre are looking at ways to cut utility costs at the town’s historic Casino Theatre. Other undergraduate engineering honor students led by mechanical engineering assistant professor Lisa Weiland are studying ways to harness the fast-flowing Kiskiminetas River as a source of cheap hydroelectric power.

“It’s one thing to do research in the labs, but another to have a real test bed, a real community to see if these ideas do work,” said MSI co-director Gena Kovalcik.

“It’s a small town that’s still viable,” said VIP president David Truffa. Rather than look solely to retail — a difficult niche, given the challenges small businesses face in competing with malls and superstores — the group aims to capitalize on Vandergrift’s status as the only industrial town designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Olmsted, best known for his designs for the U.S. Capitol grounds, New York’s Central Park, the Biltmore Estate and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, was hired by George McMurtry, president of Apollo Iron & Steel Co., in 1895 to design the town as a home for his new rolling mill. Still operating, the mill (now owned by Allegheny Ludlum) has the capacity to produce 300,000 tons of cold-rolled stainless steel each year.

The town’s curving streets still bear Olmsted’s unmistakable signature, and much of the Victorian architecture remains intact, earning it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

At the hub of Olmsted’s design is the combination town hall and theatre, built in Greek Revival style. Once a major stop on the vaudeville circuit, the Casino Theatre became a movie house in the late 1920s, then closed with the rise of the multiplexes in the early 1980s. Slated for demolition, it was saved by a volunteer group who reopened it for live concerts and theatre in 1995 and who continue its restoration today.

“The Olmsted design is one of the draws for the town,” Truffa said. But returning the luster to the town will be expensive. Like other Main Street revitalizations funded by DCED, the plan will include new building facades and streetlights. But, Truffa said, more than just a facelift is necessary. “You can do that and in five years if you have nothing to support that, it’ll still slide,” he said.

“Yes we’re an old town, but does it need to stay old?” he asked. “If we do anything, we want to do it on the sustainable side so we can look to the future.”

Unique to Vandergrift’s application for DCED’s Main Street revitalization funding is the inclusion of sustainable development principles, said Joan Barlow of Sustainable Pittsburgh. And, if the plan works well in Vandergrift, it could become a model for others.

“We want to see green community spaces, educate residents on what sustainable development is, and spread to the surrounding communities,” Barlow said.

Several aspects of working with Pitt are attractive, Truffa said. “We’re a historic town — they want to show they can retrofit and bring technologies to use in historic buildings without detracting from the historical aspect of the town,” he said.

“It will get us some engineering work, some cutting edge things that maybe wouldn’t be possible on our end.” And, giving students the chance to find solutions offers the advantage of a youthful eye: There’s no concept of “we’ve always done it this way.”

Cheaper power could be an economic draw, enticing new businesses to come to Vandergrift, he predicted.

In early June, Pitt engineering professors met with VIP representatives to discuss the work. Last week Besterfield-Sacre and industrial engineering associate professor Kim Needy, with nearly two dozen students in tow, made the 30-mile trip from the Oakland campus to converge on the Casino Theatre for a closer look.

Besterfield-Sacre’s students, juniors in the industrial engineering 1091 class, are assigned to find energy-efficient solutions at the Casino Theatre. Divided into teams of three or four, all are examining the same problem as a precursor to what lies ahead academically. “We just try to throw at them a very open-ended problem and guide them on how to use their industrial engineering techniques, so when they hit the senior project they’re better able to handle it,” she said.

Prior to their visit, the class received background information on the building and the community and brainstormed the problem.

The theatre’s operating costs are primarily energy costs, Besterfield-Sacre said. “Our students are going to look at opportunities to start minimizing energy costs and balance revenue streams,” she said. “It’s very much an industrial engineering problem they are going to be dealing with (in their careers).”

In Vandergrift, they met Marilee Kessler, a member of the theatre restoration group board, and VIP member Cindi Contie for a tour of the good and bad of the building, asking questions as they probed every corner of the structure from the municipal offices and library to the stage, the balcony, the wings and the depths of the basements below.

The building’s plush appointments in the restored sections stand in sharp counterpoint to the dusty basement below the stage, and the musty “bad basement” as Kessler labeled it, dank and dripping with a perpetual trickle from an unknown source.

As Kessler pointed out bowed walls and places where uneven heating by the sun had damaged the interior, some students took notes. Others snapped photos with cell phones. They examined the heating system, asked questions about cooling and air circulation systems and explored the nooks and crannies of the 100-year-old vaudeville theatre, checking out the backstage sandbags, and cracking “Muppet Show” jokes from the balcony boxes that could easily be home to Jim Henson’s curmudgeonly theatre hecklers Statler and Waldorf.

“Are you guys overwhelmed?” Besterfield-Sacre asked cheerily as the tired group wrapped up sets of blueprints and design drawings to take home at the end of the day.

Contie labeled Pitt’s presence “a huge jumpstart” toward Vandergrift’s goal of being an “eco-community,” with “eco” representing benefits to both the economy and ecology reaped by building in harmony with nature. “This is a lesson for us in taking initiative. It is something that is a vision and now a reality,” Contie told students. The first year of the five-year initial revitalization plan has been set aside for educating the community on sustainability.

“A very strong part of that process will be to see what you do with your project,” she said.

Students will present their solutions on campus Aug. 3. “The final solution we give back to Vandergrift will probably be a combination of the best of the best of all the teams,” Besterfield-Sacre said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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