Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

September 28, 2006

Mascaro initiative opens green facilities

Stepping onto the 11th floor of Benedum Hall isn’t high on the list of the University’s most aesthetic experiences. Visitors to its classrooms, labs and offices are plunged into a world of utilitarian block walls, commercial tile flooring and bare fluorescent tube lighting from the moment they step off the elevator. Overhead, ductwork, plumbing pipes and wiring are in full view. The atmosphere is unadorned with one notable exception: the corridor that houses the Mascaro Sustainability Initiative.

There, engineering-lab austerity gives way to warmth in the form of carpeting, recessed lighting and an expansive curved-glass entry that stretches gracefully down the hallway.

Inside, beyond the glass doors, MSI co-director Eric J. Beckman is pleased to point out, there’s even drywall.

“If we were in a professional office building, this would look perfectly normal,” he said, looking out at the cement block wall across the hall. “Here, when you walk into Benedum, it’s a shock.”

Upgrades totaling $22.2 million are on the drawing board to update Benedum Hall, which has been home to Pitt’s engineering school since 1971. Laboratory and classroom space will be redesigned to promote collaboration and be reconfigurable to meet changing research needs.

But MSI is ahead of the curve with a $217,000 remodeling project funded by benefactor Jack Mascaro.

Beckman, co-director Gena Kovalcik and office manager Kim Wisniewski spent the summer in temporary office space while the transformation from austere to awesome took place. They returned to the remodeled suite in early September.

The new offices not only are more attractive, they’re more practical and green, as well. That’s green as in environmentally friendly. In keeping with MSI’s mission, architects designed a number of sustainable features into the project.

MSI, which exists to promote research into green construction and sustainable water use, needed usable meeting space, a better layout and an upgrade that would pull its offices out of its 1970s decor and into the new millennium with details that communicate its “high-tech” message.

The 11th floor suite MSI occupies originally was designed as a departmental main office, Beckman said. Consequently there was a lot of wasted space, given MSI’s very different needs. “I had an office big enough to land a helicopter in, for no good reason,” Beckman said, adding that it was inconvenient for his office to be at the far end of the 2,000-sq.-ft. suite from his co-director’s. And while the two had plenty of office space, “In the conference room, you were crammed like sardines with more than six people,” Beckman said.

Clearly, change was needed. The final straw came last year when Pitt’s engineering school won a National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant that would bring a total of two dozen grad students onto campus.

The question became where to put them. “We thought about reconfiguring to put in a lab for students,” Kovalcik said. “We were thinking, ‘Could we just move a wall?’” When they approached the eponymous center’s benefactor, Jack Mascaro, the result was much more than they’d dreamed.

He gave the green light and the greenbacks and after approval from the campus powers-that-be and meetings with IKM Architects (ironically, Beckman notes, held in the claustrophobic confines of the 1970s-era conference room) the new space was designed.

A better layout and decor that features light-colored furniture and walls, plenty of natural lighting and the use of sustainable materials transformed the office into a place that’s a magnet for collaboration.

Kovalcik and Beckman have side-by-side offices, the conference room can accommodate double-digit groups and graduate students have their own workspace that encourages interaction.

The walls are covered with low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints, including a salmon-colored expanse behind the custom-designed reception desk made of formaldehyde-free plywood, art glass and recycled brushed pewter aluminum. Workstations are made of low-E plastic laminate and even the fabric on the deskside bulletin boards is made of recycled polyester. Nylon carpet flooring tiles feature sustainable non-PVC backing that the manufacturer pledges to pick up for free to be recycled into more carpeting when it’s no longer serviceable.

In the conference room, chairs are made in part from recycled materials and are touted as capable of being recyclable themselves. New energy-saving lighting cuts power usage in half, Kovalcik estimated.

Already, traffic in the office is up. The new graduate-level Introduction to Sustainable Engineering class uses the conference room as a classroom. Research teams from MSI’s 15 funded research projects also can use the conference room space, and next year, more classes and research team meetings will be scheduled for the room, Kovalcik said.

“We went from claustrophobic to a place that’s a pleasure to meet in,” she said.

Beckman added, “I’m stunned with what you can do with wallboard and ceiling tile. With simple touches, now it looks like ‘Battlestar Galactica.’”

A reception to welcome IGERT students and celebrate the renovations is planned for Oct. 3.

-—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 3

Leave a Reply