Pillars of Sustainable Education: Carnegie Mellon University Explores Sustainable Building Technologies

The team at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has been working closely with their NGO Partner, ACTION Housing, Inc. (ACI), to explore sustainable building strategies for a variety of buildings in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood.  ACI’s projects are varied, and include a grocery store, apartments, library and more!


Evaluating Renovation Choices at New Grocery Store 

ACTION Housing Inc. is collaborating with Pittsburgh Food Bank to bring a grocery store to the neighborhood, where it’s currently a challenge for residents to access fresh food at reasonable prices.  In March, a meeting was held with the two groups, a grocery consultant, Moss Architects, and CMU to discuss plans for the store and the various challenges for smaller, independent grocery vendors.


We’re all learning a little something about running a grocery store:

  • The glass storefront that seems so intuitively appealing and effective for marketing may not be ideal for a grocery where prime shelf space matters and refrigeration cases for produce would cover lots of the glass on the front wall. Also, sun on the cases makes them work harder.
  • CO2-based refrigeration is environmentally appealing, but it may be hard to find someone to service it.
  • Refrigeration cases can cool a store so much that it may require heating even in summer.
  • The packaged salads that are apparently big sellers are nitrogen flushed and need to be stored at a lower temperature than other produce—essentially in a dairy case. It seems that many developments in food display and packaging save labor and preserve merchandise by using a lot more energy.
  • Many grocery stores don’t check for refrigerant leaks—yet refrigerants have powerful environmental impacts. The default leakage rate on EPA’s Green Chill calculator is 25% per year! Widespread refrigerant leak detection—including window ACs — is an innovation waiting to happen.

In the Fall of 2013, CMU students developed plans for grocery store envelope renovation, mechanical systems, lighting, refrigeration cases, and other equipment.  Since the food bank was initially uncertain about going into the grocery business, ACI suggested they think more flexibly about the future use, focusing on renovating the envelope so that the building could become a grocery store or potentially another kind of storefront.  The CMU team is now working with ACI to evaluate effective strategies for envelope renovation.

To begin this stage of research, CMU used thermographic images of other masonry buildings in the area.  To check if AHI’s past renovation methods on masonry buildings have in fact been effective, the team compared their thermographic images to other buildings nearby.  From this research, it was concluded that AHI’s renovation approach used is enabling these renovated building to hold heat much more effectively than others.

A building renovated by AHI

A non-AHI apartment building across the street

Exploring roof options, the team identified that the top of the grocery store provides opportunity for a vegetable garden – to inspire, to educate, to keep the cool in and the heat out while also providing a small amount of produce.  CMU students provided a garden layout in the fall, and pending structural analysis, are gathering information about raised beds, which allow flexibility for space and weight.  Vertical beds are additionally being considered.



Revising recommendations to support housing

Students are currently revising their recommendations to support housing on the floors that were originally planned to be office space due to budget limitations.

Renovation of Hazelwood Presbyterian Church to Library


ACI bought the vacant Hazelwood Presbyterian Church in October 2013, and has been working on transforming it into a center that will host a branch of the Carnegie Library, as well as several community organizations that focus on family life and childhood education.  The renovation uses Passivhaus strategies, to ensure the building is comfortable inside during the winter — without a heater!

Entrance to the children’s section of the new library features a mural by David Lewis, FAIA, urban designer, architect, professor, artist and writer.  Lewis is 92 now, and his emphasis in urban design has long been centered around citizen engagement.

More projects to come…

AHI submitted a proposal to renovate the Spahr building, just a few blocks from the library.  A food-related business that provides jobs and training is the hoped-for first floor tenant, and child-focused organizations are planned for the two upper floors.  Since this is a masonry building, CMU anticipates that the renovation strategy could be similar to that for the grocery.


Learn more about this project >

Pillars of Sustainable Education

Architecture for Humanity and Alcoa Foundation have come together to support the realization of community-based projects that explore innovations in design, materials and building systems.