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Making Affordable Housing Affordable

Metal is a strategic building material

Fine Metal Dec18 Ma

Making affordable housing beautiful, contextual and affordable is a challenge facing architects and developers. In the case of Pittsburgh-based TREK Development Group’s Iron Bridge Crossings in Brownsville, Pa., designed by UpStreet Architects Inc., Indiana, Pa., metal helped play a strategic role in advancing the project in a timely manner, in tying in with community context, and coming in on budget.

The project was financed with the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) PennHOMES and Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). As such, the use of architectural metal provided not only aesthetic, but financial contributions, allowing the project to better fit into budgetary requirements and be more swiftly approved.

Architectural planning began in 2014, and the building had its first open house in February 2018.

The Ultimate in Mixed Use

When given the challenge to reimagine the five-story, early-1900s’ retail building in the Brownsville Commercial Historic District, Upstreet Architects found the sweet spot to be a combination of adaptive reuse, demolition and new construction. They also elected to represent what was to become a single structure as a more historically accurate urban form—the look and feel of four separate projects.

In addition to having the feel of four separate buildings, the project had two very different personas—an upfront, bustling street façade and a rear elevation that is rarely accessed, but commonly viewed from across a river steeped in history, and still used today for commerce and recreation. The architects leveraged a variety of materials, including eight brick types, four mortars, four window colors and the multiplied metal factor—two colors of corrugated metal walls and two colors of steel interlocking shingles, providing distinctive wall cladding as a highlight point for both the front and back of the project.

Historic Relevance

The architectural use of metal is a historic homage to the area. The Brownsville Commercial District borders the Monongahela River and B&O railroad (Now CSX). Market Street is a US40 Business, before the National Pike started in 1806. Before that, it was an outpost on the western frontier. Market Street is the site of the first cast-iron bridge in the United States. Today, nearly 200 years since the Dunlap Creek Bridge was built, hundreds of vehicles cross it every day. The iron bridge remains a national civil engineering landmark and a source of pride and context for the neighborhood.

Focal-Point Role

The use of metal is also significant, due to its focal-point role and its unique role on both the entrance façade and on the rear exterior of the project. The architectural team concentrated the shingles, leveraging them on the five-story elevator stair tower. The tower is the element between the renovated existing historic five-story building and the new four-story buildings. The buildings feature two outdoor green-roof patios, one overlooking the river and the other focused on the new community commons across the National Pike.

UpStreet Architects’ Thomas Harley, RA, AIA, notes that the diamond shingles are the only exterior architectural element that is used on both the front and back of the project. “Historic but revitalized” is how he depicts the dramatic statement the 1,400 diamond metal shingles make from the street view and from across the river, tying in historic preservation with modern resurgence.

“It looks great; you can see it all the way across the river,” observes UpStreet Project Manager Barry Beatty, LEED AP.

Metal's Natural Beauty

In some ways, the metal is as important to be seen as it is to be unseen, or at least unperceived as being jarring with regards to the other natural and built elements surrounding it.

Harley emphasizes the importance of blending the structure with the natural environment: the river, land and sky. “What I tried to do was start with a color on the bottom and fade to sky on the top,” he notes. “It is intended to blend with the background and retreat a bit visually.” Harley leveraged a blend of 1,400 Slate Blue and Bright Silver Galvalume, size 16 steel shingles on a 90-degree angle to cover a 2,000-square-foot area.

The Perfect Melange

The town of Brownsville was very involved with the design process with concerns of historic preservation and approved of the architects’ and developers’ energetic reimagining of the space. “The building has really moved into a warm spot in their hearts,” says Harley.

Jennifer J. Johnson is the director of marketing and strategic relationships for Fine Metal Tech in Salt Lake City. For more information, visit