IN THE NEWS: Tight Urban Living Spaces Raise Need for Vertical Design

Tight Urban Living Spaces Raise Need for Vertical Design

Single-level living dates back to the caves of pre-history, and lately has seemed to be the design making stairways out-of-date.

But dealing with several layers in a living space is a reality for properties in a tight, city setting or on the hills of Western Pennsylvania.

“It is the great puzzle of urban living,” says Lawrenceville architect Ben Maguire whose Emerge Real Estate is giving older homes and sites contemporary life.

Changed thinking on the use of space is giving multi-level homes a new feeling.

“Making the floorplan meet the demographic” is a way to provide that new life, says Mt. Washington architect Justin Cipriani. He is working on townhome and single-family house projects that are focused on that goal.

For instance, he says a townhome project he is planning puts the garage and utility area on the basement level, which is common. But the use of the space beyond that aims at a one-level lifestyle through a different definition.

The second floor basically is extra bedrooms and bath, creating a guest area. The main floor is the owners’ living area along with entertainment room, kitchen and dining area. That use of space creates a one-level lifestyle for the owner, even if the townhome has a more traditional appearance.

Cipriani did the same thing in a revision to a row home in the South Side. That site was a traditional, three-story house with social rooms on the ground floor and then two stories of bedrooms above it.

Now, the ground floor has been opened completely with the kitchen facing the street and bleeding into a dining/living area. It reduces the number of bedrooms, but makes the total structure appealing to a more modern audience, but not out of reach from others.

“You can’t choose who your clients are,” he says. “It is a challenge to match what you have with who might buy it.”

Architects Deborah Battistone and Gerard Damiani divided their row home on the South Side into a living social area on the first floor and the headquarters of their business, Studio D’Arc, on the second. The third has become more living-social space as a garden-deck area.

It is a way of finding new use for older construction.

“You really have to find a way not to be limited by a small footprint,” Battistone says,.

Rob Johnson is using a similar definition of space in his condo in the North Side, which is near completion. It has four levels, but each is defined in such a manner to avoid excessive stair-climbing. The first floor is a guest area, along with office space for him and his wife.

The second level, sort of a mezzanine, is for a laundry area and utilities. The third floor is the entertainment-social-dining area, with the main kitchen, and the fourth is their bedroom and a small kitchen and TV area.

“So you could get up and make some coffee without having to use the steps,” he says.

He knows, however, moving from one level to another sometimes has to happen and sometimes causes people trouble. He answered that issue in an obvious way: an elevator as an alternative to the steps.

Interior designer Marc Scurci, with offices in Squirrel Hill and Greensburg, says elevators are an obvious way of making multi-level living less challenging. But, he adds, stairs cannot be ignored because it generally is not possible to haul furniture up and down without them.

Scurci and architect Maguire take a somewhat different approach to multi-level living. They try to blend spaces in a way to create a feeling of togetherness.

In two new homes in Lawrenceville built on tight, urban properties, Maguire ran the stairs up through an atrium-like core in which the second and third level branch off the stairwell. But all layers are visible to other levels.

“It doesn’t feel like multi layers,” he says. “It feels more like continued space.”

In a similar fashion, Scurci says, he once redesigned a house in which he eliminated the ceiling in one room and created a loft in the room next to the upper level. In doing that, he says, he made a two-story space into a “great room with a loft.”

Such drama often is the key to creating a workable use of multi layers, says Daniel Rothschild from Rothschild + Doyno Collective, a Strip District architectural firm. That company designed the Federal Hill housing development in the North Side and was forced to use a multi-layer approach. The idea, Rothschild says, was to reach a desired residential density as well as match the urban look of the area.

“You can’t simply stack levels like pancakes and hope it does something,” he says.

To make the multi-level reality more modern, he says, the stairs climb in a direct line from the first to third floors over the open floorplan of the first.

He says the idea was to accept the fact that this was not going to be one-level living, but to give the multi-floor reality a different feeling.

“We want to make it flexible and open and, with that drama, create a meaningful experience,” he says.

By Bob Karlovits

Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 7:46 p.m.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

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