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Site Development

An 1840s brick farmhouse is the centerpiece of a re-imagined property in western Pennsylvania.

Project: Gibson Residence, North Hills, PA

Architect: Cochran Associates Architects, Pittsburgh, PA; Keith H. Cochran, principal in charge

By Will Holloway

Since the mid-19th century, a simple Pennsylvania brick farmhouse has stood on a sloping 39-acre site in the suburban Pittsburgh area known as the North Hills. Its original five-bay-wide-by-one-bay-deep layout is typical of the region – a central door leading into a stair hall flanked by a living room and dining room on the first floor and a bedroom on either side of the second floor. For most of the years since its construction the house retained its original character, but renovations and the addition of a small extension and a carriage house in the 1970s added Victorian details. Scalloped eaves and gingerbread ornamentation were added to the exterior; in the interior, paneling and mantels that were out of character with the original house were installed.

In 2004, the current owners decided to expand. They also wished to restore the house's simple character and develop the site with landscape elements. To accomplish this, they turned to Pittsburgh-based Cochran Associates Architects, which provides residential new design, historic preservation, adaptive reuse and commercial design services. Today, four years later, the overhaul is complete: a brick addition and screened porch now augment the house; a covered walkway connects the main house with the carriage house; a formal garden and patio provide cultivated outdoor space; and a screen house overlooks a manmade pond.

The large brick addition was necessary to satisfy the owners' requirements – a living room, library, dining room, kitchen, family room, guest bath and laundry on the first floor and a master bedroom, three additional bedrooms and a study on the second floor – but the orientation of the house and the site conditions made its implementation a challenge. Naturally, the firm wanted to maintain the original appearance of the front façade of the house. "When it was constructed, the house was tucked up into a hillside – probably for wind protection," says firm principal Keith Cochran. "So there was limited space at the back of the house, and that's where the main addition needed to be in terms of the function of the house." To overcome this, a portion of the hillside was excavated at the rear, northwest-facing, façade of the house to allow for the addition, as well as for a patio, a landscaped area and a stone wall. "The area right behind the addition is one of the nicest parts of the landscape," says Cochran. "They brought in some boulders from around the property and added some native plants back there. It really made for one of the nicer areas of the property instead of being a negative factor."

Because the owners wanted the addition to look as though it had always been there, Cochran Associates took a casual, less-studied approach to its design. "If they had done this addition originally or if this had been part of the original house," says Cochran, "I think it would have been a matter of function more than anything, so we wanted to take that approach as well. Old window openings at the back of the house were turned into doorways and window placements in the addition were determined by inside views."

Cochran Associates also extended the wood addition that had been added to the northeast-facing façade of the house in the 1970s, creating a screened porch on the first floor and a bedroom on the second floor. The roof of the entire wood portion was finished with CertainTeed shingles and new HardiPlank clapboard siding was used on the façades. "I was not a believer in HardiPlank before this project," says Cochran, "but now I am."

As for the 1970s carriage house, Cochran Associates renovated the second floor, turning it into an office/recreation room. On the exterior, details were simplified to downplay the carriage house and place more emphasis on the main house. "The carriage house was really the hardest part of the project to deal with because it was originally not built in the style of the farmhouse," says Cochran. "There were cut-out rails, a lot of scroll-type details and a sort of a Palladian window in the middle that proportionally didn't work.

"The driveway comes in on the carriage house side of the property, and the carriage house really had too much presence. We wanted the focus to be the farmhouse, so we took away all of the bric-a-brac on the outside; changed the railing around the deck to a square-post railing; eliminated the Palladian window; simplified the window treatment and the bracket details that hold up the roof above the garage doors."

To provide a visual connection between the main house and the carriage house, as well as to provide protection from the elements, the new covered walkway linking the two buildings was introduced. Just over 60 ft. in length, the walkway angles slightly to the southeast and steps down as it extends from the new screened porch of the wood addition to the carriage house. "We came straight out from the doors at either end, because we wanted a simple connection to each of the buildings," says Cochran. "Because the main house sits higher than the carriage house, the roof needed to be stepped – the angled portion and the step take place right where the main original stone walkway comes up and meets the covered walk, so it enhances that whole entrance sequence as well."

Amidst walnut trees to the south of the main house on an existing stone foundation of an old springhouse, the new screen house was built to create a connection between the main house and the new manmade pond. Cochran took a minimalist approach to the structure – posts and beams support an open-ceilinged pitched roof and the open spaces are filled with pre-manufactured cedar screen panels from Artistic Enclosures of Barto, PA. Wide overhangs provide protection from the rain and the green and red color scheme nods to the main house. "When we would stand on the top of that foundation wall," says Cochran, "it was such a tremendous relationship to the pond that we decided to create a little living environment there."

The new half-acre pond enabled the owners to introduce an environmentally friendly component to the project: a geothermal heating and cooling system. A closed-loop piping configuration that was sunk to the bottom of the pond gathers heat in the winter and dissipates heat during the summer, thereby providing heating and cooling for the main house and carriage house. "The owners were very interested in energy conservation," says Cochran. "A lot of people have geothermal systems, but the water transfer is not as common as dry wells." Another green component of the project is a 1,700-gallon underground cistern that collects rainwater from the roof of the main house for watering the flowers and vegetables in the new formal garden. The garden wall was built with stones from an old barn foundation on the property. Pittsburgh-based Rush Creek Designs designed the plantings around the house and in the garden; the garden fencing, arbor and gates were created by Teresa Zorio of Walpole Woodworkers of Walpole, MA; and the garden pergola was created by Baldwin Pergolas of Middletown, CT.

The owners moved into the house in the fall of 2006; construction of the carriage house and garden continued until the fall of 2007. Today, the completed North Hills project provides the owners with exactly what they envisioned – a classic Pennsylvania brick farmhouse that has been enlarged to accommodate a contemporary program and a site that has been re-imagined and developed with an eye toward environmental responsibility. 

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