Building for a better Pittsburgh: A conversation with architecture leaders

Building for a better Pittsburgh: A conversation with architecture leaders

Writer: Eleana Teran

2 min read March 2023 – The real estate market in Pittsburgh has seen significant growth in recent years, driven by the city’s vibrant culture and diverse economy. As a result, investors and developers are eyeing the region as a prime opportunity to capitalize on this growth. Amanda Markovic, market design leader, community development at GBBN Architects, and Jeff Young, co-managing principal of international architecture and design firm Perkins Eastman’s Pittsburgh studio shared their perspectives with Invest: on projects in the pipeline and ongoing initiatives to make Pittsburgh more inclusive. 


What are some of the recent highlights for your firm in the Pittsburgh region?

Amanda Markovic, Market Design Leader, Community Development at GBBN Architects

Our impact and growth within the community development market has been a highlight. We’re working on a large development in Uptown Pittsburgh that’ll provide mixed-income housing with retail and commercial space. Twenty percent of the housing will be affordable housing, and the commercial and co-working space will be affordable to local residents. We’re also working with Steel City Squash, a nonprofit organization that nurtures at-risk youth and provides them a place to come together. It gives them the opportunity to learn the sport and travel while providing other supportive services like education and mentoring. We’ve also been doing community work for a long time with public libraries, like the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Baldwin Borough Public Library, and Braddock Carnegie Library. Being able to work with communities in this way is what we came into the field to do. 

Jeff Young, co-managing principal of Perkins Eastman’s Pittsburgh studio

We are really excited to have diversified our range of projects across different areas, from ground-up buildings to reuse residentials, in recent years. We have a very strong team here in Pittsburgh and are fortunate to be able to leverage the people and expertise of an international firm with 24 locations and over 18 practice areas to bring a very high quality of service to the Pittsburgh region. There has been shrinkage in the commercial office market here and almost everywhere, and we are continuing to find ways to reimagine these existing properties. In that vein, we are conducting several studies on existing buildings, namely the conversion of office to residential. Demand for workspaces was much stronger in 2022 into 2023, but the way people are working (hybrid models) is very much influencing real estate needs. I think companies are starting to look at their office space in more meaningful ways. We are working with a law firm that is moving to a new building and decreasing its current footprint by 20%, which is a common trend. We are also working on a sizable robotics innovation center at Hazelwood Green with Carnegie Mellon University. And we are carrying out several building refreshes, including within the senior living market, which was on the sidelines for several years and is in need of investment.

What emerging opportunities do you see for the industry in Pittsburgh?

Markovic: Our built environment impacts us in every way possible, and it’s the responsibility of each of us to have a positive impact. We need to be really mindful of the development that’s happening in our city and what we’re doing because these have lasting impacts. We want to become a city that’s providing great opportunities for everyone here. There aren’t enough affordable, safe places for people to live. 

However, it’s exciting to see the PA budget money made available this year for safe and affordable housing, and the Inflation Reduction Act provides even more funding toward efficient, resilient and affordable buildings. Those are the kinds of things that will positively impact our region. It’s also important we have a vibrant community where development doesn’t mean displacement.

I’ve been working on an initiative with the AIA called Blueprint for Better. We’ve identified an opportunity in that we really want our region to value architecture and design as an essential good.I want communities to have a bigger voice in the design process and understand that development happens with them, not to them. They know their communities better than anyone else. I would love for them to understand architecture and how it can positively impact them.

Young: We are very active in the senior living area; our Pittsburgh studio was founded nearly 30 years ago with a primary focus on senior living and we have literally written the book on senior living design. Still, locally, many do not realize that we are working nationally out of Pittsburgh to include multigenerational housing opportunities across the country. We know firsthand that there are a limited number of continuing-care retirement communities in the Pittsburgh region and we are hoping to help change that. What exists are, for the most part, in suburban locations but those people that would prefer to remain urban, close to Pittsburgh’s sports and cultural activities, are finding a hole in that market. That should gain more attention and that’s something we are very focused on right now. 

There are inevitably zoning issues, specifically in the more skilled care components of senior living, such as memory care units. It’s about finding the right mix, programming, and setting a price point that meets the market. It’s combining everything and finding the target audience and then asking how many individuals, couples, and families would have an interest. In our business, there’s a range, from luxury models to more affordable models with fewer programming and amenities. It’s a conversation about what the market needs right now and doing the right amount of market research to support it. 

What is your main focus for the medium term?

Markovic: GBBN is strategic about how we’re growing, and we’re seeing Pittsburgh as that opportunity for growth. Mayor Gainey is making a push for communities that support everybody. Affordable housing is going to be key as well as the innovation districts that support the talent coming out of the universities here. We want people to stay in the region. There’s an incredible opportunity in the region over the next 10 years

Young: From our perspective, the downtown area should be a major focus for improvements right now. There’s concern about the downtown’s emptiness because of the pandemic and as a result, a reluctance of individuals to return full-scale to the office. And that makes crime more visible because we aren’t seeing a lot of other activity happening downtown. Sustainability should also be a major focus. For instance, the number of tenant fit-outs and building conversions that will be happening will create a lot of waste from demolition and construction (in the form of embodied carbon). We were very cognizant of this when designing our new studio space downtown, and purposefully prioritized simple, effective design. When we compared our space—the amount of waste from demolition and total new materials—to projects of similar size and purpose, we found our space had significantly less (nearly 40%) embodied carbon. Companies are going to want to renovate and/or lease new space, and so we are committed to providing design solutions that make the most of a carefully chosen, highly adaptable layout and range of products. 

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