Design for Jan Loney's studio, by Fisher Architecture.

When it comes to prized projects for an architect, rarely would a single-story, two-car garage elicit much excitement. For metal artist Jan Loney’s new studio in Lawrenceville, it’s a chance to do something really striking and original.

“Here’s one thing about architecture — we spend our lives designing boxes,” says architect Eric Fisher, of Fisher ARCHitecture. “Why? Because boxes are the cheapest way to go — you design a box with a tiny little opening punched in it, and call it a window, and you put another punched opening in and you call it a door, and you’re done. And that’s the cheapest thing you can build. What’s really cool is, forgive the pun, designing out of the box.”

The new design, which is awaiting approvals from the city’s zoning board, is a box, but so much more. It’s also a reflection of Loney’s intricate metalwork, borrowing a leaf motif from one of her recent Metalier sculptures — that’s been extrapolated into a metal skin that covers the building. Fisher is adding two stories to the building, including a kitchen and multiple bedrooms. The sculpted metalwork will cover the entire top two floors.

How did the architect do this? With a parametric programming software that takes shapes and bends and folds in unexpected ways, says Fisher. “I created what’s called a tiled pattern from this organic leaf form that she had developed. And I created a kind of wrapper that would clad the project.”

The unexceptional garage in its current state.

The garage sits on Plummer Street, just off the bustling main drag of Butler Street, which is packed with restaurants and boutiques and near Allegheny Cemetery.

“At Fisher ARCHitecture, we are respectful of the existing context,” says Fisher, who has spoken at the national American Institute of Architects conference on the subject of adaptive reuse. “Our idea is always to let old be old and new be new. In other words, you’ve got something that’s there — show it respect. Even that garage form deserves respect because it’s part of our history.”

The lush greenery of the Allegheny Cemetery gets a nod, too.

“Rather than relate the proposed screen to the neighboring buildings, we decided to connect it to the trees of Pittsburgh’s lush urban forest,” says Fisher. “That being said, the renovated garage does connect to its neighbors in terms of its shape and size. Our proposal  may look different, but with its massing and industrial character, it won’t look out of place.”

The wrapping for the facade changes the entire experience of the building, inside and out. It creates privacy but lets in daylight through the windows. As the light passes through, it creates interesting shadow patterns, says Fisher.

For the artist, it’s a chance to once again express herself through the medium of metal.

An example of Jan Loney’s metal art.
An example of Jan Loney’s metal art.

“Metal has an unlimited expressive potential,” says Loney. “I love the hands-on work of crafting and fabricating with metal. I do a lot of hammered patterns and textures. I love that you can do so many things with it — cut it, file it, shape it, melt it, solder it, form it.”

It will also allow her art to be a constant presence, whenever she feels the need to create.

“I’m super excited to have a larger, live/work studio space,” says Loney. “Sometimes I’m up and working at 4 a.m. It will be great to just go downstairs and just go to work.”

This type of project would not be out of the ordinary in Los Angeles or Berlin or Milan or New York, notes Fisher. But for Pittsburgh, he considers it “an introduction for the city to the kind of progressive work that has been built around the world.

“This is the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” says Fisher.

Emerald Art Glass House. Photo courtesy of Fisher ARCHitecture.

Which is saying a lot since Fisher ARCHitecture has done some cutting-edge work in Pittsburgh, like the cantilevered house looming above Emerald Art Glass on the South Side, a project that was profiled in The New York Times.

The firm is working on some other interesting projects in and around the city. They’re designing modular, factory-built houses in Homestead and Munhall working with developer Jesse Wig. These houses save 30% of the cost of standard construction. The firm is also working on a hillside project in Garfield.

“This is an incredible project in Garfield, where we’re putting five units of affordable housing along Kincaid Street, and then a barn house,” says Fisher. And, of all things, an urban farm above that, right in the middle of the city.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.