Best of Design: New Home
Using nature as the guide, architect Mike Gwin designed a sustainable family home in Cheswick that’s in harmony with its wooded environment.
When Renee Gwin discovered a heavily wooded, 10-acre property in Cheswick, pocked with deep valleys and deemed practically unbuildable, she knew she’d found the perfect location for her family’s new home.
After all, her husband, Rothschild Doyno Collaborative Principal Mike Gwin, loves a good design challenge.
The couple, longtime city dwellers who had previously renovated a Victorian-era house in Lawrenceville, wanted their new home to be a 21st-century sanctuary, existing in harmony with its environment and filled with modern amenities. In order to get the balance just right, Mike had to first understand the landscape they’d just purchased — the way the prevailing breeze moved through the valleys, the amount of noise trickling in from the road, the depth and breadth of each valley. So he and Renee spent long weekends hiking and camping the property with their three sons.
They finally chose a spot in the center of their 10 acres, tucked against a hillside in the midst of a largely undisturbed tree canopy, to construct their three-story, 2,800-square-foot home.
The biophilic design — a concept that increases the occupants’ connection to nature and is said to have both health and environmental benefits — wowed the judges and took Best New Home honors in this year’s Best of Design competition.
“I love how they kept the finishes, colors, textures, and details minimal so as not to take away from the outside views,” says Judge Carissa Smith of Cleveland-based AoDK Architecture. “It truly feels like a treehouse.”
The home also won an AIA Pittsburgh Design Award Certificate of Merit last year.
“It’s beautiful in both form and function, and it serves as an exemplary example of designing homes that can reduce our impact on the environment,” adds Judge Crystal DeCastro Knapik of Vocon.
Much of the praise heaped upon the home has been for its passive and sustainable design solutions, including natural ventilation, shading and rainwater collection. Mike has long used sustainable concepts in his work with clients and the Gwins were eager to adopt the practices in their own home. To minimize tree removal, they purposefully positioned the structure within the trees, so naked branches allow sunlight to warm the home in the winter while leaves provide shade in the summer. The breezes that regularly skim the valley enter the home on the lowest level, sweep up through the house in a chimney effect, and exit via the top-floor windows.
“That,” Mike says, “is just a good old design principle.”
The system for collecting and processing 100 percent of the rainwater that falls on the home is a seamlessly integrated sustainability feature. Greenscape roofing absorbs stormwater, a gravity-fed harvesting tank collects water for tending to their vegetable and pollinator gardens, and processing tanks with a drip irrigation system allow wastewater to return to the ground.
Though the wooded landscape and use of sustainable design have led many to believe the Gwins live in the middle of nowhere, the property is actually adjacent to a neighborhood and just off a main artery in Cheswick. Clever positioning of the house on the property and the windows on the house maintain that away-from-it-all aura.
The side of the home that faces the road is covered in custom aluminum siding complemented with warm wood panels. A narrow bank of windows looks in on the home’s open staircase, flooding it with light. The back and opposite sides of the home are nearly full glass, offering unobstructed views of the flora and fauna that come and go with the seasons.
“Every space has a different feeling,” Renee says. “No matter how you’re feeling, there’s a space where you can go.”
Renee tends to retreat to the third-floor master bedroom, particularly on stormy nights when she can enjoy the calming effect of rain falling on the metal roof. Plus, Mike says with a hint of glee, when you peer out from the top-floor windows or lounge on one of the balconies, “It’s kind of like living in a big treehouse.”
Despite the childhood nostalgia created at the top of the house, Mike prefers the cozy feeling of being tucked against the land on the first floor. And their boys — now 17, 15 and 12 years old — spend a lot of time in the hammock chair, which swings on a small balcony built especially for the family-favorite piece of furniture.
Eventually, though, everyone tends to end up in the open-concept main level of the home, which features a kitchen stocked with custom cabinetry and topped with leathered granite. The adjacent dining and living areas have an expanse of windows and a collection of large balconies.
The one thing it does not have is a lot of wall space.
“We purposefully kept the inside of the home very simple and let the windows be the artwork,” Mike says.
Well, save a few standout pieces. One is a starburst-shaped, custom coffee table designed and built by friend Jason Boone of Pittsburgh’s Urban Tree. Another is an open-tread staircase, made from reclaimed, western Pennsylvania barnwood, that twists from the bottom floor to the top. And then, there’s a sweet, personal touch — a trio of charcoal drawings that Mike made of the couple’s sons when they were cherub-cheeked toddlers.
In addition to providing artwork, Mike served as the architect, general contractor and builder on the project. That not only made for seamless communication with construction manager Adam Stickle of Stix and Stones, but also allowed him to work closely with his father, Alan Gwin, a builder who, years ago, sparked Mike’s love for construction by allowing his son to tag along when he went to work.
“I grew up working on job sites,” Mike says. “He really shaped my appreciation for building and construction and approach to making architecture.”
Together, father and son poured the home’s polished, concrete floors, laid the stonework outside, installed the wood panels and all the cabinetry and constructed the greenscape roofing, among other projects. Both Mike and Renee are reminded of those moments as they move through their home.
It’s fitting, they say, because the best parts of the house aren’t the physical spaces. The best parts are the satisfaction, work and the tranquility that comes from living in harmony with nature. With each day, each rise and set of the sun, each change in season, they learn something new.
“Our house has taught us a lot,” Mike says.
- Architectural Design: Michael Gwin, Rothschild Doyno Collaborative.
- General Contractor: Gwin Construction.
- Construction Manager: Adam Stickle, Stix and Stones.
- Structural Engineer: Capstone Engineering.
- Interior Design: Michael and Renee Gwin.
- Windows and Doors: Marvin Windows, Allegheny Millwork.
- Window Install: Santico Inc, Don Santillo.
- Exterior Siding and Roofing: Imetco.
- Siding Fabrication and Install: Bryn Enterprises.
- Exterior Wood Panels: Prodema, Barbara J. Sales.
- Exterior Stone: Realstone, Architectural Clay Products.
- Exterior Railings: Wolfe Metal Fab.
- Interior Railings: Temper+Grit / Wheaton Steel.
- Mechanical: Jeff Chips. Electric: Lagamba Electric.
- Plumbing: Wise Plumbing.
- Plumbing Fixtures: Penstan.
- Lighting: Cardello.
- Cabinetry: Team Laminates Company.
- Reclaimed Barn Beam Stairs: Barry Lang.
- Countertops: Armina Stone.