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Architectural firm revitalizes Sewickley street

| Friday, Aug. 5, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
Explore Sewickley is one of the projects designed by Nathan and Aimee St. Germain of Studio St. Germain in Sewickley.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Explore Sewickley is one of the projects designed by Nathan and Aimee St. Germain of Studio St. Germain in Sewickley.
Explore Sewickley is one of the projects designed by Nathan and Aimee St. Germain of Studio St. Germain in Sewickley.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Explore Sewickley is one of the projects designed by Nathan and Aimee St. Germain of Studio St. Germain in Sewickley.
An artist's rendering of Bruneaux's 409 interior
Studio St.Germain
An artist's rendering of Bruneaux's 409 interior
An artist's rendering of Bruneaux's 409 exterior
Studio St.Germain
An artist's rendering of Bruneaux's 409 exterior
Nathan and Aimee St. Germain of Studio St. Germain, an architectural design firm in Sewickley, visit one of the projects they completed on Beaver Street, the retailer J.McLaughlin, on Tuesday, July 26, 2016.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Nathan and Aimee St. Germain of Studio St. Germain, an architectural design firm in Sewickley, visit one of the projects they completed on Beaver Street, the retailer J.McLaughlin, on Tuesday, July 26, 2016.

A boutique architectural firm is making its mark on Sewickley's main street as it nears completion of its third commercial renovation in a year.

Studio St. Germain, specializing in low-energy, high-performance design, is leading the transformation of the former Sewickley Cafe on Beaver Street into Bruneaux's 409, a fine-dining French-influenced restaurant set to open by late summer or early fall. The job follows the firm's work on the Explore Sewickley headquarters and the J.McLaughlin retail shop, both located along Sewickley's busy commercial corridor.

“The core philosophy of our business is commitment to community,” says Nathan St. Germain, who owns the company with his wife, Aimee. “We hope it will drive more businesses and storefronts to renovate their own buildings.”

Beyond their professional interest in the town, the St. Germains are invested members of the Sewickley community. They live in town and operate their business out of their home office. Nathan serves on the borough's planning commission, and Aimee is on the Main Street Design Committee.

After moving to the Pittsburgh region from New York City, the couple settled in Sewickley three years ago. They were drawn to the community for its proximity to Downtown, as well as its design needs — both commercial and residential.

“We have a philosophy of building to give back and designing buildings that return value to their owners through being functional and very durable,” Aimee says.

The studio provides unique energy efficiency expertise, too. Nathan is on the forefront of the passive house movement as a certified consultant and member of the Passive House Western Pennsylvania board of directors. The design standard is used in eco-friendly buildings with minimal reliance on energy for heating and cooling.

“High-performance, low-energy gives a nice return on investment back to building owners in terms of reduced energy usage and also ties into other intangibles, like air quality and acoustics,” Nathan says.

In Bruneaux's 409, heat from the planned open kitchen presented a challenge from an energy standpoint. They addressed it by paying special attention to the HVAC system and ventilation to ensure the dining space is conditioned properly. They completely reconfigured the storefront, which previously featured an open doorway allowing the elements in every time the door opened. A vestibule entrance solved that problem.

Aesthetically, the space takes cues from French culture by paying homage to Parisian brasseries in a modern way. A long banquette allows for flexibility in seating. A stacked stone finish covers the wall behind the banquette as well as the parallel wall behind the bar. Wide-plank pine flooring provides Old World character.

To provide an immersive experience for guests, the designers incorporated a curtained-off VIP table alongside the open kitchen. An inventive cocktail menu will pull ingredients from the kitchen such as herbs and housemade syrups. A reconfigured patio area will feature dining space and an outdoor fireplace.

Robin Fernandez, the building owner who also owns nearby eateries Mambo Italia and Lula, appreciated Studio St. Germain's dedication to the Sewickley community.

“I really wanted to work with them because they're local, and I was impressed with their work on local business buildings,” he says.

Retail design

Before taking on Fernandez's venture, the studio turned a formerly vacant storefront at the town's busiest intersection into the new home of J.McLaughlin clothing shop. For its retail locations, the company prefers design that “makes a whisper, not a shout,” Nathan says.

To achieve that, the studio created a welcoming entryway with a mustard-colored residential door and painted the facade a cheery white to complement the store's signature awnings depicting its logo. The completely renovated storefront features a large window exhibiting merchandise displayed atop a pedestal stage. Inside, a raised ceiling makes the narrow space feel roomier while oak floors and hand-painted walls add to the comfortable, yet stylish, setting.

Because most of the space's walls are exposed, insulation became key to ensure energy savings. The studio installed a vapor permeable air and water barrier and rigid polystyrene foam board and also incorporated sustainable stone wool insulation behind the brick. This also dramatically improved the acoustics of the space, which were an important design factor because of the store's location at a noisy intersection.

Explore main street

Located a few blocks down Beaver Street, Explore Sewickley was an ideal client, as the nonprofit's dedication to community promotion aligns perfectly with the firm's interest in improving the main street, the St. Germains say. In April, the Pennsylvania Downtown Center designated Explore Sewickley as a Main Street Organization, allowing it access to grant-writing resources, facade improvement assistance and training opportunities.

Formerly a dated Dollar Bank, the building now has a new white brick storefront with classic black signage. The designers opened and expanded the old ATM space to create windows displaying information about upcoming events around town. An entry vestibule features pamphlets on businesses, as well as an interactive TV with a business directory, calendar of events and social-media feeds.

Inside, an open community space hosts meetings, happy hours for the business community, educational sessions and other events. Tables can be moved around to accommodate specific needs, and walls often double as gallery space for local artwork.

An elevated, loftlike second level houses working space as well as a kitchen. An exposed roof frame gives the open room more height and volume while industrial pendant lighting and exposed brick add to the homey, lived-in ambiance. Underfoot, a synthetic wide-plank wood floor features distress marks to make it appear more natural. Renovation included the addition of an upgraded energy-efficient HVAC system.

Since moving into the space in July 2015, Explore Sewickley has received frequent positive feedback from the community on Studio St. Germain's design of its new headquarters, says Jennifer Markus, president of the board.

“People say they want to live here — they really love it,” she says. “Explore Sewickley promotes shopping local, so it's great having someone in Sewickley who is so talented,” she says.

Rachel Weaver is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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