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Students to reimagine purpose for building, lot in Jeannette

| Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Louise Sturgess,the Executive Director of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, points out architecture highlights to students in the gifted program in the Monessen school district during an architectural design contest centered around the 500 block of Clay Avenue in downtown Jeannette on Sept. 26, 2013. The Monessen students joined students from other Westmoreland County schools in the project where they surveyed the downtown area to figure out how to beautify it with green space, etc.

Greensburg Salem Middle School student Claire Simpson, 13, once thought she didn't have the math skills to be an architect.

“I like math, but I'm not a math genius,” she said.

Now Simpson is learning there is more to the trade than just numbers.

On Tuesday and Thursday, students from Westmoreland County high schools and middle schools traveled to Jeannette for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation's 18th annual Architectural Design Challenge, a competition during which students in the Westmoreland County Gifted Coalition will define a new use and design a three-dimensional model for a vacant or under-utilized building.

“Once I got into it, I realized architecture isn't just math,” said Simpson, who participated in last year's competition. “We get to build stuff, and we learn about materials, design aspects and how to build a model.”

Participating schools include Pittsburgh Environmental Charter School, Greensburg Salem Middle School, Franklin Region Middle School, Hempfield Area middle schools, Jeannette Senior High School, Monessen middle and high schools, Mt. Pleasant Area High School, Penn-Trafford School District, Valley Middle School and Yough middle and senior high schools.

Simpson's gifted program support teacher Carole Malik has participated in the competition with her students for seven years.

“It's very challenging,” she said. “Students get to play to their strengths and work on their weaknesses.”

Simpson was one of approximately 130 students who gathered at Pitzer's Townhouse on Thursday, where foundation Executive Director Louise Sturgess and Education Coordinator Karen Cahall explained this year's challenge. Students have to create a 14-inch scale model showing their vision for a vacant building at 506-508 Clay Ave. and an adjacent vacant lot at 510 Clay Ave., using details that are fun, eco-friendly and serve the needs of the community, Sturgess said.

Sturgess said Jeannette was chosen as this year's site because of its historical structures and the transition it is undergoing.

Before heading off on a tour of the site, Jeannette Historical Society President John Howard gave students a brief history of the area and the challenges facing the neighborhood. Howard and other representatives of the historical society acted as tour guides for students and provided them with the group's recently released souvenir “walkabout” booklet, which contains photographs of Jeannette from the past.

Students and their teachers then took to the streets to explore the site, snapping pictures with their smart phones and jotting down notes about the building and the lot.

Afterward, Sturgess led a discussion about the pros and cons of the area. William Prince of The Progress Fund talked to students about how to properly assess a site and brainstorm new uses for the property.

Some students suggested designing a grocery store, gaming store, cafe and restaurants.

Vincent Boyle, 15, of Yough suggested building a restaurant combined with a bowling alley.

“You could eat and have fun at the same time,” he said.

Students will split into teams and spend the next several months creating a three-dimensional model of their idea, using materials such as corrugated cardboard, foam core, wood, metal sheets, boxes, Legos, modeling foam and clay.

In addition to the model, students will create a six-minute oral presentation and written report. Students have the option of drawing a two-dimensional streetscape, showcasing their vision for the rest of the block.

In March, they will present their work to a panel of industry professionals and community planners, who will score them based on design feasibility, quality of construction and design, creativity and innovation, effectiveness of the oral presentation and teamwork. Students will receive a certificate of participation. First-, second- and third-place awards will be given in the middle school and high school groups.

After the competition, the foundation archives the team reports and photographs the designs to share with architects in the future.

“Your ideas can inspire community developers,” Sturgess said.

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or

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