Ever since Cat Adams first drove through the Fort Pitt tunnel to see Pittsburgh’s downtown core – full of buildings, bridges and bustle – she’s felt an unbreakable connection to the city. “I remember driving through the tunnel as part of my first visit to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU),” she recounts. “There’s something majestic about Pittsburgh’s skyline from that view. I was drawn to it instantly.”
Originally from New Hampshire, Cat made Pittsburgh her home when she decided to attend CMU and study architecture. Now, six years into her career with CannonDesign, she lives in the city and looks forward to seeing that skyline each day.
Beyond appreciating Pittsburgh’s beauty, Cat also has a vision for its future: how it can be more sustainable, more equitable, and more beautifully designed. As an architect and the sustainability leader in our Pittsburgh office, Cat is working to affect real change to propel Pittsburgh toward this stronger future.
We took time to catch up with Cat and talk about what she loves about Pittsburgh today and what she hopes it becomes in the future.
Let’s start with an easy one, how did you become interested in design as a career?
As a kid, I always had a creative spirit. I loved art, Legos and building blocks. I wanted to make things. These interests carried through into my education, and I was very fortunate to attend a high school with introductory architecture classes. I took all those classes and one of my professors encouraged me to consider pursuing architecture in college. That led me to attend CMU and I’ve just continued to fall more in love with architecture and the opportunities it can create ever since.
How do you see design playing a role in shaping Pittsburgh’s future?
A lot of ways, but I think urban design is going to be really important for Pittsburgh. Our city has a real tension between various forms of urban transportation. We have bicycles, cars, buses, pedestrians, etc. all trying to move about our urban core and they do not currently always play nice with one another. The ways are city streets are designed contribute to this disharmony.
In recent years, the city has been great about introducing new bike lanes to help ease this tension. They help, but they don’t fully resolve the issues. I think our city and the design community could work together more to design road systems that truly advocate for equitable design in Pittsburgh. It won’t be easy, the congestions issues are real and it’s tough to reshape behavior – but it’s doable, and it’s one of the biggest ways design could make a positive difference for Pittsburgh on an urban scale in the years ahead.
When did you realize you had a passion for sustainable design?
Right around when I moved to Pittsburgh, the city hosted the G20 Summit and I’ve always felt that helped uncover my interest in sustainable design. Throughout college, I spent a great deal of time thinking about design, building energy, water use, and how our built environment plays a role in climate change.
I take the role architects play in shaping our world seriously. The decisions we make about the built environment have consequences, and it’s up to us to ensure they are positive. Working at CannonDesign, I volunteered to be our Pittsburgh Office Sustainability Leader and that’s proven a great way for me to channel my passion for sustainable design into action.
How is sustainable design evolving?
I think more and more people are realizing sustainable design is also about social justice. I don’t know if sustainable design has fully evolved in that direction, but more people are thinking about it in that manner than ever before. The example I gave about Pittsburgh’s city streets – how can we make sustainable design decisions that also encourage equity? That’s the right way to approach the question.
It’s undeniable that the decisions made in corporate boardrooms and legislative forums often tend to disproportionately affect people with limited means. As a designer, we have a responsibility to advocate for these communities. We have a responsibility to design buildings and spaces that do no harm.
Is Pittsburgh a good city for sustainable design?
Absolutely, and there are multiple layers to this answer.
First, Pittsburgh has done a fantastic job of advocating for sustainable design and marketing to a global audience. I referenced the city hosted the G20 summit. Earlier this year when the President announced our country’s possible departure from The Paris Agreement, our Mayor Bill Peduto ensured our city’s commitment and fostered deeper partnerships with the City of Paris. We’ve hosted the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, we’re part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities coalition, we have numerous organizations and annual conferences focused on sustainability, the 27,000 multi-colored light bulbs on Pittsburgh’s Rachel Carson Bridge are all powered by wind turbines.
But beyond just those actions we’re taking, I think Pittsburgh is uniquely positioned to be an incubator for sustainable and resilient city solutions of the future. We face some dynamic challenges related to infrastructure, resources, climate, topography, social justice – and we should embrace the opportunity to lead the way in addressing these challenges. Given Mayor Peduto’s commitment to sustainability, the leadership and the will is there to be sustainable and resilient design pioneers.
Incubator for sustainable and resilient city solutions? Can you give an example?
Given the three rivers that define our landscape, Pittsburgh is a city challenged by maintaining its water. When we have significant rain events, certain areas flood, our sewer systems can back up, and this causes damage and problems across the city. Our water infrastructure is outdated and prompted several water quality advisories in 2017.
We’re also a city with an abundance of land, and as a result, we’ve built out over time as opposed to up. This has led to the introduction of lots of impermeable urban spaces like surface parking decks. To better deal with our water issues, we should convert some of these to permeable areas – gardens, bio swales, grass fields. If we can define a successful urban strategy for this conversion, we’ll not only help Pittsburgh, but we can inspire other cities. Houston is a city that also built out as opposed to up over time and their abundance of impermeable spaces exacerbated some of the flooding challenges in the wake of Hurricane Harvey this summer.
Okay, before we let you go, a few fun questions about yourself. What’s your favorite building in Pittsburgh?
That’s easy, I love Phipps Conservatory. A botanical garden building that is shaped beautifully. They have a butterfly room, fish ponds, gardens… just a beautiful space. It’s also on a campus that houses the first living building challenge certified building in Pittsburgh. Phipps Conservatory is a great asset for the city.
What do you do for fun in your spare time?
I like to be outdoors. I love to ski, I enjoy playing tennis and taking hikes. People sometimes don’t realize that Pittsburgh has a real wealth of nature and it’s a great city for exploring. During the summer, I volunteer with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to plant trees. It’s a great way to meet new people and get your hands dirty.
Best meal in Pittsburgh?
My favorite place to eat out is Chaya, it’s a Japanese restaurants in the Squirrel Hill part of Pittsburgh. It has a great vibe and the best sushi in Pittsburgh.