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Mount Washington 'smart house' operates at the touch of a button

Saturday, January 24, 2004

By Kevin Kirkland, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In the six months Pete Karlovich and Steve Herforth have lived in their new house, they've become used to the disappointed faces at their door.

Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
In a newly built house on Mount Washington, walls of windows outline the living room and dining area, where the table and chairs were made by Patrick Herforth, brother of Steve Herforth, one of the home's owners.
Click photo for larger image.

"Is this the 'Real World' house?"


"Can we come in and look around?"


"It's a really neat house!"


Karlovich and Herforth aren't sure when the rumor started that MTV was building a house in Pittsburgh for its twenty-something reality show. They suspect that it dates back to spring 2002, when the walls of their striking contemporary home began to go up on Mount Washington. Neighbors and passers-by weren't sure what to make of the huge V-shaped building that was eventually covered with glass, concrete and blue aluminum panels.

A Wal-Mart? someone wondered. Condominiums? others guessed. Imagining that it was a swank TV set is only a little more unreal than what it turned out to be -- a 10,400-square-foot "smart house" and high-style haven for two Pittsburgh natives who never seriously considered living anywhere else.

"Our families are here and we like it here," said Karlovich.

They each grew up in typical South Hills colonials, Karlovich in Mt. Lebanon, Herforth in South Park. Both "computer folks," they met at work and shared a Shadyside townhouse for 11 years. After Karlovich sold his half of a software company at just the right time, they had the money and desire to build a place of their own.

They decided early on that it would be contemporary -- no brick or siding -- with lots of glass oriented toward a great view.

"I'm a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright but I didn't want another Fallingwater," Karlovich said.

They also didn't want to be in the woods. They happened upon an empty lot in Mount Washington while visiting an equally striking yellow contemporary belonging to a friend, Sumner Erickson.

To refine their rough idea of a house that optimized the lot's view of the Golden Triangle, they chose architects Paul Smith and Jean Cardone of Research Art Architecture in Oakmont. The pair came up with three scenarios ranging from the softer modern look that Herforth favors to Karlovich's "ultra contemporary."

Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
Pete Karlovich, left, and Steve Herforth have panoramic view of Downtown from their living room.
Click photo for larger image.

Which did they choose?

"This is the extreme," Smith said, laughing.

Yet there's nothing extreme about the facade. To maintain privacy, it has few windows and is set back from the street, partially shielded by a concrete wall and gate. The front door is equally low-key, distinguished only by cobalt blue stained glass, unstained maple and the sleek craftsmanship of cabinetmaker Patrick Herforth, Steve's brother. It takes a moment to make out the owners' initials (H and K) in the door's design.

Only after you step through that door do you begin to see the drama of the house's design. Sunlight streams through floor-to-ceiling windows that line the inner legs of the V, offering nearly every room on three floors a close-up view of the in-ground, vanishing-edge pool in the center courtyard and a bird's eye view of Downtown. More light pours down through a central light well, bouncing off unstained maple floors and a steel staircase with glass panes for banisters.

The left leg of the V contains offices, guest bedrooms, sauna, steam room and other more private areas while the right leg holds the public areas -- living room, kitchen, master bedroom and lower-level party room, complete with wine cellar, bar, dance floor and DJ booth.

Contributing to the home's open feel is the fact that there are very few 90-degree angles. Curves and odd angles ensure that the house doesn't reveal itself all at once. Most of the built-in cabinetry -- all straight lines, flat slabs and doors unmarred by handles -- was made by Patrick Herforth, whose tour de force is the curly maple and cherry dining table and chairs. Asked to make one with seating for 12 and glass in the middle, the Monongahela man came up with an oval table and wavy-slat-back chairs that anchor the space between the stainless steel and cherry kitchen and 22-by-20-foot living room.

Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
Stainless steel rules in the kitchen.
Click photo for larger image.

The living room contains one of six gas fireplaces (there are also two firepits in the patio) and one of three plasma TVs. Altogether, the house has 12 televisions and six personal computers (seven counting the one built into the refrigerator).

Smart home technology is integral to the house, but it was not part of the original plan. Karlovich said he was thinking only of computerized light controls when he called MGM Automation, a Mt.-Lebanon-based company.

Now the house includes seven touch-pads that control lighting, video, thermostats, security, motorized blinds, skylights, sauna, steam room, spa, fireplaces, cameras and fire pits. Every room has high-speed Internet access and nearly 40 speakers provide music from a digital music server. When the doorbell rings, the music is muted temporarily and occupants hear "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," the theme from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" or any of a number of other sounds.

"This is the most all-encompassing build we've ever done," said president Matt Mandros. "It's the total package."

Karlovich and Herforth admit that the Jetsons-like novelty hasn't completely worn off yet. Karlovich pointed to a clear glass panel that separates his office from Herforth's. As he touched a button, it immediately turned solid white.

"It's called privacy glass," he said, smiling. "I saw it in a conference room once."

During the 19 months of construction, the two men were much more than observers. They visited every day, helping to move some of the 70-80 truckloads of dirt and 10,000 concrete blocks in the foundation. They were on hand to make decisions every day and held meetings every Wednesday with the architects, general contractor John Havrilla of Havrilla Construction, designers Jon Withrow and Bill Kolano of Kolano Design, plumbers, electricians and many others.

"It is truly their house," Smith said. "They owned it from day 1."

Several months after moving in, the pair hosted a contractors party with more than 200 people who made it happen -- everyone from Mooney Electric's electricians to the UPS delivery man and CoGo's employees who supplied coffee.

Karlovich and Herforth say this is their one and only $2.5 million dream house. Still recovering from the building process, they can't imagine ever doing it again.

"We're tour guides now," Herforth said, laughing.

Kevin Kirkland is the Post-Gazette's homes editor. He can be reached at or 412-263-1978.

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