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North Hills Monthly

Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes One of Greenest Buildings in the World

Aug 31, 2016 10:30AM ● By Shelly Tower Rushe

Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Photos by Denmarsh Photography

Imagine a building that captures and treats all of its own water. That uses 70 percent less energy than traditional office buildings. That actually produces more electricity than it uses.  This isn’t a vision of the future—it’s happening right now in Pittsburgh.

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) is potentially the greenest building in the world, as it is the only building that meets or exceeds all four of the world’s highest green construction standards, earning The Living Building Challenge in 2015; the WELL Building Platinum in 2014; the Four Stars Sustainable Sites in 2013, and LEED Platinum status.  

The 24,350 sq. ft. education, research and administration facility opened in December 2012. According to Executive Director Richard Piacentini, “The CSL’s core intent is to demonstrate the beauty of humanity living in harmony with nature. 

“The sun, earth and wind are used to light, heat and cool the interior; plants clean wastewater for reuse; and every occupied space affords views of nature,” he said. “It is a wonderful place to visit and work.” 

But how does one building accomplish so much? The logistics get a little technical, but here are some of the basics. The building’s on-site water management system captures 3.25 million gallons of storm water per year. They also treat all their own sanitary water, use waterless urinals and have low-water toilets. 

The building relies on photovoltaics (a type of solar power) to provide electricity. Its heat and cooling comes from a ground-source geothermal HVAC, and the building management system responds to current weather conditions and uses past weather patterns to predict temperature and humidity. Even the building’s orientation was taken into account, ensuring maximum exposure to sunlight for natural daylight to reduce electricity use.

The outside is as green as the inside with a sustainable landscape featuring 100 native plant species, walking trails, and asphalt that allows storm water to permeate the ground. “Above all else, it is the promise of beauty that draws visitors to the public garden, and people are compelled to protect the things they find beautiful,” said Piacentini.

It’s not just the CSL that lives up to Phipps’ goal to go green. The Welcome Center is LEED Silver certified, and the production greenhouse is the only one in the world to achieve LEED certification. Phipps’ Tropical Forest Conservatory, the most energy-efficient conservatory in the world when it opened, features extensive venting, earth tubes and fogging systems. 

Piacentini ensures that Phipps “walks the talk” when it comes to green initiatives. “Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens recognizes that public gardens, museums and other cultural institutions are uniquely positioned to demonstrate the benefits of leading with one’s values,” he explained. 

Since the CSL opened, it has garnered more than 60 national and international awards. As a result, it has placed Pittsburgh in the spotlight as home to one of only 11 buildings in the world to meet the Living Building Challenge.

In order to expand what Piacentini refers to as their “green leadership,” Phipps has created several educational programs to connect themes of sustainable living to choices visitors can incorporate into their own lives. Studio Phipps is a for-profit commercial landscape group; the Homegrown Project installs vegetable gardens at homes in underserved neighborhoods; and Botany in Action is a research fellowship for up-and-coming plant scientists. 

Piacentini summarized the symbiotic nature of Phipps’ programs:  “Our history of excellence serves as a platform to demonstrate that people, plants, health, planet and beauty are inextricably interconnected and that sustainable action—from the construction of the Center for Sustainable Landscapes to the planting of a raised vegetable garden bed in Homewood—is the key to ensuring that these critical interconnections are harmonious, mutually beneficial, healthy and preserved for future generations.”