Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens Proves Any Building Can Become Green

Exploring the Exhibit Staging Center today, visitors see a beautiful building at the cutting edge of sustainability. For decades, though, the facility sat largely unused, dilapidated and a bit of an eyesore in the back of an otherwise lush and vibrant campus. It had previously been owned and used by the city of Pittsburgh as a public works building and had fallen into a state of disrepair. The site had even been characterized as a brownfield because of leaking fuel tanks.

Where others might have torn the building down to start over, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens representatives saw an exciting challenge and, with two high-performance green buildings already on Phipps’ campus, it was a challenge Phipps’ team was well-equipped to take on. They believed if they could transform this old cinderblock building into one of the greenest buildings in the world, it would prove that just about any building can become a green building.

BEFORE: Phipps representatives believed if they could transform this old cinderblock building into one of the greenest buildings in the world, it would prove that just about any building can become a green building. PHOTO: Hawkeye Aerial Photography

Green Trifecta

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is best known for the seasonal flower shows that have filled its Victorian glasshouse with beautiful botanical displays for more than 125 years. As guests travel through the glasshouse to the back of campus, they have the opportunity to explore three green buildings: the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL), the Nature Lab and the new Exhibit Staging Center (ESC). Half a million guests per year can learn about high-performance buildings and understand that they can be beautiful and comfortable places to live, learn, work and play.

The CSL is a research and administration building and the first and only building to achieve Living Building Challenge, LEED Platinum, WELL Platinum and SITES Platinum certifications. It demonstrates how new-construction projects can use innovative off-the-shelf strategies to construct highly efficient buildings that are good for people and the planet. The Nature Lab at Phipps is one of the nation’s first sustainable, modular classroom spaces. Completing these two projects and watching them operate successfully for several years, including generating all their own energy and capturing and treating all water onsite, gave Phipps’ team the knowledge and resources to take on the transformation of the ESC with the goal of achieving three of the world’s most rigorous building standards: Living Building Challenge, LEED Platinum and WELL Platinum. The buildings are evaluated after a one-year performance period and are certified if they meet all the requirements. The CSL was evaluated and was Living Building Challenge Certified in 2015. The Nature Lab finished the one-year performance period and is currently being evaluated. The ESC started the one-year performance period in April 2019.

Phipps’ crew knew the ESC would primarily be used as a maintenance facility. In many places, the health and wellbeing of maintenance staff are often overlooked and they are typically given some of the unhealthiest buildings in which to work. At Phipps, the health of all staff is a top priority. Designing to achieve the WELL Platinum building standard would ensure the rehabilitated space would be the healthiest possible environment for staff as they work on new exhibits for Phipps’ seasonal flower shows. The building houses a workshop, finishing and welding rooms, storage rooms and office spaces for the crew, as well as a yoga studio, meditation room and fitness center for all Phipps staff to use.

Non-toxic Materials and Biophilic Design

The features of the ESC benefit not only the building occupants but the plants and animals that surround the facility, demonstrating that sustainable practices that are good for people can be good for the environment, too. For example, Phipps’ team avoided Living Building Red List mate-rials, which contain chemicals that have been designated as harmful at any stage in their life cycle—from production to use to disposal. Instead, the team focused on Declare label products, which divulge all ingredients in the product, allowing Phipps to avoid building materials with toxic chemicals. Natural materials add to the aesthetic quality of the building while supporting human and environmental health. Black locust lumber with no need for pressure treatment was used on the deck and an interior wall, and locally sourced sandstone was used in the Yoga Court.

Phipps’ design team focused heavily on biophilic design, a design movement that is based on reinforcing humans’ innate desire to connect to nature. An intense series of biophilic design workshops ensured connections to nature and natural shapes and forms were paramount throughout the building. Simple features, like plentiful windows and sliding doors, both of which can be opened on temperate days, increase airflow and provide daylight to minimize the use of harsh overhead lights, connecting occupants to nature while reducing the amount of energy the building uses.

New landscaping was added outside of and even on top of the building in the form of a vegetative living wall and a green roof, which also manages stormwater. The exterior of the building is made out of weathering steel, which naturally rusts to reflect the weathering of time. Subtle features, like the imprints of leaves and horseshoes in the concrete, pay tribute to the history and natural connection to the site, which housed riding stables in the early 1900s.

In the break room and throughout the facility, the team focused on Declare label products, which divulge all ingredients in the product, allowing Phipps to avoid building materials with toxic chemicals. PHOTO: Rob Larson Photography

A lagoon adjacent to the ESC is a beautiful amenity that Phipps staff and visitors can enjoy. Its primary purpose is to store rainwater, and it replicates the natural treatment processes of marshes and wetlands while providing habitat for fish, frogs and other wildlife. Sanitary water is treated and reused through a constructed wetland that uses plants, microbes, sand filters and UV lights to clean the water to near-potable standards.

Employee comfort inside the building was of utmost importance to the design team, and the ESC proves that pleasant and sustainable spaces are not mutually exclusive. Comfortable temperatures through the facility are provided by radiant floor heating and cooling that is tied to geothermal wells buried deep in the ground to harness the natural energy from the Earth’s consistent 55 F underground temperature.

The roof of the ESC is home to photovoltaic solar panels, which capture the sun’s energy to convert to electricity. These panels are expected to produce all the energy the ESC uses each year. To avoid energy waste, batteries inside the building store power that can be used by the facility on overcast days and at night.

About the Author

Richard V. Piacentini
Richard V. Piacentini is president and CEO of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Pittsburgh. Since 1994, he has led the green transformation of the property and its structures.

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