A rendering of the south side of the new Frick Environmental Center.

Since a 2002 fire destroyed the old building, the Frick Environmental Center has been reduced to a trailer where Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy employees convene environmental education classes. Yesterday, after 12 years of planning, concrete was poured for the foundation of a new $18 million building. Designed to LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge specifications, the center will be a living-learning laboratory for city residents.

Located just off Beechwood Boulevard, shielded from the road by the last of the autumn leaves and a mountain of dirt, is a giant hole where the center will soon be. The new vertical building will add about 9,000 square-feet of usable space to the former structure’s 6,000 square feet. The center won’t be an isolated structure, but part of an entire ecosystem.

The finished building will feature an outdoor amphitheater, and offer space for classrooms, offices and lectures and the all important public utility–bathrooms. In addition, the project will restore the center’s historic entrance: the two gatehouses that flank the drive, an allée of trees and a fountain.

So how hard is it to become a certified Living Building? For starters, there are only five such structures in the world. So it will be all the more impressive if both Phipps and Frick succeed in their quest; this would mean one-third of the world’s living buildings would be in Pittsburgh.

To gain certification, a building must be net-zero energy and water efficient. This means it has to produce as much energy as it uses and be water independent. To achieve these goals, the center requires 40 percent less energy than a building of comparable size. Geothermal heating and cooling will keep the building at a relatively stable 55 degrees so that the traditional HVAC system won’t have to work so hard to go up or down. Solar panels will generate energy and a series of rainwater catchment systems, including terraced rain gardens, will produce clean water.

In order to treat sewage on site, another requirement, the center is building an underground tertiary system that will do just that. All materials, down to their component ingredients, have to be accounted for. There’s a list of eleven materials you absolutely cannot use, among them formaldehyde. That means plywood cannot be used, nor PVC piping, that most ubiquitous of construction materials.

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Education Director Marijke Hecht says she and her team realized it’s impossible to do every single thing the Living Building Challenge outlines.

“The point is to try. I don’t mean that flippantly, like, ‘Oh, just give it your best shot,’” she says, miming a sycophantic pat on the shoulder, “but really, truly to try. To wrestle with the questions. Like with all things, you have to weigh and measure. Is there a right answer? No. But the fact that you’ve thought about the process and tried to do better does move the needle.”

While the certifications are important, it is a means to an end, a way to demonstrate that enjoying the environment and safeguarding it are not mutually exclusive.

“We believe that the environmental education opportunities that we have really should reach everyone,” she says. “We’ve tried to be very deliberate about that.”

With the national emphasis on science, technology, engineering and (STEM) learning, Hecht says there is tremendous demand in the region for environmental education. In the last five years the Conservancy has grown its school programming from five classes at two schools to almost 1,000 children from 20 public, private and charter schools.

The architect for the site is Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and the general contractor is P. J. Dick, Inc.

The $18 million price tag includes $10 million that has been raised, $6 million of which comes from the City of Pittsburgh through the Frick Trust, a fund created by Henry Clay Frick to maintain the park.  After the project is completed, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy will manage the site.

Margaret J Krauss

Margaret J. Krauss is a writer, radio producer, and researcher. If not biking Pittsburgh's streets or swimming its rivers, she is likely geeking out about a really good story.