Center for Sustainable Landscapes
Center for Sustainable Landscapes_CREDIT Paul g. Wiegman (3)
Image courtesy of Phipps.

Over the last few decades, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens has become renowned as an epicenter for all things environmental, sustainable and green. And its Center for Sustainable Landscapes (the CSL) is being hailed as one of the world’s greenest buildings.

Yes, Pittsburgh is home to one of only seven buildings in the world—and the largest of the seven—to meet the criteria of the Living Building Challenge put forth by the International Living Future Institute.

But what is a living building, you might ask?

“A living building takes a holistic, systems-based approach to how a building should exist in the world,” says Richard Piacentini, executive director of Phipps. “Typical green buildings look at energy and water, but a ‘living building’ takes it further: it looks at the site—is it appropriate for the building? It looks at the social equity of the materials used—are they as free as possible from toxic chemicals?” he says.

“Also beauty is one of the most important parts. And at Phipps, we’re all about beauty—so for us, that was the easy job.”

This 24,350 square foot structure is the world’s first—and only—project to meet the mark of all the more stringent green building and landscape standards: the LEED Platinum Certification, the Four-Star Sustainable SITES Initiative, the WELL Building Platinum Standard and the Living Building Challenge.

Courtesy of Denmarsh Photography.
Image courtesy of Denmarsh Photography.

The CSL has been called a “triumph,” and a place where generations will “come together to think differently about human habitats in cities.” Green leaders say the CSL “reigns supreme when it comes to being the greenest of the green” and that it sets “a much-needed example of how modern technology can help save the environment.” Check here for quote attributions and more accolades.

The education and administrative offices of Phipps are housed at the CSL—and it’s the home base for their research. “We’re looking at human and environmental health at the intersection of the built and natural environments,” says Piacentini.

“They are totally interconnected,” he says. “Sometimes people are really focused on human health and sometimes people are really focused on environmental health—and they ignore the connectedness. But you can’t, you have to study both to understand the effect.”

According to Piacentini, the building is a boon to the health of the 40 individuals who work there.

Image courtesy of Phipps.

“We have no controlled study data yet—just anecdotal information from questionnaires that we sent to staff a few months after we moved into the building,” he says. “We found that more than half the people were acting with more environmental responsibility in their home lives—and almost half were adapting more healthy behaviors.”

The Living Building Challenge was announced in November 2006, and the board at Phipps accepted in the challenge in January 2007. “It shows what a forward-looking group they are to say, ‘We’re going for this,’” says Piacentini. “The Living Building Challenge went way beyond the greenest standards anyone could imagine.”

“When we had it designed, we wanted to reflect the talent of the great designers of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania, so the entire building was designed by people right here,” he says. “This city is on the cutting edge of the green movement.”

Designed by the people for the people: the CSL is accessible to the public, as well.

“We wanted to make sure the public could experience the building,” says Piacentini. “The roof is the extension of the terrace of Phipps, so the public can enjoy the roof top garden, they can come into the atrium and experience the building and they can stroll the grounds.” Docent-led tours are offered Thursdays to Sundays at 1 p.m.

Courtesy of Denmarsh Photography.
Image courtesy of Denmarsh Photography.

Here’s what you might learn on a tour: the CSL is carbon neutral and was built to meet net-zero energy and net-zero water goals.

How? The CSL will generate power with photovoltaic solar panels and the city’s first vertical axis wind turbine. It employs a host of passive cooling, lighting and heating techniques, which range from simple measures—reflective ceiling material that allows daylight to illuminate the interior—to intensive methods—geothermal wells buried 500 feet below ground to capture heating and cooling from the static 55 degree temperature.

The CSL will use strategies to capture and treat all water on site–without chemicals—by using a wetland, a UV system, a lagoon for water storage, rain gardens, pervious asphalt, a green roof, and 80,000 gallon underground rain tanks.

Much effort was made to keep the building materials localized and green: 82 percent came from a 500-mile radius of the site, 30 percent of the materials were recycled and 10 percent were salvaged.

The campus sits on a 2.65-acre brownfield that has been landscaped with plants native to a 200-mile radius of the CSL. Three acres of asphalt parking lot were rehabbed with wheelchair accessible pathways and gardens.

Phipps Conservatory opened in 1893 to be “a source of instruction as well as pleasure to the people.” Its vast Victorian greenhouse grew to be a world-class botanical garden and education center—and did indeed become “a pleasure to the people.”

Plus, Phipps has put Pittsburgh on the map as a sustainable building leader.

Lauri Gravina

Woods wanderer who was an an editor at New England’s regional magazine, the research director of a Colorado newspaper and a farm hand in Vermont before returning to Pittsburgh to write about and explore her hometown.