SPONSORED     (And don’t miss Phipps Big Green Block Party Thursday, May 16! )

Pittsburgh has been home to many firsts, including the world’s first commercial radio station (KDKA in 1920), the first retractable domed building (the Civic Arena, 1961), and the first World Series night game (the Pirates vs. the Baltimore Orioles in 1971).

This month another first, this one of global importance, will herald a new era of eco-friendly technology and innovation in the city.

The opening of the Exhibit Staging Center (ESC) at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is part of the first multi-facility living system, using a sustainability model, in the world.

The Exhibit Staging Center was the site of Phipps public’ works garage, a 1960s-era building constructed from block wall masonry on a remediated brownfield.

“We turned an old and ugly building into one of the greenest buildings in the world,” says Phipps president and CEO Richard Piacentini. The ESC joins the Center for Sustainable Landscapes and the Nature Lab as green buildings on the Phipps grounds.

Phipps President and CEO Richard Piacentini. Photo by Rob Larson.

The goal is for the ESC to meet the standards of the Living Building Challenge, a non-profit green building certification program that provides regenerative design frameworks that promote sustainability. After the ESC meets the rigorous standards of the Living Building Challenge’s one-year performance period, Phipps will be the only organization in the world to feature three green buildings of different construction types: new (the Center for Sustainable Landscapes), modular (the Nature Lab) and existing (the ESC).

“This is the only place in the world you’ll be able to see three of the greenest buildings of three different building types,” says Piancentini, who adds that all of the buildings should be Living Building Challenge certified in the next year.

“We not only think it’s important for us to do this, but we see it as an opportunity to talk about what’s going on in Pittsburgh,” Piacentini says. “Pittsburgh has a lot of old buildings. You don’t have to tear them down to make them a green building.”

Photo of interior of the Exhibit Staging Center by Rob Larson.

The $6.3 million renovation of the ESC, which started four years ago, will result in dramatically improved working areas for Phipps’ maintenance crew, who Piacentini admits are traditionally relegated to “leftover building spaces.” The ESC will also feature a yoga studio, fitness center, and meditation room that all employees can use.

Most of the improvements are green innovations, including:

  • A geothermal well buried deep in the ground that will harness natural energy to heat and cool the building.

  • Photovoltaic solar panels on the roof that will convert solar energy to electricity.

  • Direct current (DC) electricity generated by the solar panels stored in batteries. The DC will not be converted to alternating current (AC) electricity that’s used in most American homes, saving 10-15 percent of the generated solar energy.

  • An adjacent lagoon to store rainwater that replicates the natural treatment processes of marshes and wetlands.

  • A constructed wetland that will enable the recycling and treatment of chemical-free sanitary water.

  • The use of Declare label products that are environmentally friendly, and non-use of Red List materials as determined by the International Living Future Institute, ensures that the ESC is free from many of the toxic chemicals found in building materials.

  • Biophilic design elements and art that illustrate the connection between humans and nature.

  • A vegetative wall enhancing the biophilic design elements.

The benefits of these green innovations are numerous and transcend financial savings.

“We’ll never have a heating bill, an electric bill, a cooling bill, or a sewer bill for this building,” Piancentini says. “That’s pretty substantial, but there are a lot of intangible benefits. The health and happiness of the people who work here, that’s a real plus. It’s kind of hard to put a number on that, but it’s certainly something that’s extremely important.”

Local companies that were enlisted to complete the ESC project include FortyEighty Architecture; Common Ground; Iams Consulting LLC; Studio Phipps; Massaro Corporation; Shepley Bullfinch; Building Performance Architecture: CJL Engineering; and 7group.

The last 12 months have been busy at Phipps, with more projects scheduled. In October, 2018, the ogee that covers the conservatory’s Palm Court was restored as part of a $2 million renovation project. Recently, the schematics for a renovation of the garden center at Mellon Park, where many of Phipps’ adult education programs are held, were completed. The Scaife Garage and the R. K.Mellon Carriage House, also at Mellon Park, will be converted to green building standards, with a cafe, outdoor seating, a new gift shop and improved bathroom facilities planned.

Phipps has already received national recognition as a thought leader for its green initiatives. In October 2018, Phipps hosted 25 CEOs from botanical gardens across the United States for a workshop at to discuss regenerative thinking.

New gym for Phipps employees is included in the Exhibit Staging Center. Photo by Rob Larson

Piacentini hopes that Phipps’ innovations will serve as an inspiration for those thinking about using green energy.

“The public can see that this is not a pipe dream,” he says. “They can see that it is possible to build places that are good for people and good for the planet, and they can be beautiful and they can better than the buildings they are in right now. A lot of people think this is impossible, but none of what we’ve done in any of these buildings is rocket science. It’s all done with off-the-shelf technology. We have the capacity and ability to make the decision to do so.”