The Centre for Sustainable Living (CSL) in Pittsburgh’s Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is one of Earth’s greenest buildings. One of the few projects to meet highest environmental certifications, CSL combines architecture with a solid devotion to sustainable practices.
The Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is known as one of America’s greenest gardens. In 1893, Industrialist Henry Phipps gave this historic greenhouse to the City of Pittsburgh. Today, the Conservatory attracts thousands of visitors each year to enjoy its artistic and cultural attractions and is a strong advocate for green-building practices and sustainable gardening.
This advocacy has led to several accomplishments for the Conservatory – the first LEED certified visitor centre in a public garden, the most energy-efficient tropical forest conservatory in the world and the first production greenhouse to be LEED certified.
This commitment to green building has led to a massive expansion programme to upgrade and expand the facilities at Phipps. The Centre for Sustainable Living (CSL) is the jewel in the new and improved Phipps.
They call it “one of the Earth’s greenest buildings, designed to achieve and exceed all three of the world’s highest sustainable architecture and landscape standards-Living Building Challenge, LEED® Platinum and Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES) certification.
Pittsburgh-based architecture and planning firm ‘The Design Alliance Architects’ (TDA) was hired to provide master planning and design services for the facility. Established in 1977, TDA worked with a large team of designers, contractors and support specialists from the Pennsylvania region to oversee the complex construction of the new building and to ensure that it met with the high standards required for the various certifications.
Phipps Executive Director Richard V. Piacentini explains how the idea of the CSL came about. “When we started to work on our three-phase master plan for campus expansion in 1999, we were not focused on green building practices.
We did, however, hear about this new certification called LEED and decided that we wanted to pursue it since it spoke to our environmentally aware values as an organisation. The more we built and the more we learned about LEED, the more excited we became about green design and thought: “Why stop with the buildings? Let’s make everything we do as sustainable as we can.”
The 24,350 square foot education, research and administrative facility certainly meets all the benchmarks of sustainable building. The CSL is described as a Net-zero energy and a net-zero water building. “Net-zero energy means that, over the course of a year, we need to make more energy on site using renewable resources, without combustion, than the building uses,” explains Piacentini.
“If you have to generate all of your own energy, the first logical step is to be as efficient as possible, thereby reducing the amount you have to produce. And that’s exactly what the design team did by using passive, outside-in design strategies that take advantage, for example, of natural daylight and ventilation,” elaborates Piacentini.
He continues, “With all of the efficiency measures in place, the Center for Sustainable Living (CSL) is on target to use only about a quarter of the energy a conventionally built structure of comparable size would use. That allows us to generate all of the energy we need on an annual basis with the help of geothermal wells, a wind turbine and a moderately-sized solar panel array.”
Net-zero water, on the other hand, entails managing all onsite sanitary and storm water by either capturing and treating it for reuse, or allowing it to infiltrate back into the ground to recharge the water table. Piacentini says, “Some of our rainwater is captured and stored in rain barrels or cisterns for irrigating Phipps’ gardens. Other rainwater is captured by the CSL’s green roof, a lagoon or one of five rain gardens that surround the site.”
“All sanitary water, whether it comes from a sink, toilet, drain or water fountain, is captured and cleaned in a system that mimics the way nature cleans water, going through a constructed wetland, sand filters and solar distillers so that it can be reused to flush toilets or water tap-water sensitive orchids,” expounds Piacentini.
So, what’s inside the CSL? Inside the building and in the demonstration gardens, Phipps will conduct research aimed at transforming the way that people relate to nature. It will also serve as an environmental education centre that community members can visit.
Visitors can explore pathways, a hillside amphitheatre, a fountain and other natural panoramas. Dedicated classroom spaces, both indoors and outside aim to connect people to nature.
The building serves as a research project in itself. “From rainwater retention studies on the green roof to the implementation of a building automation system predicated on the subjective comfort levels of occupants, the research being conducted here will inform best practices for the entire field,” says Piacentini.
The CSL also serves as an office space for Phipps employees. “Since most of us spend the majority of our lives inside buildings, it is so important to show that something as seemingly mundane as an office can be beautiful, sustainable and healthy, and here we learn how to make it even better, literally on a day-to-day basis.”
Piacentini adds that one of the most significant features is the fact that the entire CSL, from conception to design to construction, was born of Pittsburgh or Pennsylvania-based talent and resources.
He concludes, “In constructing the CSL, we demonstrated to the world that if you have the vision and desire, you can create buildings that go beyond “less bad” and become truly regenerative. In today’s world, we have to start designing structures that actually improve the well-being of the occupants, the surrounding site, those downstream and the entire ecosystem. The CSL is proof that we can, right now, construct buildings that make the world a better place.”
Text By Chryselle D’Silva Dias
Photographs Alexander Denmarsh Photography