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Making a Living Building 

Phipps' Center for Sustainable Landscapes

Photo courtesy of Alexander Denmarsh Photography

Phipps' Center for Sustainable Landscapes

On a brilliant spring day, it looks much like any other construction site: beefy guys in hardhats pouring concrete and running backhoes. But Phipps Conservatory's new Center for Sustainable Landscapes might revolutionize how we think about our built environment.

The 24,350-square-foot structure, set to open May 23, sits directly behind Phipps' Tropical Forest Conservatory, overlooking Schenley Park. But its terraced landscaping and panoramic view of central Oakland are just the start. The $23.5 million office and educational complex is designed as a "living building": one that doesn't need any energy or water inputs other than what's available on site.

Built on land previously occupied by a city public-works facility, the CSL will also manage all its stormwater onsite, and thus avoid taxing our overburdened sewer system. As the next best thing to nature itself, there's nothing else like the CSL in Pittsburgh, and very little else anywhere.

Phipps Executive Director Richard V. Piacentini, who shepherded the project from inception, says that's the point. "We need to make sure that our buildings are connecting us with nature," he says. "We've got to get away from making our buildings less bad. We need to make them good."

Phipps announced plans for the CSL in 2007, when it accepted the The International Living Future Institute's Living Building Challenge. A living building operates, as Phipps puts it, as "ultra-efficiently as a flower" — a nice analogy for an outfit sheltering so many orchids.

Flowers need only sun, water and soil. Likewise, the CSL will harvest sunlight for most of its lighting and heating needs, and on strategies like opening windows, and roof venting, to cool off. Behind its handsome facade of reclaimed Pennsylvania barn wood, the building is also super-insulated against cold weather. (Think triple-paned glass.) Phipps says the CSL will use 80 percent less energy per square foot than a conventional office building.

For what electricity it does require, the CSL will tap renewables: mostly photovoltaic, from its array of solar panels, supplemented by an onsite wind turbine. Heating and cooling support will come from 14 geothermal wells drilled on the 2.65-acre site, mining the earth's constant underground temperature to temper heat fluctuations aboveground. A "desiccation wheel," to reduce humidity, can also help. (If necessary, the photovoltaics have enough juice to power an air-conditioner.)

The CSL will treat its wastewater on site, largely with a man-made wetland, where plants will do naturally what sewage facilities accomplish with chemicals and lots of fossil-fuel energy; the water will be filtered and recycled for flushing Phipps' toilets. Meanwhile, the CSL's green roof, rain garden, constructed lagoon and huge holding tanks will capture rainwater to nourish Phipps' leafed denizens, saving 6 million gallons a year of city tap water.

The CSL was even built with Pittsburgh- and Pennsylvania-based materials and talent, including general contractor Turner and a design team lead by The Design Alliance Architects.

Piacentini has long pushed Phipps' green envelope. For instance, its Tropical Forest Conservatory, built in 2006, is the most energy-efficient such structure in the world. Phipps' café even composts all food waste.

But a living building outdoes the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, for years the measure of environmentally friendlier buildings. Living-building criteria are so rigorous that only three structures in the U.S. have achieved it, says Eden Brukman, who runs the Northwest-U.S.-based ILFI's Living Building Challenge. And Phipps isn't there yet: Before it's certified, the building must meet living-building criteria for 12 consecutive months.

Still, with 140 living-building projects in nine countries, the idea is spreading, says Brukman. Pittsburgh alone has three others, including the just-announced resurrection of the Frick Environmental Center.

While living buildings cost more to build than conventional structures, they're much cheaper to operate. But Piacentini deflects questions about payback time. The real reward, he says, comes when others build differently, or renovate along living-building lines — when Phipps' CSL no longer stands alone.

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