Visitors at Phipps Conservatory might not be able to hear the jackhammers, welders, or dump trucks in the background as they wander through the Tropical Forest Conservancy. But just outside, behind a makeshift screen of reeds, contractors are hard at work on something of a first for Pittsburgh.
"The idea behind the living building is to create a building that makes all its own energy from on-site renewable resources; treats all its own water on-site: not using potable water, collecting rainwater, treating all your sanitary waste, treating wastewater, treating all your storm-water, all on-site; and then to do a lot of the same things you'd expect to see in a LEED Platinum building," said Phipps Executive Director Richard Piacentini.
The "living building" in question will be called the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, and Piacentini said it's going to be the greenest structure in the city, having virtually no impact on the environment around it.
Taking the Next Step in Green Building
The "Living Building Challenge" has outstripped the well-known Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (or LEED) Platinum rating as the strictest standard there is for green buildings.
Lead architect Chris Minnerly of the Design Alliance said the idea is relatively new, but not completely different.
"I think the way we're combining [green design features] is probably not so 'off the shelf,' in terms of the organization of all of it," said Minnerly. "When you look at what we're doing relative to say a LEED building, and how those buildings are evaluated, I think it's just a different way of thinking about it. We had to back our way around the all-or-nothing mentality of the Living Building Challenge, which is, 'You have to meet these particular goals,' net-zero water, for instance."
Of course, this kind of dedication to "being green" can be expensive – the Center will be a three-story, 24-thousand square foot office building with a price tag of 23-and-a-half million dollars – almost a thousand dollars per square foot. But Piacentini said the high price was inevitable.
"Part of it's because of that learning curve, and people aren't geared up for doing this kind of work," said Piacentini. "But on the positive side, there's virtually no operating cost. There's no electric cost; there's no heating cost; there's no cooling cost; there's no water cost; there's no sanitary waste charges, any of that stuff. All those kinds of operating costs are gone."
Piacentini said eventually, those savings on energy and water will outstrip the cost of construction, though that may take quite a while.
A True Challenge
The Living Building Challenge has been administered by the "International Living Future Institute" since its inception in late 2006. Eden Brukman is Vice President there. She said while LEED focuses on building green structures in a sustainable way, the Challenge aims more at making sure they perform with a net-zero impact on energy and water usage. Brukman said that's why her Institute only certifies projects after they "prove themselves" for a year.
Brukman said her group tells teams what they have to achieve, not how to do it, in six target areas (or petals).
"With energy, for example, we have one requirement in the petal, and that is to be net zero, at the minimum, on an annual basis, with no combustion allowed," said Brukman. "So, we allow the teams to decide what would be the best way for them to achieve that goal, given their macroclimate, microclimate, their position, their context, their type of project, etc."
Brukman said projects need that freedom to be able to succeed. But for architect Chris Minnerly, it was one of the greatest challenges of the Phipps project.
"There are a lot of different ways of skinning a cat, and so you can get involved in a number of different paths studying what may or may not work," said Minnerly. "We've had this experience in particular with the water side of what we're doing, because you could do it a lot of different ways. We have a lot of great ideas, but if the DEP decides what we can and can't do on the site is different from what we had conceived, then we'll have to start again, and we did a lot of that, actually."
The First of Many?
Only four structures in the U.S. and Canada have been approved as living buildings so far. At least 80 more across the world are completed and awaiting certification. Plans have been made to convert the Schwartz Market on the South Side and the Frick Park Environmental Center into living buildings as well. The Phipps project is slated for completion in the spring of 2012.
Piacentini said it's important to have a living building in Pittsburgh, especially when all the designers and contractors are from Pennsylvania.
"We're really excited to be part of a project that we can show to the world and say, 'Hey, come look at Pittsburgh. We just built the greenest building in the world, and it was designed and built by people in this region," said Piacentini.
Piacentini said he thinks in the years to come, the living building philosophy will grow to be both cheaper and more pervasive, much as the LEED certification has become over the previous decade.