Phipps ‘Living Building’ to Open Soon

May 23, 2012

Phipps Conservatory is almost ready to open a structure that will likely be the greenest of Pittsburgh's many green buildings.

The Center for Sustainable Landscapes was designed to meet a standard called the "Living Building Challenge," in which a building's environmental impact is reduced to as close to zero as possible. To that end, the new office building will produce all of its own energy, and provide all of its own water using rainfall and aquifers.

Phipps Executive Director Richard Piacentini said the water treatment system yields more than enough to cover the hydration needs of the inhabitants, but state law prohibits the consumption of rainwater.

"One of the great things about the [Living Building] Challenge is it's not only challenging people to build greener buildings; it's also challenging us to really rethink some of the regulations that we have related to stormwater, sanitary water, drinking water," said Piacentini. "I think as more and more of these buildings are created, we'll start to see some changes." He said water regulations are already being reconsidered in the Pacific Northwest, where the Challenge originated.

He said Phipps will use the seven million gallons of excess water purified by the new center each year to water its gardens.

Energy for the building will be produced largely by 125 photovoltaic solar panels positioned on rooftops and along the hillside behind the conservatory.

"Just to give you an idea of what that means: we produce enough electricity onsite to power ten typical American homes," said Piacentini.

The solar panels will be supplemented by a wind turbine and fourteen geothermal wells. Piacentini explained how the geothermal wells — small pipes reaching more than 500 feet beneath the surface — save money on heating and cooling bills.

"In the summertime, when you're running your air conditioning and stuff like that, you take the heat, instead of discharging it into the air, you pump that heat down into the ground," said Piacentini. "So, you store a lot of heat during the summertime, and in the wintertime you do the opposite. You take the cold air in the building and you pump it underground and you exchange it for the warmth you stored all summer long."

He said the building is also designed with top-notch ventilation systems that take advantage of sunlight and airflow to cut down on energy usage.

The building and its grounds are expected to open for public tours sometime in July. The total project cost was roughly $23.5 million.