Phipps Conservatory Sprouts Latest Green Building

May 14, 2019

For years, the building that marked part of the boundary between Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and Schenley Park just sat there, something of an eyesore. It was a nondescript one-story cinder-block structure dating to the 1960s, built for the city’s Department of Public Works. Phipps owned it and even considered tearing it down. 

But Phipps is also striving to be a leader in structures that are easier on the planet and healthier for their occupants.

And as the green-building dictum goes, says Phipps CEO and President Richard Piacentini, “the greenest building is one that already exists.”

Phipps had already constructed from scratch what it calls one of the world’s greenest building: the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, now one of only 15 certified Living Buildings in the world. (Among other things, it generates all its energy and manages its storm water on site.) Piacentini says Phipps decided, “Why don’t we see if we can take that ugly old cinder-block building and turn it into one of the greenest buildings in the world?”

This week, Phipps unveiled its new Exhibit Staging Center. It’s that old eyesore retrofitted for energy efficiency, with geothermal heating and cooling, solar panels and more. The $6.3 million project turned the 10,568-square-foot structure into the headquarters for Phipps’ maintenance crew and the workshops where it builds exhibits like its seasonal flower shows.

Instead of cinder blocks, the building’s façade now consists of a skin of corten (or weathering) steel, which over time will turn orange (Pittsburgh’s biggest example of this material is on Downtown’s U.S. Steel building.) The renovated building will be publicly accessible through a central hallway offering views of its carpentry shop, paint shop and welding shop. There’s also high-ceilinged storage space for those big exhibit props.

The electricity comes from an array of rooftop solar panels, with a cutting-edge efficiency feature. In most solar-powered buildings, the direct-current (DC) juice from the photovoltaic panels is converted into alternating current (AC) – the kind that comes from standard wall sockets – and then converted back into DC for many devices. That process can waste up to 15 percent of the electricity, says Phipps. At the Staging Center, everything will be DC, saving that power. And an array of 48 ion-phosphate batteries – each the size of a car battery – will store the electricity for use at night and in emergencies.

The heating and cooling is powered by a system that starts with 12 geothermal wells drilled on site. The system uses the earth’s consistent temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit to heat or cool fluids that run through coils in the flooring, or condition the air that circulates through the building. And the renovated Staging Center will join the Center for Sustainable Landscapes in a human-made system (employing an on-site lagoon) to capture and treat all the rainwater that falls on site.

“This building will never have an electric bill, it’ll never have a heating bill, it’ll never have a cooling bill, and it’ll never have a sewer bill,” said Piacentini at Tuesday’s media preview. “So if you add that in over time, you can see it’s a really smart way to design a building.”

The project's lead designer was Pittsburgh-based FortyEighty Architecture.

Piacentini also touted the renovated building’s healthfulness for the people who’ll work there. It was constructed without any of the toxic construction materials on the International Living Future Institute’s “Red List,” and it’s got plentiful natural light, views of Schenley Park, a fitness center, a yoga studio, and a meditation room.

It will take a full year’s worth of energy and water-usage reports to determine whether the Staging Center can be certified as a Living Building. But in any case, the Staging Center joins the six-year-old Center for Sustainable Landscapes and Phipps’ modular Nature Lab on what Phipps calls a uniquely green campus: “the first multi-facility living system of its kind in the world,” according to press materials. (Pittsburgh actually has two certified Living Buildings, the other being the Frick Environmental Center.)

Phipps means the projects to set a standard for new construction and retrofits alike.

“I think this is a great demonstration of what we can do, and what we should be doing, in Pittsburgh, with green infrastructure,” says Piacentini.

At the time of the press preview, the Staging Center wasn’t quite complete; some of the corten cladding had yet to be installed. But the building’s grand opening will go on as scheduled on Thursday, May 16. The Big Green Block Party is a ticketed evening event feature refreshments and live entertainment. Ticket info is here.