You need office space and classrooms for children with room for a few experiments -- just enough to put your hands in the earth and squiggle around. But you can't use any toxic construction materials. And once it's built, it has to both recycle its own water and produce more energy and than it consumes.
That was the challenge mastered last year by Phipps Conservatory when its Center for Sustainable Landscapes became Pittsburgh's first structure to meet the strict environmental requirements of the Living Building Challenge.
Now, Phipps leaders expect a small structure behind the glasshouses of the botanical gardens to become their second certified living building in as many years -- and they're hoping to start work on a third.
The SEED Classroom has been open for a year, quietly operating with a "net-zero" impact on energy usage and water consumption as it houses science classes for kids. Some of the classes even use the building itself as the lesson plan.
“A lot of the components in the building are exposed on purpose, so all the electricity runs through a conduit that’s outside the walls," said Phipps Executive Director Richard Piacentini. "All the pipes for the sinks and the water coming in and going out (are) all exposed as well, because this building was designed to be a learning space to show children how buildings work.”
The 950-square-foot building uses solar panels for power and stores rainwater for use inside the 30-by-30-foot structure. It's later filtered through a closed system for reuse. The $250,000 "modular classroom" was built using all non-toxic materials.
Piacentini said he expects the Living Building certification to arrive within a month.
After that, it's on to the next project: converting a former city Department of Public Works structure into a living building. Piacentini said it was important to him to keep the larger cinder block building intact and retrofit it with environmentally-friendly updates beginning this summer.
"We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could show that you don’t have to take an old building and tear it down to make it green?'" Piacentini said. "You can take an existing building and make it one of the greenest buildings in the world.”
He said he'd eventually like to make all of Phipps' historic glasshouses as environmentally friendly as possible, though he noted that they're unlikely to achieve living building certification due to the restrictions imposed by the structures' historic designations.
Piacentini said a few local schools, including the Waldorf School in Bloomfield, have expressed interest in building their own green classroom modules similar to Phipps' SEED Classroom.
“We tend to put children in some of the worst kind of places possible, and they’re the most vulnerable members of society," he said. "We should be putting them in the best places we possibly can.”