Innovation Quality of Life/Place

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens Center for Sustainable Landscapes One of the Greenest Buildings in the World

Photo credit: Green Building Alliance

In the Pittsburgh city neighborhood of Oakland, visitors have the opportunity to experience a building designed to be one of the greenest in the world, the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL).  Located at the historic Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, the CSL generates all of its own energy and treats all storm and sanitary water captured on-site.  In March 2015, the CSL became the first and only project to attain the world’s four highest sustainable building certifications:

  • Living Building Challenge, the world’s most rigorous green building standard
  • LEED® Platinum — tied for the highest points awarded under version 2.2
  • First and only Four Stars Sustainable SITES Initiative™ (SITES™) for landscapes project (pilot)
  • First and only WELL Building Platinum project (pilot)

As Phipps’ education, research and administration facility, the CSL is an integral part of the Phipps visitor experience, focusing attention on the important intersection between the built and natural environments, and demonstrating that human and environmental health are inextricably connected.

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The Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens was designed to achieve net-zero energy status on an annual basis, meaning that, over the course of a year, it is expected to produce more energy than it consumes. In addition to generating power with a vertical axis wind turbine and photovoltaic solar panels, the CSL also takes advantage of geothermal wells, and passive cooling, heating and lighting methods, to operate more efficiently.

  • Strategic window placement, light shelves that direct the sun’s rays and reflective ceiling material all allow for daylight to naturally illuminate the interior 80 percent of the time, reducing the need for energy-intensive artificial lighting.
  • High performance insulation and low-e windows help keep heat inside during the winter and outside during the summer.
  • Onsite photovoltaic solar panels, positioned and oriented based on several sun-tracking studies, are expected to generate enough electricity to meet energy needs on an annual basis.
  • A vertical axis wind turbine, the first to be commissioned in the City of Pittsburgh, can produce energy with winds as low as 4.25 mph.
  • A series of geothermal wells buried 500 feet below ground are used to capture heating and cooling energy from the earth’s consistent 55-degree temperature.
  • Working in conjunction with the geothermal wells, a Rooftop Energy Recovery Unit is expected to reduce HVAC energy requirements by 40 percent.

Water: Conservation by the Drop

Water — a precious natural resource that supports all life — is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity, making global conservation a great necessity. At the CSL, we do our part by employing several strategies to capture and treat all water on site for later use. This lessens impact on the City of Pittsburgh’s combined sewer system, which diverts sewage into our waterways when it overflows.

  • All sanitary water that comes from sinks and fountains, and that is used to flush toilets, is treated on site and reused for flushing. Carrying out this task without chemicals is a constructed wetland that uses natural processes involving plants and microbes, and several sand filters.
  • A UV system further cleans the water, some of which is stored in tanks for later use.
  • Any excess is then treated using the Epiphany system, a solar-powered distillation unit that makes water suitable for use in irrigating some of our more delicate orchids.
  • A lagoon situated in the landscape works to store rainwater while replicating the natural water treatment process that occurs in wetlands and marshes.
  • Rain gardens, pervious asphalt and a green roof prevent run-off by allowing rainwater to seep back into the ground, while excess is stored for reuse in 80,000-gallon underground rain tanks.

Materials: The Building Blocks of Life

The CSL was built using products and processes that have been deemed as safe for occupants, as well as all species of plants and animals.

  • Salvaged materials comprise 10 percent of those used, including siding made from deconstructed western Pennsylvanian barns, Belgium block, granite and old Department of Public Works fuel tanks that have been safely converted to store cleaned sanitary water.
  • Recycled materials — such as structural steel, insulation, rain tanks and flooring — account for 30 percent of those used on site.
  • Regional materials harvested, extracted or manufactured within a 500-mile radius of Phipps make up 82 percent of the total required to develop the building and landscape, including soil, plants, stone, concrete, steel and glass.
  • All materials were sourced in compliance with the Living Building Challenge’s Materials Red List, which identifies the toxic chemicals most commonly used by manufacturers.

Site: A Sense of Place

Principles of sustainable design carefully dictate both where and how to build so that new constructions work with, rather than against, nature.

  • The CSL stands on a former brownfield, a space once compromised by the presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant. This site has since been successfully restored, and is now healthy and safe for people, plants and animals.
  • The landscape features native plants that are found growing naturally within a 200-mile radius of the CSL. The green roof highlights edible varieties that can be harvested for use in educational programming or at Café Phipps while also insulating the CSL and capturing rainwater for reuse.

Health: Bringing Nature Indoors

The CSL was designed and built to promote the health and well-being of the people working and learning inside.

  • Operable windows provide fresh air and views of nature.
  • The building orientation maximizes northern and southern exposure, allowing for natural light to illuminate the interior space.
  • Indoor air quality is monitored and conditioned to ensure a healthy atmosphere.
  • Clean air plants — species adept at removing pollutants —help occupants breathe easier.  

Beauty: Living in Harmony with Nature 

Beyond the delight this beautiful building inspires in the beholder, the CSL is a symbol of hope for generations to come, providing a glimpse of the harmonious future within our grasp and operating as an important catalyst for change.

  • A key component of our mission is to inspire and educate. The CSL is a place where guests can gain knowledge about healthy, sustainable living, and where children can learn and engage with nature in a living classroom that constantly evolves.
  • The CSL serves as a global model for sustainable design and operations, helping to inspire others to reconnect with nature now as a means to live more sustainably in the future.
  • Since 1893, we have been connecting people to plants. The CSL carries on with this tradition by showcasing the vital role plants play in our lives — from cleaning water for reuse to providing food and wildlife habitat within a picturesque landscape.
  • Biophilic art that celebrates the bonds between people and nature is displayed on every floor.

Source:                Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

Learn more about Phipps here:

The Quiet Ones: Phipps & Richard Piacentini – Thinking Like Nature

By the West Penn Power Sustainability Energy Fund


Here is a more detailed view of the Center for Sustainable Landscapes:

Center for Sustainable Landscapes: One of the Greenest Buildings in the World

by Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens