• Historic Phipps Green Renovations
  • Historic Phipps Green Renovations
  • Historic Phipps Green Renovations

Sustainable Design: Bringing the Historic Phipps into the 21st Century

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a place of serene beauty, with its vast array of glorious gardens displaying plants and flowers of all varieties. That alone is something to shout about.  But they didn’t stop there. They have designed one of the world’s most energy efficient and sustainable conservatories, and both practice and teach sustainable gardening methods.

Our recent echat with Phipps’ Executive Director, Richard V. Piacentini, explores some of the basic issues the Phipps faced when taking their historical site, built in 1893, and setting it on a more sustainable course, beginning with the design of their new LEED certified Welcome Center.

Phipps is now over 100 years old, built in a time when there was no thought of diminishing resources.  Even in 1995, when you started planning your expansion, sustainability was not in the common vernacular.  At what point did you take the turn to Green?

Piacentini: When we first started our master planning back in 1995 we were initially focused on improving visitor amenities and replacing dilapidated buildings. Then, in 1999, we had the opportunity to talk with Bill McDonough who was on one of the architecture teams we were interviewing for our first project. He spoke about green buildings and a new program that was just coming out called LEED. He also explained how the built environment is responsible for a lot of the energy and water we use, and for a lot of the pollution we produce.

Up until that point, we did not know any of this and it prompted us to switch gears. We said, “We care about the environment, so why shouldn’t our buildings reflect our values?” With that, we decided to pursue LEED certification for our Welcome Center. And because LEED had an initial reputation of being expensive and we were led to believe that glass greenhouses would not qualify because of their energy usage, we decided to only go for certification for the Welcome Center. We did not pursue LEED for the Tropical Forest Conservatory or Production Greenhouses.

The Welcome Center became your first foray into sustainable building and design.  What were some of the initial challenges you faced?

Piacentini: Our Welcome Center opened in March of 2005 and it changed how we look at everything we do. The biggest challenge for us was to first make sure we understood the rationale behind all of the LEED requirements. An interesting situation happened during construction. One day when I was walking through the construction site, floor tiles were being installed in the café, and I noticed that the box of tiles said ‘Made in Turkey.’ I was really surprised because I had recently learned how important it was to use local materials. So I called one of the people on the project and asked why we were using tile from Turkey. He said it was because we already had the point in that category.

But for all of us at Phipps, we were not following LEED just to get points; we were following LEED because we thought it was the right thing to do. From that point on we decided that we would look at everything we did – from the way that we built, to the way that we operated – to try to be as green as we could even if we didn’t get any points. That meant we would have to change some things on the fly during construction if we felt we found a greener way. It was a big challenge to make those adjustments and keep the change order costs reasonable so that we could do it.

What are some of the energy efficiencies you were able to accomplish with the Welcome Center?

Piacentini: Most of the building is underground, which helps preserve the view of the old historic conservatory, and by being earth-bermed on three sides it is also more efficient from a heating and cooling point of view.

The next area we looked at was the type of glass to use in the dome and windows. The best type of coating for growing plants is no coating and the best type of coating for people comfort and energy efficiency is coated glass.  But coated glass blocks the light wavelengths that are important for plant growth. Because of this, we had to decide whether the Welcome Center would be a people-place or plant-place. We decided it was more important to focus on people and energy efficiency in this space. However, we were able to find some coatings that would allow some of the wavelengths plants need, enabling us to install temporary plant exhibits.

Two other notable areas of efficiency were the application of ceramic fritting to the outside of the dome glass to help reflect sunlight and the decision not to try to cool the dome in the summertime. Unlike traditional buildings where air is circulated throughout the entire space, the dome is not cooled (because no one is up there) and instead we added high and low computer controlled vents so that we can allow hot air to escape on hot days. And every year, we purchase enough renewable energy credits to offset 100 percent of the electricity used in the Welcome Center. In fact, we offset 100 percent of all the electricity we use in all of our buildings on both of our campuses.

Considering plants and landscaping are what Phipps is all about, what lessons did you learn when creating the green roof and landscaping for the Welcome Center.

Piacentini: We learned that turf is not a good option; make it accessible to the public and include it as part of the exhibit experience. By including recommended sustainable planting beds that extend off the roof, it provided a great opportunity to demonstrate the types of plants we recommend to homeowners — ones that do well in our area and are either native or non-invasive exotics that do not require supplemental water and pesticides.

Given that your experience is not as a Food and Beverage based facility – what were some of the challenges and lessons learned when not only creating a cafe restaurant experience for your guests – but in making certain it met the highest of green standards?

Piacentini: The café was originally designed like a typical museum café, that is, a food service operation that relied on prepared and processed foods brought in from the outside, along with disposable service ware. Once we decided to go beyond just LEED and started to look at everything we did, we made significant changes to the café. That included installing a commercial stove, hood and dishwasher. We created a trash collection area so that we could collect recyclables and all pre- and post-consumer organic waste for composting. We made a point to feature organic and local foods. And in 2009 we stopped selling bottled water and installed a water filtering system so that guests could help themselves to filtered water. In 2011 we stopped selling soda and junk food, and focused on healthy food options only. The Dirty Dozen (top foods with highest levels of pesticide residues) from the Environmental Working Group list are always organic, and our café is also 3-star Green Restaurant Certified.

What lessons did you learn from building the Welcome Center – that influenced your next steps in sustainability development at Phipps?

Piacentini: The Welcome Center started us down a path that eventually inspired us to think in terms of systems and to recognize that everything is connected. LEED is a great tool for getting everyone on the same page; it helps you keep track of everything and makes sure that your designers and contractors stay focused on sustainability. However, for our next two buildings we decided to try and forgo formal LEED certification but instead instructed our designers and contractors to build them as if they were. Turns out that was a mistake. It was far too easy for people to slip back to the usual way they designed and built buildings. It took an enormous amount of our time to make sure that everything was being done to LEED standards.

See a complete listing of the Welcome Center’s green features and practices.


Richard V. Piacentini has held the position of Executive Director of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens since 1994. During his tenure, Phipps launched the most ambitious expansion project in its 113 year history; a 36.6 million dollar expansion featuring environmentally sensitive design.

All images are courtesy of Paul g. Wiegman. 

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Wen-D Kersten

Director of Marketing at GreenLeaf Media Group
Wen-D Kersten is the editor and contributor for EcoVision SLC as well as a number of other energy and sustainability sites. She is a green enthusiast with over 15 years of marketing experience, and a background in film and video production.

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