Center for Sustainable Landscapes Achieves SITES Platinum Certification

by Richard V. Piacentini, President and CEO, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

The sustainable landscape at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
Phipps showcases renewable energy technologies, conservation strategies, water treatment, and sustainable landscapes to an audience of nearly half a million visitors every year. / image: Denmarsh Photography, Inc.

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) is the first project worldwide to be certified at the Platinum level under the Sustainable SITES Initiative® (SITES®) v2 Rating System.

Previously certified as a Four-Star project through the pilot version of SITES in 2013, the CSL is a 24,350-square-foot education, research, and administration facility on a 2.9-acre landscape. Recognized as one of the greenest projects in the world, the building is located on the campus of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is net-zero energy and net-zero water, producing all of its energy renewably and managing all storm and sanitary on-site. In addition to SITES, the CSL has also met three of the highest green building standards: The Living Building Challenge™, LEED® Platinum, and WELL™ Platinum certification (a rating system designed to advance health and well-being in buildings). We decided to pursue certification under SITES v2 to make sure that we were still focused on and promoting the highest level of sustainability related to the landscape.

Utilized daily as Phipps’ education, research, and administration hub, the CSL serves to increase awareness of the interconnection between people, nature, and the built environment, and to promote sustainable systems thinking. With a design that seamlessly integrates into the guest experience at Phipps—a 125-year-old institution with nearly 500,000 annual visitors—the CSL is uniquely positioned to showcase renewable energy technologies, conservation strategies, water treatment, and sustainable landscapes to a broad audience.

CSL’s green roof
Along with the landscape, the CSL’s green roof provides an excellent habitat for local birds, bees, and butterflies, which are now regularly seen on the site. / image: Paul G. Wiegman

Nestled into the hillside on a land table below the rest of the Phipps campus, the CSL is a building fully integrated into its surrounding landscape. Starting with a dilapidated brownfield which was once used as a fueling and supply station for the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works, Phipps and its partners—including Philadelphia-based Andropogon Associates—revitalized the building’s surroundings from scratch, utilizing indigenous, sustainable plants and soil. Today, the transformation is stunning: a terraced garden leads downhill from the roof to the ground floor of the CSL, allowing visitors to walk through a beautiful trail of native plant communities that respond to the dramatic changes in topography. Diverse ecosystems and plant communities include wetlands, rain gardens, water’s edge, shade garden, lowland hardwood slope, oak woodland, and upland groves.

The building’s permaculture-inspired green roof features plants that have a documented historic medicinal, food, or craft use. Together with the landscape, more than 100 species of native plants are represented, providing an excellent new habitat for local birds, bees, and butterflies which are now seen regularly on the site.

Green roof
The permaculture-inspired green roof features plants that have a documented historic, medicinal, food, or craft use. / image: Paul G. Wiegman

The site is also net-zero water, managing all rainfall and treating all sanitary water on site. It can manage a 10-year storm event within the site boundaries (3.3” of rain in 24 hours) through soil- and vegetation-based systems like green roofs, rain gardens, bioswales, lagoon, pervious asphalt, and high performance native landscapes. No potable water has been used for irrigation after the landscape’s establishment period. The project also harvests a ½ acre of rooftop runoff from adjacent buildings outside the site boundary. Annually, approximately 500,000 gallons of rooftop runoff are harvested in a 60,000- gallon underground rain tank. The harvested water is reused to offset irrigation demand in the main conservatory spaces, significantly reducing municipal water needs.

CSL's lagoon
The CSL’s 4,000-square-foot lagoon is an essential component of rainwater capture. / image: Paul G. Wiegman

The CSL’s 4,000-square-foot lagoon, which is an essential component of the rainwater capture component, is also now a home to a thriving aquatic ecosystem with turtles, crayfish, bluegill, perch, largemouth bass, white suckers, and bluntnose minnows. Using stone, sand beds, plants, and driftwood collected from the Allegheny River shoreline, the lagoon replicates native habitats and provides natural nesting and shelter opportunities.

Additionally, all of the building’s wastewater is treated on site through a closed-loop system. After being collected in a settling tank, sanitary water is dosed into the root systems of the adjacent constructed wetland. From there, water is pumped into two underground sand filters flanking the walkway on the CSL’s southern façade. Finally, it passes through UV filters and is held in an underground cistern until it is reused as flush water.

A result of collaborative partnerships with talent from the region, the project is a remarkable testament to the determination, innovation, and spirit to be found locally. Area thought leaders, including faculty and students from nearby universities and NGOs, formed the core of the development and design teams; the primary architects and engineers were required to be local; and the entire design team was from within the boundaries of the project’s state. Additionally, almost all of the funding for the project came from local sources, as did the vast majority of the materials and products used in construction—including wood from dilapidated local barns that constitutes the skin of the building and speaks to the ecological and agricultural heritage of the region.

Visitors to Phipps can walk through a beautiful trail of native plant communities. / image: Annie O’Neill

Visitors to the CSL can learn about the beauty and benefits of native plant communities, green infrastructure and its role in improving local water quality, while also seeing the wildlife, both terrestrial and aquatic, that the site’s regenerative landscape is designed to preserve and protect.

Read more about the CSL’s use of SITES here.

The Center for Sustainable Landscapes is the first project worldwide to be certified at the Platinum level under the Sustainable SITES Initiative (SITES) v2 Rating System. / image: Denmarsh Photography, Inc.

Richard V. Piacentini is President and CEO of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Since 1994, Richard has led the green transformation of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, including construction of the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, the only building in the world to meet Living Building Challenge™, LEED® Platinum, WELL™ Platinum, and SITES® Platinum certifications.

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