Center for Sustainable Landscapes operates at zero-net energy

Richard Piacentini, the executive director of the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland, has worked at an arboretum in Michigan, a rhododendron species foundation in Washington State and even helped helped develop a bonsai collection on the Pacific Rim. Mr. Piacentini is also a key figure in the development and design of the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, or CSL, a "living" building at Phipps that operates at zero-net energy and zero-net water.

Q. The Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps has several green features, including solar hot water generators and a vertical axis wind turbine, but what is your favorite and why?

A. My favorite feature would have to be the smart design that resulted from the integrated design process we followed to build the Center for Sustainable Landscapes. This is a very different way to bring a building to fruition because, rather than working in isolation, all of the stakeholders and design consultants start designing together from day one. It is such an extraordinary approach that we actually made a video to document our experience in the hope of inspiring others to do the same. Using the integrated design process is really the only way to design a super high-performance green building. This was particularly important in the case of the CSL, where we needed all mechanical components to work together as efficiently as possible so we could operate using less than 25 percent of the energy it would take to power a typical office building.

Q. Having been around the United States, why did you decide on Pittsburgh and Phipps for the CSL?

A. There is a lot of talent in Pittsburgh in addition to a number of cutting-edge universities and an incredible history of innovation. Our city, thanks to Teresa Heinz, was also one of the first to embrace the sustainable building movement. When you put all of that together, this was the perfect place to build one of the greenest buildings in the world. In fact, when we set out to design the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, we decided that we wanted to do just that as a testament to the great talent we have in the region. That is why we limited the primary architect and engineers to Pittsburgh firms and why we insisted the rest of the team come from Pennsylvania. And they did it!

Q. How does Pittsburgh compare to other cities in terms of energy efficiency and sustainability? What can it improve on? What does it do well already?

A. I think Pittsburgh is one of the leading cities in the country. We have a lot of firsts at Phipps: We built the first LEED-certified Welcome Center in a public garden and the first greenhouses ever to be LEED certified; our Tropical Forest Conservatory was considered the most energy-efficient in the world when it opened; and now our Center for Sustainable Landscapes is one of the greenest buildings in the world. In fact, the CSL was the first project to earn four stars from the Sustainable SITES Initiative and it is slated to be the first building to ever achieve this certification along with the Living Building Challenge and LEED Platinum ... There are many people in this region committed to green buildings and lifestyles, and that is very exciting. I don’t see any limit to what we can do here to set a positive example for the world.

Q. If you ended up with your own "Audrey," the blood-thirsty plant in the musical "The Little Shop of Horrors," what would you do with her?

A. I would put her in the Palm Court at Phipps for everyone to see — much like we did with Romero the Corpse Flower last summer, with one important change: We would make sure that people didn’t get too close to her!

Madasyn Czebiniak: or 412-263-1269

First Published May 7, 2014 1:03 PM

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