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INTERVIEW:

Sustainable to the Roots

Richard Piacentini is executive director of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Pittsburgh. Since joining Phipps in 1994, he has guided the organization through the transition from public to private management and overseen an ambitious expansion program including several state-of-the-art green buildings.

By Joann Gonchar, AIA
July 2014
David Aschkenas
Richard Piacentini at Pittsburgh's Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden.
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GreenSource: Part of the mission of your organization is "to advance sustainability and promote human and environmental well-being through action and research." In some ways, this sounds like an obvious set of goals for a botanical garden. Have they always been part of Phipps's mission?

Richard Piacentini: That section was added in 2007, as a result of a strategic planning process. Before that, Phipps was primarily a horticultural showcase. For a hundred years, it had been run by the city and its main purpose was organizing flower shows. In 1993, a private nonprofit took over management. It was only then, when we got involved in building green buildings on our campus, that the board and staff got very excited about making sustainability an important part of who we are and what we do.

How did it come about that the green building program preceded the addition of sustainability to Phipps's mission? After we went private, we started to figure out how to make the organization more self-sufficient, attract new audiences, and raise revenues. We wanted to improve visitor amenities and replace some of our dilapidated buildings. One of the architects we interviewed was Bill McDonough. He told us about this new thing called LEED and how buildings are responsible for most of the energy use, most of the pollution that's produced, and most of the water that's used. We said, "Wow! We didn't realize that. We care about the environment—why shouldn't our buildings reflect our values?" So we decided to try and do a LEED building. In 2005, we completed our LEED Silver Welcome Center: the first LEED-certified visitors center in a public garden. The following year, we opened two very efficient production greenhouses and our Tropical Forest Conservatory—at the time, the most energy-efficient conservatory in the world. Eventually we reached the point where we said, "Why stop with the buildings? Let's look at everything we do." We changed over our café, getting rid of all the plastic disposables, started composting, and focused on organic and local foods. In our gift shop, we decided to highlight local, U.S.-made, and fair-trade items. We also examined our horticulture program and went completely organic with all our lawn care.

Phipps's newest building—the Center for Sustainable Landscapes [CSL]—has achieved the highest level of certification possible in both the LEED system and the Sustainable Sites Initiative [SITES]. It has also earned Living Building Challenge [LBC] Net-Zero certification and is aiming for full LBC status in addition to certification under the relatively new Well Building Standard. Do you view the CSL as an educational tool? Oh yes. Even though it is primarily an administrative building, we made a very conscious effort to open as much of its interior to the public as possible. Its green roof and the landscape around the building, which includes a stormwater-management lagoon with turtles and native fish, are part of the visitor experience. The whole idea is to invite people to explore.

What message do you hope visitors will take home with them? I hope people will recognize that we have the technology today to do these kinds of buildings and they're really important. I hope we can inspire them to start thinking this should be the norm—that we shouldn't accept anything less than super-high-performance green buildings. It's critical that we do.

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