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New environmental center on journey to meet 'Living Building' certification

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy


Frick Park is a favorite green space for Pittsburghers, boasting over 600 acres of woodlands, fields and wetlands right in the middle of the city. But in 2002, a fire destroyed one of the park’s key attractions—its environmental education center. Now, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the city have turned that into an opportunity to create a new building that, once complete, will be one of only a handful in the world to fully meet a rigorous certification for green buildings known as the Living Building Challenge. The new center will also house education programs for school kids and families when it opens to the public at the end of 2016. Recently, Kara Holsopple, host of The Allegheny Front radio show, caught up with project manager Marijke Hecht to get the latest on the new center. Here are some highlights from the interview—along with some artist renderings of the new building.

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On constructing a ‘Living Building’

“The Living Building Challenge has 'petals' that describe the different categories that you need to work in. For example, water is a petal, energy is a petal, materials is a petal. And inside each of those petals, there are requirements. But it’s different than LEED certification, where there’s a checklist that you can kind of go through. You really need to wrestle with these requirements. So, for example, with water, you have to be net-zero water. So you have to demonstrate that you can capture as much water as you need to use, that any additional water is infiltrated into the ground, and that you’re able to treat all your sewage on site. And with all of the techniques that we used—whether it was for net-zero energy or net-zero water—we tried to be as simple as possible. So nothing is that experimental, because we wanted to show that this is possible and reproducible.”



Credit Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy
This is view of the Frick center from the west.

On the building’s green energy features

“When you come to visit the site, you will see beautiful rows of trees. But underneath, there are actually geothermal wells that are 520 feet into the ground, and they’re all connected. And they’re able to take advantage of the natural 55-degree temperature underground and bring the temperature into the building. That then gets transferred through our ground-source heat pump, which then feeds our radiant floor heat in the building."

"There are lots of windows, and it’s so light in here. That’s another one of those strategies for energy: The less we need to turn on interior lights, the less electricity that we’ll need. And the lights have sensors so that lights that are closer to the window will shut off earlier than lights that are farther away. Everyone wanted lots of windows, but we also know that birds hit windows. So we’ve tried to do a couple of things just in the building design that will help with that—by having the windows recessed."


Credit Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy
The building will shed rain water off the north side of the building.

On using rain as public art

“We will be net-zero water. But maybe more excitingly, we’ll be celebrating water. We want people to be inspired and excited by the natural world. So this building actually will shed all of the water off the north side in a 'rain veil.' It will be like a waterfall coming off the front side of the building. And our hope is that, on a rainy day, kids will wake up and say, Hey, let’s go to the Frick Environmental Center and have a rain date because something special is happening. We get over 40 inches of rain in Pittsburgh, and we tend to feel bummed out when it rains. But we want people to really see this water as the resource that it truly is and have it be very visible."

On how architecture can mirror nature

"On [one] side of the building, all of the columns are very regular, evenly spaced, just like the trees on [that] side of the building. It’s very formal. But the architects thought, well, on the [other] side, what if we made the columns a little irregular, like the trees are in the woodlands? So they’re spaced where they need to be from a structural perspective, but they’re not perfectly spaced. So there’s some thought about the feeling that things give us when there’s a little irregularity, how that changes your impressions of a space and how the building can mirror what is happening outside in the landscape."

This report is from The Allegheny Front, an award-winning public radio program covering environmental issues in Pennsylvania.

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