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This is what leadership looks like

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/22/19 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Reduce, Green buildings, Clean water, Connecting to nature

The search for the greenest places leads to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh. The reputation of Phipps was solidified when it built its Center for Sustainable Landscapes in 2012. It is one of only a handful of buildings nationwide to be recognized as a Living Building, the most stringent green building rating system in the world. The voluntary, Living Building Challenge is just that — a challenge — a stretch beyond the ordinary. To whit, it requires no less than absorbing all of the rain that falls on a site, producing as much power as used, sourcing materials from 150 miles or closer and considering occupant health throughout.

Sky's the limit<br />Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes in Pittsburgh is one of the greenest public buildings in the world. Photo credit: Denmarsh Photography, Inc.

In a conversation with Phipps’ wellness and sustainability specialist Meghan Scanlon, I hoped for a story of inspired leadership, and I was not disappointed.

It turns out Phipps built its center to a whole slew of standards, as a follow up to achieving LEED-Platinum (EBOM) for its production greenhouses. The earlier achievement sprang from president and chief executive officer, Richard Piacentini, who bristled at the thought of being told that sustainable and an all-glass structure were incompatible.

“Going through the process, we really questioned the assumptions and discovered there is reason to pursue this,” says Scanlon. “We are incredibly fortunate to have a leader pushing in that direction. Richard was able to make the case to funders and our board of trustees.”

The takeaway—this is not for the faint hearted. It’s hard, and not everyone is up to the task of looking to the horizon, beyond the first-cost. Scanlon suggests that longer returns on investment start to pencil out when you plan to be in a building for a decade or more. Operational savings, carbon reductions, watershed protection, the ability to tout to visitors and employees that they will be in a space that demonstrates sustainability, where it is free of toxins, must be emphasized again and again.

In other words, do not take the benefits for granted. It is true that stretching to be in an elite class of institution that chooses to ‘walk the talk’ on sustainability is full of challenges and rewards.

“It changes your way of thinking and infuses the culture,” Scanlon says, “It’s a topic on everyone’s mind. Folks are aware of purchasing requirements and reminded of how to make the human-nature connection.”

Specifically, Phipps adopted sustainable practices into its operations plan, is exploring it through research, leads a Biophilic Cities initiative with Pittsburgh’s mayor, and hopes to infuse sustainability in exhibits so visitors extend their appreciation of plants to a larger conversation about biodiversity and ecosystem protection.

“The flowers are an accessible entree for people to have an experience with nature,” she says, adding, “Is there a way to articulate why they are here in the first place, and what does that mean outside of the Phipps? We have opportunities.”

While it takes sufficient capital, the pay off in being first in a space will be new stories and room for their mission to grow.

“The public gets to see sustainable design in action,” Scanlon concludes. “They are learning about green buildings firsthand, that you don’t need to make huge sacrifices to go green.

“Sustainable design is smart design, and provides a compelling avenue to live our values, to bring our values to life.”

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