If they gave out Oscars for environmentally sustainable buildings, surely the new offices at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland would be in the running for The Greenest Building on Earth. It is trying to be just that.
The newly opened Center for Sustainable Landscapes is aiming to be the only building to achieve or exceed three of the world's highest environmental standards: the Living Building Challenge, LEED Platinum certification and Sustainable Sites Initiative certification.
Beginning Tuesday, the building -- used for offices, research and education -- will be open to the public to explore, even as it embarks on that yearlong process.
On the outside, the $15 million center, which took two years to build, looks like just another building in Phipps' ever-expanding footprint on the cliff overlooking Oakland and Panther Hollow. It's attractive, vaguely modernist, with a glassed-in atrium and offices where furniture, carpet and fixtures seem all to be in various shades of gray, punctuated by large green plants and trailing ivy.
The wood sheathing the Phipps' new offices is reclaimed barn wood. There are lagoons and rain gardens that conserve water. The broad expanse of 10-foot-high, south-facing windows open and close automatically according to the temperature, which is monitored by a weather station on the roof, which is also the site of a garden. There's even a bird-friendly wind turbine.
The screened fluorescents in the main offices dim when the sun brightens. The large glassy atrium has a green "wall" of plants to improve air quality, and all year the offices are heated and cooled by geothermal wells. Collected rainwater is used for toilet flushing, and there are waterless urinals.
"Some of the things you can't see," said Susan Golomb, chairwoman of the Phipps board, noting that inside the wall is material that holds the heat in the hot part of the day and releases it in the evening. Despite a strong contrast between hard materials -- glass and concrete -- "the feeling is light because of the natural daylight and openness. Most importantly, no forests were destroyed to construct the building."
There may be other projects that catch up to these environmental standards, Mr. Piacentini said, but he seems fairly confident that this center will probably be considered the greenest, most energy-efficient "living" office building in the world a year from now.
Mr. Piacentini -- the driving force behind the Phipps Tropical Forest wing, which opened in December 2006 -- was speaking by phone last week from Panama, where he was attending a conference sponsored by the Smithsonian.
He has traveled the world trying to spread the message about Phipps and its commitment to environmental innovation, with some success. The conservatory's Tropical Forest wing was proclaimed the greenest of any conservatory in the world when it opened.
But almost immediately, the Phipps board of trustees urged Mr. Piacentini to move forward with construction of offices that would meet the Living Building Challenge, which has set forth a list of requirements to ensure that a building doesn't consume any more energy than it generates.
The center also will be a focus of the first of several books about the Living Building Challenge, which was launched in 2009 by a Seattle-based environmental coalition requiring participants to meet certain design and construction standards.
There's a "red list" of 15 materials that can't be used, although they are staples in the construction industry: from polyvinyl chloride, a type of plastic that can leak toxins, to lesser known materials such as chlorosulfonated polyethylene, a synthetic rubber that is used in some roofing.
It's a challenge, indeed -- but this is Pittsburgh, where, after PNC Financial Services Group began constructing green buildings a decade ago, many others followed suit. In 2012, the city ranked fourth nationally in the number of LEED Certified buildings, according to a report released in December by PittsburghToday.
Mr. Piacentini is especially proud that local talent built it. "We knew that the primary architect had to come from Pittsburgh," and Chris Minnerly of The Design Alliance, a Downtown architecture firm, was chosen. Design and construction were all local or from Pennsylvania.
There was a soft opening May 23 so visitors from all over the world could take a look at what Phipps officials hope will inspire innovative, energy-efficient work spaces elsewhere. And on a recent tour on a gloomy, snowbound day, the new offices were beginning to fill with staffers, who started moving into the 24,000-square-foot space three weeks ago.
Of course, on dark February days, the enormous array of solar panels to the southwest of the new building won't be soaking up much fuel from the sun, but over a 12-month period the building will be "zero-net" in terms of energy and water consumption.
There's more to do -- a research program has yet to be established, for example -- "but I hope people will learn from this building and that 100 years from now most people will be working in offices like this," Ms. Golomb said.
Self-guided tours of the Center for Sustainable Landscapes are included in the price of Phipps' admission, which is $15 for adults, $14 for seniors (62 and older) and students with valid IDs; and $11 for children 2-18. Kids younger than 2 and Phipps members enter for free. Reservations are required for tours: 412-622-6915, ext. 6501. For details: phippscsl.org.