Green Museums Pittsburgh Innovators (Part I)

Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens' LEED-certified Visitors' Center

Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens’ LEED-certified Visitors’ Center is sited partly underground, topped by a generous greenroof  (left and right). Behind the mini-dome is the 1893 Victorian glasshouse.

The Green Museums series debuts in Pittsburgh with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh (CMP), Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (“Phipps”), and the Heinz History Center, a Smithsonian affiliate (“Heinz”).  

Come back for Parts II and III to learn about more green Pittsburgh museums and gardens.  At the end of this story: links to web sites and videos.

Pittsburgh’s museums have a big footprint in the world of sustainability and green design. It’s about buildings, to be sure, but it’s about much more than bricks and mortar.

Just over a decade ago, green-building in Pittsburgh was in its infancy – not to mention in most US cities. Community leaders in the region stepped up and supported a new Green Building Alliance to encourage high performance buildings. The region’s foundations also seeded early projects with grants and incentives.

 Mission and Values 

For the three “early adopters” profiled here, the idea of greenbuilding was both intriguing and daunting. Only a handful of museums and libraries across the country in the early 2000’s were already planning green additions and new LEED® buildings. It was a plunge into all-new territory.

Museums and gardens are mission-based institutions, with deep roots and a sense of stewardship that encourage outreach and community building. They are among the most trusted places where people spend time and learn informally.   Oberlin College Professor David Orr says greenbuilding offers opportunities to teach about the natural environment and its systems. He calls it “architecture as pedagogy.”

Richard V. Piacentini, Executive Director at Phipps: “When we started our [garden] master planning process in 1999, one of the architects we interviewed was Bill McDonough. He told us about this new thing–green buildings certified as LEED®. We had no idea what either one was. McDonough explained how buildings account for a lot of the energy and water we use and the pollution we produce. We said, ‘We care about the environment, why shouldn’t our buildings reflect our values?’ So we decided to go for LEED® on our Welcome Center.”  That decision started the Phipps on the pathway to being one of the world’s greenest botanical gardens.

 Special Needs= Green Challenges

Museums are typically collections-based– whether live animals, plants or art— requiring complex systems to control temperature, humidity and ventilation.  There are daylighting limits to curb UV on art and artifacts. Air standards are higher to condition and filter air for the comfort of thousands of daily visitors.

Replica of the original Heinz pickle pin is the reward for climbing 123 steps for a healthy museum experience!

Replica of the original Heinz pickle pin is the reward for climbing 123 steps at the Heinz History Center for a healthy museum experience!

At the Heinz History Center, the budget for renovation and buildout of the historic Ice Warehouse on the Strip and its 75,000 square foot expansion was stringent: about $149 per-square foot, or the cost of typical residential buildings in 2003.  That had to cover climate and lighting systems to safeguard the rich regional history holdings on display and also meet standards for LEED® certification.

Senior VP Betty Arenth remembers the dilemma: “We talked internally about our desire to build green.  However, we knew we couldn’t afford the added cost of commissioning [an agent who oversees and validates the green construction] until the Heinz Endowment offered to contribute extra to cover added LEED® related expenses.  The rest is history!”

 Healthy Places for Kids and Grownups

At the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, green building for the museum’s expansion seemed like a logical choice – a way to offer a safe and healthy environment for kids who would be playing, crawling on the floor, touching everything, with exposure to materials, rugs, paints and finishes.

A trusted and healthy environment for being creative at the kids' museum.

A trusted and healthy environment for being creative at the kids’ museum.

Executive Director Jane Werner: “We wanted to build green since we’re interested in kids and their future. We were committed to creating a unique and safe place for kids and their families to grow.”

 Three institutions – three approaches

Below is a profile of our featured Pittsburgh museums and what they have achieved in a decade:

 Important characteristics they all share:

  • The building(s) and LEED® certification were not the end point
  • Building green has led to more sustainable operations overall
  • Each institution is on the path of sustainability with new ideas and projects
  • They have an even stronger place in the community today
  • The whole team plays a role in being green – board, staff, volunteers and community.


The "lantern" building joins the historic Allegheny Post Office and former Buhl Planetarium. Ned Kahn's 40,000-piece wind sculpture (center) is usually in motion. Koning Eizenberg was the project architect.

The “lantern” building (center) joins the historic Allegheny Post Office (left) and former Buhl Planetarium(right). Ned Kahn’s 40,000-piece wind sculpture wrapping the facade(center) is usually in motion. Koning Eizenberg was the project architect.

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh was nearing 20 years old when the opportunity arose in 1998 to bring Mister Rogers Neighborhood right into the museum as a hands-on exhibition. With lightning speed, the group raised nearly $1 million and improved the space and amenities in less than 3 months. The bold project stimulated even more success –and attendance. It was clear the kids’ museum needed space to grow and wings to fly. Fortunately the board didn’t have far to look.

Already located in a Northside landmark (the former 1897 Allegheny Post Office), the kids’ museum was down the street from the vacant Buhl Planetarium building. There was space between the two to do an infill structure and integrate all three smartly into a 74,000 square foot museum. With two years of planning and a national design competition completed, the team then embarked on a capital campaign  called Just Imagine to raise $30 million. (They did!)

 It was a triple win: preserve and adapt two historic buildings, create a place where the museum and child-based groups could share space and collaborate, and be a catalyst in the community.

The new wrinkle, of course, was using green principles to achieve LEED® certification: energy management, waste management, locally sourced materials, and improving indoor air quality.  With LEED™ Silver certification, the Children’s Museum garnered national and state awards – and recognition as the first LEED®-NC Silver kids’ museum in the US.

Waterplay: Tots to grownups learn about water in all its forms

Waterplay: Tots to grownups learn about water in all forms, droplets to shaved ice.

CMP has grown into a mighty place where kids use “real stuff” (the CMP mantra) in interactive play and creative expression for learning. Waterplay, Make and Garage are three spectacular installations-activity spaces that engage kids and their families in informal learning.

 Fast forward= Gardens, food, open space

“We want Pittsburgh to be a great community to live in and thrive,” says CMP’s Deputy Director Chris Siefert. The museum has turned outward – and often outdoors – to engage the neighborhoods around it with projects such as the Charm Bracelet (the arts) and food-gardening programs.

planting and harvestingThree interactive, outdoor garden-exhibits offer kids a place to connect with nature, learn about native plants, and how to grow food. One is a permaculture garden with native plants and shrubs; another a food garden in front of the museum where veggie crops and herbs are grown year-round to teach about the food cycle, pollinators and bugs. These are a great example of sustainable practices: rainwater collection barrels, composting set-up, and recycled materials.  “We just may get rid of all our grass,”says Kimberly Bracken, the Youth Programs Coordinator.

Kids enjoying the cloud sculpture in Buhl Park Pittsburgh

Kids enjoying the cloud sculpture in Buhl Community Park Allegheny Square

Buhl CommunityPark in Allegheny Square is another example of the determination that Executive Director Jane Werner and her team demonstrate in building community– with an environmental bent.  The team saw a perfect opportunity for a transformative project: an ugly concrete square facing the museum,not inviting to anyone. The museum envisioned a green space (once 70% concrete, now 70% green space) that the community would use and be a beautiful focal point. The city agreed to a lease, and the team mounted a $6.1 million campaign to transform the space and create a permanent maintenance endowment.

Aerial view of Buhl Park Allegheny Square. Courtesy Chris Siefert

Aerial view of Buhl  CommunityPark Allegheny Square. Courtesy Chris Siefert

When it opened in June 2012, Buhl Community Park was a place transformed: 110 trees, native plantings, a bioswale to manage stormwater, and an audacious interactive water feature by artist Ned Kahn– a thriving green space and a permanent natural asset for the community.

Teens help plan a community garden (2012).

Teens help plan a community garden (2012).

More gardens are being created through the museum’s Food City Fellows, a summer teen-employment program. Teens 15-18  learn about the natural environment, where food comes from, how to grow it – and get tools for a healthier lifestyle.  This is hands-on work guided by adults and supplemented with field trips to nurseries, farmer’s markets, and buy-local restaurants. In summer 2013 the Fellows will plant a permaculture forest garden in another neighborhood, with nut and fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs and edibles.

HEINZ HISTORY CENTER (a Smithsonian Affiliate) 

Historic Ice Warehouse and addition on the Strip

Historic Ice Warehouse and addition on the Strip was a former brownfields site.

Is a 40-acre brownfields site and historic Ice Warehouse the logical place to situate one of Pennsylvania’s oldest cultural institutions?  Yes! “We’re all about preservation,” notes Heinz SVP Betty Arenth, “and Pittsburgh is a place with a great stock of older, available buildings.”

Those are just a few reasons why it was a “win” when the Heinz History Center (a Smithsonian affiliate institution) decided to locate on Pittsburgh’s “Strip,” a short distance from the Lawrence Convention Center. The Heinz was completed in November 2004 to achieve LEED® NC Silver certification in 2005.

Besides site remediation, the project involved complete renovation and buildout of the warehouse,   plus a new, five story 75,000-square-foot expansion. Of prime concern, ensuring proper climate conditions for objects on display from 250 years of the region’s history.

Daylighting – an important energy-reducer and element of greenbuilding –had to be addressed.  False windows on the expansion’s façade (an aesthetic decision) are covered inside to shield exhibit areas. Daylighting is limited to areas where there are no objects.  Entry areas into exhibits are protected with window film near entryways and objects are never placed close to windowed entry areas. Even nearby bathrooms have motion-controlled lighting sensors to reduce unnecessary light and energy.

Smart Steps exhibition: A "first" in the museum world. Walk up 123 steps. It's healthy and you learn the region's history. That's Rosie the Riveter (WW II icon)

Smart Steps exhibition: A “first” in the museum world. Walk up 123 steps. It’s healthy and you learn the region’s history. That’s Rosie the Riveter (WW II icon) at top of the landing.

The HVAC system has been balanced to address competing demands: comfort and air quality for visitors, as well as temperature-humidity controls for display areas, library and archive. It means energy-efficient equipment, running at peak efficiency. The buildout’s system (5 boilers!) had too much capacity and has been reduced. That’s part of achieving energy balance at a reasonable cost.

And in keeping up with new technologies, there is an ongoing switchover to LED lighting in non-exhibit areas as a long-term investment in reducing energy consumption.

Heinz’s Director of Facility Operations Tom Murphy has helped advance greening the “back of the house:” There are bike racks outdoors and a restroom shower for staff who want to bike to work. Recycling of all sorts abounds: batteries, computer electronics, other e-waste, fluorescent bulbs, and water bottles. The cleaning team uses all eco-friendly cleaning products and floor stripper. There’s an IPM plan (integrated pest management) to safely deal with pests that could harm objects.

 Fast Forward: Lightning does strike twice!

The Heinz had its eye on another prize even as the Ice Warehouse was being built out: a great, old commercial  building  just steps behind the museum, the Marietta (OH) Chair Co. Building (1917) was vacant and available.  The museum had “secretly” hoped  to purchase it in 2004 and created  a place in the back of the Ice Warehouse  for a future air bridge across the alley. Years later, the building was still on the market.

The museum’s  2011 purchase of the nine-story, 45,000-square-foot building means that the rest of its considerable  holdings – now in offsite storage – will be at the museum and available for research, maintained with the climate controls recommended for accredited museums

 Here’s a win for sustainable practices: Reuse a historic building with all of its embodied energy – and give it a second life. The Dietrich Building, named for a generous donor, is planned as a LEED® Silver project to be completed in Fall 2013. The first two floors contain tall windows, wondrous, detailed period woodwork and doors that will be left in place.  There will be public access to a “visible storage” display for the public on the 4th floor.  Upper floors — not open to the public –will hold stored collections, with some space in the top floors for future uses.

The Pennsylvania Avenue warehouse (c.1917) is being renovated as collections storage and a new conservation lab open to the public

The Pennsylvania Avenue warehouse (c.1917) is being renovated as collections storage and a new conservation lab open to the public

As a museum conserving history, Heinz plans to engage the public in an important sustainability program: preserving the region’s family heirlooms and valued objects, with a first-floor conservation center with a visible (glassed-in) conservation studio. Conservators will be on hand to examine objects, instruct on care and storage, and provide fee-for-service professional restoration.

SVP Betty Arenth says, “It’s the logical next step for us as a history institution. We’re all about preservation, but we cannot preserve everything in the region. The public has a role in that, and we’ll be able to help.”

 Heinz History Center will be the first US museum  to have a conservation studio with services available to the community.


The Center for Sustainable Landscapes opened in February. This view shows how the landscape has an active relationship with the building in managing all of its sanitary water. Photo Paul Wiegman

The Center for Sustainable Landscapes opened in February. This view shows how a constructed landscape is being used to manage stormwater. The curved glass wall (top right)  is the  back of the Tropical Forest Conservatory. Photo Paul Wiegman

Fast forward is exactly what the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens has done, concluding a decade of planning and thoughtful execution of a multiphase green garden masterplan. In February 2013, the Phipps opened its newest facility, the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL), one that many consider the jewel in the crown of the garden world.

It’s a handsome  but not glitzy structure: Phipps already has a beautiful Lord & Burnham glass conservatory, built in 1893 as a place for everyman to seek out the beauty of plants and flowers.  Even in the garden’s earliest days, philanthropist Henry Phipps decreed that the Conservatory be open on Sunday so workers could visit on their day of rest.

The CSL, with 23,000+ square feet of space, is a research, education and administration building. It is open to the public for tours and doubles as a living lab.

What does that mean? The CSL incorporates some of the most cutting-edge advanced energy, water, and operating systems,  seeking to achieve or exceed all three of the world’s highest sustainable architecture and landscape standards—Living Building Challenge, LEED® Platinum and Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES) certification.

The “challenge” of being a living building means it must be a net-zero energy building – i.e. produces all of its own renewable energy, with solar panels, geothermal wells and a vertical axis wind turbine. And it will also be net-zero water by capturing, treating and reusing all water on site.

CSL's constructed landscape (stormwater friendly!) being built in May 2012.

CSL’s constructed landscape (stormwater friendly!) being built in May 2012. See photo above for finished landscape.


 Water pipes in the CSL marked "nonpotable," used for flushing toilets.

Water in the CSL marked “nonpotable” is used for flushing toilets.

A complex, computerized monitoring system records daily use of water, electricity, heat and ventilation to determine, after a year in operation, whether the building has met the challenge. The goal of the water system, for instance, is to save some 7 million gallons of potable city water by cleaning and distilling waste water for use in the CSL and garden irrigation.

Many of Phipps’ greenest features, both in the CSL and its other LEED®-certified buildings can’t be seen: cisterns and holding tanks below ground, geothermal tubes,  constructed soil, advanced materials inside products. An interactive kiosk, interpretive panels and visitor tours fill in complex details for visitors and guests who want to learn more.

“Everything is connected,” says Adam Haas, who is creating the CSL’s interpretive plan to demonstrate that “the building needs the landscape to function.”

As a global pilot SITES™ project, the Phipps campus features a restorative landscape with nine plant communities and a demonstration green roof garden.

 Everything we do…the Phipps mantra

The first phase of Phipp’s green masterplan began in the early 2000’s with a LEED® Welcome Center (see photo at top of the story)  sited partially below ground as an energy saver, and entry point into the conservatory without obstructing the view of the historic nineteenth-century glass house.

The Dale Chihuly chandelier in the Welcome Center. Movable glass louvers in the dome help manage ventilation.

Dale Chihuly blown-glass chandelier in the Welcome Center. Movable glass louvers in the dome help manage ventilation.

The 12,465-square-foot structure opened in March 2005; it received LEED® Silver designation in 2006.  It is notable as the first LEED® visitor center in a public garden. Arguably, its most stunning feature is a green roof that covers most of the building and incorporates a demonstration garden with sustainable plants that do not require irrigation.

Tropical Forest Conservatory. India is the current featured forest. Photo Paul G. Wiegman

Tropical Forest Conservatory. India is the current featured forest. Photo Paul G. Wiegman

The Tropical Forest Conservatory (2006) at 12,000-square feet is masterfully planned to make it one of the most energy efficient conservatory buildings in the world. At the same time, it is designed in a radically new way to improve efficiency,  distinctive for such features as:

  • Insulated double paned glass for the roof. The glass saves 1.5 million BTUs annually; the wall panes are single pane to allow sufficient light.
  • 100% passive cooling system with earth tubes (a feature you cannot see)
  • Radical roof venting system, coupled with earth tubes, fogging and computer controlled shades, make the structure 100% passively cooled.
  • Thermal massing in the walls improves  energy savings.

Phipps’ production greenhouses  (36,000 square feet)  completed in 2006 are also state-of-the-art – with computerized controls for temperature, light and humidity that allow for 16 growing environments.  These facilities received LEED® Platinum for Existing Buildings (2006).

Just when Phipps Director Piacentini thought his board had reached donor fatigue– after raising multi-millions — they surprised him by saying “go for it,” to build the Center for Sustainable Landscapes.

Phipps is much more than a brick-and-mortar campus. Its planned and ongoing research, education and professional programs include Botany in Action Fellowships), a School of Sustainability, partnership with other local science museums to try out new learning scenarios, funding of Ph.D. research and public programs.

Key CSL team members (from left): Phipps Executive Director Director Richard Piacentini, Jose Alminana (Andropogon- masterplan and site design) and Chris Minnerly (principal architect, Design Alliance Architects)

Key CSL team members (from left): Phipps Executive Director Director Richard V. Piacentini, Jose Alminaña (Andropogon- masterplan and site design) and Chris Minnerly (principal architect, Design Alliance Architects)

In other words, it is a global showcase of innovation in horticulture and sustainability.

Piacentini sums it up for all 3 institutions:

 “It’s the right thing to do. We need to be smarter about how we live, build and interact with nature.”

RESOURCES (links, video, PDFs)

Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh: Green Museum Portal

Museum Expansion Case Study

Heinz History Center (2 weblink) Steps Exhibition and video

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens:

Web portal to CSL and Phipps green projects

Videos (6)  on Greening of Phipps

Tropical Conservatory

Green Building Alliance (Pittsburgh) (weblink) 


© Roberta Faul-Zeitler, Green News Update, 2013