Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes is up to the Living Building Challenge

exterior from wetland
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter

Trying to design a building to the Living Building Challenge standard is definitely a challenge; I have called it "an aspirational standard that tries to define the best of everything, including beauty, biophilia and equity." I have also called it almost impossible.

The Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) is has been collecting plaques, including LEED Platinum, Four Star Sustainable SITES and it’s the first WELL building Platinum project. But they are for wimps compared to the LBC, the toughest by far. A visit to the CSL shows how hard it can be.

wetlandsLloyd Alter/ wetlands/CC BY 2.0
The LBC includes a number of “petals” such as water, where a building must be net positive, collecting all the water that it uses on site. This is tough and in Pittsburgh it is not even legal; health regulations require that potable come from municipal sources, so an exemption was permitted under the LBC rules. But the rest of the water is captured from the roof and stored in a cistern and the lagoon.

Wetland plants purify the water, and lagoon overflow is channeled into underground rain tanks with 60,000 gallon capacity. Water can be drawn from this to supply the rest of the campus with water for non-potable uses. All sanitary water is treated on site via constructed wetlands, sand and UV filters, and is used for toilet flushing. Excess water from this system is further treated with a solar-powered distillation unit and used to irrigate plants in an adjacent campus building; due to regulatory restrictions, this water is only used for nonpotable purposes.

PhotovoltaicsLloyd Alter/ Photovoltaics/CC BY 2.0

Positive Energy

The building also has to be net positive in terms of energy, and adjoining buildings are covered with solar panels, and others are on the site. In fact, solar panels are everywhere. It also has 14 wells for a ground source heat pump system.

Passive strategies that maximize daylighting augmented with light shelves and sloped ceilings to direct natural light into the interior are supplemented by a robust lighting control system which dims fixtures up and down to maintain proper lighting levels have resulted in with 70% daylight autonomy.

phipps atriumLloyd Alter/ Atrium/CC BY 2.0

Red List

The LBC has a “red list” of chemicals and materials that are simply not allowed in the buildings. Yet sometimes they are difficult to avoid. For example, the building’s atrium is not mechanically heated or cooled, but the temperature is evened out a bit through the use of a phase change material in the walls. But on checking it out…

phase changeLloyd Alter/ phase change material/CC BY 2.0

The manufacturer agreed to conduct an audit, through which they discovered a small amounts of Halogenated Flame Retardants. The Institute granted an exemption to use the material, but the manufacturer has pledged to find alternative materials to make the product Red List Free.

The Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes demonstrates again how tough the Living Building Challenge can be. Without exemptions, it could not even have been built in Pittsburgh. They were lucky that they had enough room to do it all, with other buildings on the property where they could place their solar panels and enough room to do the wetland and water storage. But I do wonder if it isn’t too tough, favoring low buildings with lots of land to collect water and sunshine. I have noted before that it doesn’t do density very well. But it certainly works in Pittsburgh at the Phipps.

Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes is up to the Living Building Challenge
How to meet the toughest building standard in the world.

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