Living Certified

Phipps Exhibit Staging Center


Certification StatusLiving Building Challenge
Version of LBC3.0
LocationPittsburgh, PA
Gross Building Area9640 square feet
Start of OccupancyApril 2019
Full Time Equivalent Occupants5
Tourists per Year300


OwnerPhipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
ArchitectFortyEighty Architecture
General ContractorMassaro Corporation
MEPIams Consulting, LLC
Structural and Civil EngineerCommon Ground
LandscapeStudio Phipps
Certification ConsultantevolveEA
Biophilic ConsultantShepley Bulfinch
Building Envelope Commissioning AgentBuilding Performance Architecture
Mechanical Equipment Commissioning AgentCJL Engineering
Integrated Design7 Group
Photo courtesy of Paul G Wiegman


The Exhibit Staging Center (ESC) project site consists of an existing building on a previously developed and remediated brownfield. The site has seen mixed use over its 100+ year history of development, from horse stables to the city’s Department of Public Works garages and storage facility. It is adjacent to the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) and The Nature Lab projects which have also received ILFI Certifications.

Due to the history of the site, it was completely devoid of a referenced or natural sub-soil or top-soil, sensitive ecological habitats or aquatic systems before the ESC renovation. The newly placed soil layers were altered to provide greater moisture retention, lower the pH and ensure proper drainage and tested by a third-party.

The new landscaping areas placed throughout the project area were designed to maximize the available green spaces surrounding the building while still meeting the needs of the intended building and site use for our Facilities and Horticulture Departments. Due to the history of the site and intended future use, we saw no possible options for urban agriculture within the project boundary, so scale jumping was required to meet that Imperative.

The project team aimed to maximize the landscaping opportunities in every area possible, culminating in approximately 4200 SF of green space. Plantings consist of native grasses, perennials, shrubs and trees that closely mimic plant material used in the design of the neighboring LBC projects. These plants are representative of one the most diverse forests in the world, the Temperate Broadleaf, Mixed Mesophytic forests of the Western Pennsylvania Appalachian Ecoregion. Plants include black gum, shingle oak, honey locust, red cedar, sweet bay magnolia, fragrant sumac, viburnum, Indian grass, switchgrass, prairie dropseed, cinnamon fern, big blue stem, purple lovegrass, wild bergamot and black-eyed Susan. These new plantings will blend with the more mature landscape of the adjacent landscapes and eventually merge to form a diverse, unified native landscape community. Native plants strengthen our ecosystems and help to attract beneficial insects and wildlife and high levels of biodiversity the support success of plants and the ecosystem at large.

In addition to the surrounding landscape, a 500 SF roof garden was installed on a new canopy over the yoga court and adjacent vestibule. This extensive roof garden is unique in plantings due to the low profile of the roof system and limited accessibility, minimizing maintenance and irrigation needs as well as roof load.

A public garden can serve many functions, from education to entertainment to tranquility. They offer a variety of benefits to match the needs of those who visit them. Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens launched the Homegrown edible garden program which empowers those in local, underserved communities and food deserts. These necessarily lie outside the boundary of the Exhibit Staging Center but the program speaks directly to the intent of the urban agriculture requirement.

Homegrown installs free raised bed vegetable gardens at households, provides mentorship and resources, and creates a lasting impact on our local communities. Since its inception in 2013, Homegrown has installed backyard, raised-bed vegetable gardens for over 235 families and provided training and knowledge to hundreds of additional community members. Although the program was started in 2013, only those gardens installed starting in 2019 are considered for this imperative. While vetting materials, it was determined in 2019 that Phipps was unable to reliably source FSC-certified wood. To ensure compliance with the Materials petal, the program pivoted to using a Red List-approved recycled plastic. Each gardener is mentored by Phipps over two growing seasons to become confident and self-sufficient. Covering topics from weed and pest management to healthy cooking, monthly classes also allow gardeners to realize the potential of their harvests while offering opportunities for neighbors to connect.

Phipps worked with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, a local and accredited land trust organization, for our habitat exchange and protected one-acre of the Batterson Nine Mile Run. This approximately 137-acre property is found within the Susquehannock State Forest, with forest lands to the north and south and portions to the east and west. The property is traversed by nearly 3,500 feet of Nine Mile Run, a major tributary of the West Branch Susquehanna. This land increases accessibility through Susquehannock State Forest and provides more connectivity among conserved lands, which is crucial to protect the water quality, provides flood mitigation of downstream communities and ensures public access for recreational activities such as fishing, hunting, and wildlife viewing.

The ESC renovation project demonstrates a concentrated effort to consider and enhance the pedestrian experience. A significant increase in roof canopy surrounding the building protects occupants as they enter and outdoor seating opportunities are provided with boardwalk benches. A seat wall and a covered deck is used frequently as a meeting, lunch relaxation space.

Phipps also offers multiple transportation (parking, public transit, bicycle, fuel efficient vehicles) monetary incentives and reiterates the benefits of human-powered lifestyles with staff, visitors onsite and online as well as in the community and strives to build capacity within and among all of these groups.


The ESC is part of a larger water management system on Phipps’ lower campus, which houses two other ILFI-certified buildings. Rainfall from the roofs of the ESC and Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL), as well as the Tropical Forest Conservatory, is captured and available for landscape irrigation and toilet reuse. Since all of the plantings are native, very little supplemental irrigation is necessary. Excess water flows into a lagoon centered between the buildings. Here, both form and function are celebrated as it serves as storage for approximately 100,000 gallons while being a beautiful amenity that Phipps staff and visitors can enjoy. It also provides habitat for a thriving aquatic ecosystem with native fish and frogs while replicating the natural treatment processes of marshes.

Stormwater overflows into an underground rain tank comprised of Aquablox and covered by a rain garden, permeable parking stalls and asphalt driveway. These stackable, milk crate‐style units are strong enough to accommodate vehicular traffic while being porous enough to provide significant carrying capacity. The underground rain tanks are divided into two sections: a lined portion used for irrigation both at the ESC and upper campus and an adjacent unlined section designed to capture runoff from the lagoon that can then infiltrate into the ground. Stormwater irrigation lines send this water to the CSL and ESC for toilet and hose bib reuse, and a third line sends the majority of this salvaged stormwater to another 18,000-gallon underground stormwater tank in the upper campus that is used for irrigation.

All blackwater that leaves the building enters an on-campus wastewater treatment plant, first entering into a septic tank. Solids settle out and effluent liquid is pumped underground to the constructed wetland treatment cells first. Here, microbes on the roots of the plants (grasses, reeds, bulrushes) take up nutrients, break down bacteria and filter the water. The water is then sent to and filtered through sub‐grade sand pits that further the cleaning process. The water re-enters the building where UV‐filters remove any remaining harmful bacteria and further filtrate to reduce turbidity. The cleaned effluent is then stored in a 1,700-gallon tank in the CSL’s eastern slope and continuously recirculates it through the filtration system until the toilets are used and the cycle begins anew.


Like the plant life in the landscape and adjacent conservatory, the ESC is powered by the sun and the earth in which it is nested. The project includes 74kW of photovoltaic capacity between newly installed on the canopy roofs and a ground mount array that serves as carports for staff and guests to park beneath. DC power is stored via a 42-lithium battery management system as part of the project’s resiliency goals. All DC power loads are designed to serve DC compatible lights, fans and several dedicated DC outlets through a busway that travels through the entire building. The busway connects to Power Hub Drivers (PHD) that serve individual rooms throughout the building. These PHDs have the capability to transfer back to AC power when the DC-powered system needs to be supported or requires maintenance. To maximize the use of the BMS as well as the array to which it is connected, the system will switch over to a dedicated inverter and continue to offset power for the building and/or campus as needed when the batteries are fully charged.

The building uses five electrical sub-meters to monitor electrical use and mechanical loads to better track building performance anomalies and identify any potential issues. The solar arrays are monitored through a web-based portal that provides real-time reporting on power generated. The ESC has performed in line with the energy models and has operated at net-positive status since occupancy, demonstrating that diverse building types can achieve singular performance while also being beautiful and engaging spaces in which we can live, work and play.

Health and Happiness Petal

Facilities and maintenance teams have historically tended to work inside spaces comparable to what the Exhibit Staging Center used to be — windowless, concrete rooms disengaged from the outside world. This meant that providing a direct connection to the outdoors was a vital component to revitalizing this space as a healthy place to work. Two new storefront vestibules now connect what previously functioned as two separate buildings, providing an abundance of daylight and outside views. The Facilities Department office and workshop areas, which were previously located in the Conservatory’s basement, have been relocated to this building, where they now have operable windows, access to natural ventilation and views of the adjacent park. The storage room includes multiple windows to support access to natural daylighting and provide visitors with a behind-the-scenes showcase of creative props used in past flower shows, including the topiary fox displayed on the attached floor plan. The yoga room includes an entire folding glass partition to connect occupants with the surrounding landscapes, and a meditation room includes larger and lower windows for seated occupants. The team intentionally faced this room towards the park and included window shades that operate from the bottom, allowing occupants to adjust for preferred lighting and views while still maintaining a level of privacy when taking advantage of this restorative space. An outdoor patio facing the lush Panther Hollow provides a space to take a restful break or work quietly outdoors when weather permits. What was once a windowless shell now challenges the mutual exclusivity of built and natural environments and strengthens the bonds between occupants and the surrounding ecosystems.

Much of this Imperative has become standard business practice for any new construction and renovations on the Phipps campus. An AirCuity Sensor Suite was installed to monitor and support the air quality of the building, sampling air in all occupied spaces every 10 minutes. Natural ventilation is always an appreciated amenity for staff when outdoor conditions permit. A newer feature for this building is a red/green indicator light in each space for a visual aid when the lower manual windows can be opened by the occupants. There are upper automated windows tied to the BAS that respond and open to approved natural ventilation conditions. Mechanical systems are tied to the BAS and will not function until all manual windows are closed to support the building’s energy performance and efficiency. Additional dedicated exhaust fans were added to the paint and workshop spaces to support these unique spaces’ air quality, which involves building and painting props for upcoming flower shows.

The architecture of the ESC does not ignore the site’s industrial past but incorporates it, understanding that it is part of what defines its sense of place. The building exterior is clad in core-ten steel. While a nod to the former identity of Pittsburgh as the steel capital of the world, it is also a product that is naturally rusting, revealing weathering and the patina of time. The look is softened in certain areas where native vines are climbing vegetation screens and a series of stainless steel cedar waxwing sculptures grace the exterior.

The landscape also features a reflecting pool, adjacent to a yoga court, an outdoor semi-sheltered space that offers vistas of the site landscaping. A series of local sandstone columns are evocative of a forest and on the ground, bits of recycled glass create an intricate spiral shape —one of nature’s hallmark forms — catch the sun giving the spiral an iridescent sparkle.

Biophilic designs prevail upon entering the ESC, as well. Prior to the renovation, the building that became the ESC was windowless. It now features numerous windows, glazing and solar tubes that ensure natural daylight permeates throughout. Black locust clads the length of the interior lobby wall and natural clay walls adorn the yoga studio and the meditation room, both comfortable and secreted spaces. As guests move through the site, they will note the whimsical imprints of horseshoes in the concrete, a tribute to the history of the site which housed riding stables over a century ago. Leaves are stamped in the interior concrete, as well. Inside and out, ESC visitors and occupants can delight in biophilic design features that challenge the perceived distinction between built and natural environments.


The team worked tirelessly to vet materials. Successfully communicating the standard construction and performance issues, when to release materials, and tracking additional LBC items both pre- and post-installation proved to be more difficult than expected. But dedicated teamwork, continuous learning and transparency allowed the team to efficiently release materials and progress through the extensive paperwork requirements through design, construction and post-occupancy.

The team looked to the Declare database as the lodestar during the process. This streamlined the approval process by eliminating the need for additional, time-consuming due diligence with suppliers and manufacturers. It is also our preferred business practice to support the businesses that are transparent and use safer chemicals in their manufacturing processes. Advocating with dollars and business offers a lever of market influence that can further move the industry toward products that are healthy for manufacturers, installers, occupants and the ecosystem. The team was able to install 35 Declare label products totaling 13% of the materials budget.

Nevertheless, market limitations required the team to apply for and use Red List Exemptions. Educating the construction team was also a vital step in the process as they are the conduit to other installers, suppliers and projects. Without their buy-in and engagement, projects will prove at best to be much more difficult, and at worst, impossible. Allowing a bridge between the installers and the OAE team proved to be invaluable.

The team used Athena Impact Estimator to calculate the project’s embodied carbon. The team first calculated the embodied carbon for the original structures and then performed a separate analysis for the new construction and combined them to arrive at an appropriate and thorough assessment. The team selected a US-based wind farm project to purchase the additional offsets needed to account for the project’s total embodied carbon.

The local sourcing imperative requirements were identified during the conceptual design of the project to ensure the entire team clearly understood from the outset the goal of specifying as many manufacturers and suppliers from as close to the Pittsburgh region as possible. The team continuously monitored the overall percentages of each zone, particularly when releasing larger, heavier equipment and materials as well as those representing a higher percentage of the overall budget. The team occasionally observed tension and/or conflicts between sustainability goals. For example, choosing a material might require deciding between a DECLARE product manufactured a considerable distance away versus a non-DECLARE regional product. The DECLARE product clearly has its own merits, but a product from closer would reduce transport carbon, support the local economy and offer an opportunity to advocate for cleaner manufacturing processes.

A pre-building audit determined which materials could be kept or reused. The team itemized materials that would either be salvaged for Phipps’ reuse, donated to a materials reuse center, recycled or discarded. The General Contractor hired a waste management company that was familiar with landfill diversion programs and provided the required calculations and documentation. Phipps was able to coordinate a separate dumpster directly with the USA Drywall Recycling program to divert our drywall waste since that service was not available with the local waste management firms.

Operationally, ongoing waste management and single stream separation is implemented as much as possible for the highest landfill diversion rates possible. The team maintains multiple waste bins throughout campus to separate landfill, recycling, and composting.


Located in Pittsburgh’s bustling Oakland neighborhood, the ESC adjoins Schenley Park, a 450-acre green space and city’s second largest park. Prior to the ESC, there was not access to Schenley Park via the Phipps campus. The ESC’s new perimeter fencing includes both pedestrian and vehicular gate doors to allow individual trail users as well as authorized Parks and City emergency vehicles park access. The ESC site blends in seamlessly to the park through rain gardens and other landscape features, minimal vehicle parking and dedicated indoor and outdoor bicycle parking.

The site’s existing boardwalk — which borders a lagoon with native plants, fish and frogs — was extended to the entranceway of the ESC. As guests and staff approach, they can utilize benches to enjoy the lagoon and adjacent gardens. Newly installed windows along the boardwalk as well as inside the building offer guests views into the storage and workshop areas. Allowing them a “behind-the-scenes” glimpse of props from past flower shows and new ones being built for upcoming shows.

An outdoor gathering space adjacent to the yoga room provides an area for personal or group use for meetings, fitness activities or educational programming and a new covered deck area provides a protected outdoor space for meetings or staff meals and breaks. These features and others transformed a dilapidated former brownfield into an engaging site that promotes human interaction and well-being.

While Phipps depends on admission revenue to balance its operating expenses, Phipps continues to find opportunities to provide access to all, including an annual free admission day which welcomes thousands of visitors each year. Its participation in the Museums for All program, which provides significantly reduced admission to access cardholders and encourages individuals of all backgrounds to visit museums regularly and build lifelong museum habits, is utilized by approximately 1% of our visiting audience.


Previously a dilapidated City garage, Phipps has transformed its Exhibit Staging Center into an efficient, healthy and beautiful space. Located within Schenley Park, the City’s second largest green space, the original concrete block structure has been outfitted with windows, skylights and two storefront vestibules providing views and natural lighting throughout the building. Core-Ten Steel wraps the exterior, providing a natural patina with the park and nod to Pittsburgh’s steel industry heritage. Natural materials such as clay walls, cork floors and a wood-cladded corridor provide added warmth and comfort and artwork is strategically placed to provide inspiration and delight to everyone who occupies or visits. Phipps is excited to responsibly adapt this facility to connect it to the beauty of our campus, integrate it into the guest experience, and set a new standard for the health and wellness for its facilities workers.

The ESC is open to all Phipps 500,000+ annual visitors as part of the guest experience. It provides them the opportunity to learn about high performance buildings and experience firsthand the interrelatedness of human and environmental health, as well as shed the perceived mutual exclusivity of the built and natural environments. Some mechanical features, like the DC lighting busway, radiant floor manifolds and reclaimed water pipes are exposed, giving guests an inside look at how the building’s singular performance is achieved, while signage and docent-led tours explore both the “how” and the “why” of green building. The site also serves the community by re-opening pedestrian access between the adjacent public park and the nearby Oakland district, a human-scale mixed use education, retail and healthcare hub.

The ESC proves that with the right priorities, even the least healthy spaces can become ones that are good for the people who inhabit them and beneficial to the environment. We are excited to share this facility and hope that it will serve as inspiration to other individuals and organizations around the world.