Phipps Welcome Center Case Study: Eye-catching, Inviting Space Greets Patrons

Light is drawn into the Welcome Center, warming the room for the soon record level number of visitors who will enter.  The space is forward-thinking and sustainable—the first LEED®-certified visitor’s center in a public garden.  Located within Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, the addition (which opened in 2005) utilizes energy- and water-efficient features, along with local and environmental construction materials, and offers improved indoor air quality.

The Welcome Center provides visitors with a grand new entry to a landmark building.  It exhibits sustainable designs and features worthy of a Silver LEED rating, and continues the mission of industrialist Henry Phipps, the Conservatory’s founder, to inspire and educate guests while bolstering their physical and emotional health.  Both the architects involved with the project and conservatory officials call this unique space “the most energy-efficient conservatory in the world.”  Their claim was recently substantiated when Phipps was selected as one of eight winners in the United States by the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council for a 2007 High Performance Building Award.

Previously a non-descript, stone clad “box” built in the 1960s, the conservatory’s lobby was almost unnoticeable at seven feet above and a good distance back from the curbside entrance.  What if the walkway sloped down to create 14 feet of usable space below ground?  Architects from IKM Incorporated explored a solution that placed the new visitors area in a partially earth-sheltered structure.  Given the distance to the front foyer, they were able to create a gentle slope of five percent or less, ensuring an entrance fully accessible to all visitors.

Beyond the approach, how does a vintage greenhouse, originally erected in 1893, create a new addition that is environmentally cutting-edge?  One of the solutions called for a fritted-glass dome above a central atrium that permits daylight to enter the lobby, gift shop, and café, reducing the need for artificial lighting.  A wall of laminated, insulated windows runs the length of the concave courtyard and controls glare and heat.  Low- or no-VOC paints complement the sustainable products offered throughout the structure.  To increase passive energy savings, the glass dome vents are integrated into the mechanical control system to help cool the building.  Air conditioning is only required below grade level, while a green roof surrounding the glass dome provides a heat sink to enhance the building’s efficient climate control system.

“Steam heat warms the conservatory, which is not only great for the plants but is also creatively reused,” explains Joel Bernard, principal at IKM.  “Wasted steam condensation warms the outdoor sidewalks through a network of heating pipes under the walkways as it returns to the steam plant shared by neighboring institutions.”  An automated computer program is connected to a weather station that triggers the heated sidewalks as freezing precipitation is detected in the atmosphere.  The snowmelt system reduces the use of fossil-fueled snowplows and environmentally unsafe de-icing chemicals.

The $5 million center features an 11,000-square-foot reception area, including a café, gift shop, and art gallery.  The conservatory’s executive director, Richard Piacentini, says the strategies for the architecture and inside amenities are “compatible with the way we feel we should be running our operation.”  The café features locally grown and organic foods, corn-based “plastic cups,” and biodegradable recycled paper products.  In addition, the gift shop offers fair trade items.

“In many ways, we have always been cognizant of the environment at Phipps,” explains Piacentini, “but the design of the Welcome Center became a catalyst for change.  Why should we stop at just green building?”

See more details on the Phipps Welcome Center here.  

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