Frick Environmental Center: A Bird’s-Eye View of Process, Partnership, and Intent

IMG_2292The design and construction team of the Frick Environmental Center recently gave us an upfront look at the creation of Pittsburgh’s second aspiring Living Building, which is also pursuing LEED Platinum certification. Being new to the building industry, I jumped at the chance to step on the construction site to learn how an ambitious, mindful, and complex building comes to fruition. (And to get out of the office and enjoy a warm fall day!)

Under the tutelage of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ Architects) and PJ Dick (construction), we explored the grounds and facility, learning about the building’s native wood exterior, use of natural light, geothermal wells, and solar panels. I heard many impressive facts, but my four primary takeaways for all green building projects are as follows:

  1. It’s about the building. The Frick Environmental Center (FEC) exists in the same footprint as the previous center that burned in 2002, but will operate at 40% less energy than similarly sized buildings in our region. A Living Building relies solely on itself and the environment; as such, the FEC will generates its own energy on-site; capture and treat all of its own water; use local, nontoxic materials; and practice the highest levels of environmentally sound construction. It reduces its carbon footprint and improves its surrounding ecology.
  1. It’s about the process. PJ Dick and BCJ are committed to reducing human impact on the environment both within the building and during construction. For example, in an effort to reduce commuting impacts by 20%, construction crews are working four 10-hour shifts instead of five days. The payoff is multifold: 20% fewer days = fewer commutes, fewer air emissions, less equipment startup time, fewer restroom breaks, etc. On-site also, idling construction equipment is not permitted and all workers compost their meal leftovers. Even the FEC construction trailer is efficient, with LED lighting, virtual meeting software, and waste and recycling sorting.
  1. It’s about partnership. There are many moving parts involved in the design and construction of any new building – and success requires teamwork. From the City of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (PPC) to local material suppliers to the community to the project team itself – there are lots of people invested in seeing FEC become a success. Specific to the building, the design team must plan for all possible efficiencies and work in tandem with the construction managers to ensure alignment. Most importantly, FEC has created many partnerships, which brings me to my last point.IMG_2295
  1. It’s about teaching and instilling intent. “It’s not just about the design, it’s about the use. It’s not just about building it to say you did it, but it’s about intent,” said Noah Shaltes, project manager with PJ Dick. On our tour, Noah often talked about going beyond Living Building Challenge point-chasing/prerequisites to focus on intent. In the most obvious example, FEC has installed solar panels that provide 115% of what the building is expected to consume, making it a net-positive generator. Additionally, FEC’s windows are manual, encouraging occupants to be more connected to nature by learning when it’s appropriate and/or necessary to regulate the building’s atmosphere with natural air. A major goal of FEC and its project team is to ingrain sustainable behaviors into PPC staff and visitors every day. There are many things we all may overlook that influence energy use: each computer, every light, card swipes, and leaving things on overnight. By teaching people how to be cognizant of their energy use and impact on the environment with simple steps such as opening a window or turning off a light, FEC will make a real lasting impact beyond the building itself.

As Aurora noted, “LEED is trying to change an industry – multiple industries – with buildings as a catalyst.”  The Frick Environmental Center is one of those catalysts.  If you’d like to virtually tour it, a nice November 2015 update is available online here.

For those of you who love details, a few higher-level facts are below. Also, for construction updates, check out FEC’s project site, as well as this informational site map. Learn more about the building here and here.


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