Honoring Highmark Health – 2021 Emerald Evening Vanguard Awardee

Photo Credit Highmark Health

In the 1990s, Highmark Inc., a subsidiary of Highmark Health located their Pittsburgh offices in Penn Avenue Place.  These offices were designed and renovated based upon green building principles before there was a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system.  The turn-of-the-century department store building was renovated as opposed to being torn down and rebuilt.  It included energy efficient lighting, paints, carpets, and finishes with low volatile organic compounds (VOCs), an atrium to bring in natural light, and bike racks for employees and guests.

In 2005, Highmark built one of the first LEED certified data centers in the country.  Green from the ground up, it was built on a “sustainable” site – a location where the construction process had minimal impact on the landscape.  It became home to 80 employees as well as numerous high-efficiency computer systems, which securely manage Highmark’s member information and health claim data. The data center is also ENERGY STAR certified, most recently in 2019 and 2020.

Then in 2007, Highmark Health hired Phyllis Barber as their first sustainability consultant.  Phyllis is now the company’s Sustainability Manager and has led Highmark through nearly a decade and a half of innovation in sustainable design and construction as well as making existing Highmark buildings healthier for both people and our planet.

WELL Health-Safety Rating

This past December 2020, Barber and team set out to achieve the WELL Health-Safety Rating for most of Highmark’s owned and managed office spaces – 2.4 million square feet in total.  The WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management helps buildings and organizations address the health, safety, and well-being of their most valuable asset – people.

During a time when cleaning and sanitization, emergency preparedness, and air and water quality monitoring became even higher priorities than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Barber and the Highmark team set out to demonstrate how occupant health and resource conservation need not be mutually exclusive and could be achieved in existing buildings – a huge opportunity and a great challenge.  Their goal was to get this prominent and prestigious rating prior to employees returning to work on site post pandemic.

Barber began the process by reviewing the WELL certification criteria and performing a high-level review to see how many criteria could be achieved with current practices.  She then evaluated how much consistency there was in practice and policy between the Highmark buildings and categorized the criteria into “likely to achieve,” “maybe,” and “will not pursue.”  She worked closely with facilities management teams through weekly meetings and engaged human resources, corporate security, and business continuity business owners for specific criteria related to those areas.

Then, as of May 2021, both Fifth Avenue Place and Penn Avenue Place, along with Highmark’s three other office buildings and data center, achieved the WELL Health-Safety Rating.  A lofty achievement worth celebrating and honoring!

Pittsburgh 2030 District Founding Partner

In addition to the WELL Health-Safety Rating and LEED certified data center, Highmark has ENERGY STAR certification for 80 percent of their owned office space.  They are a Founding Partner in the Pittsburgh 2030 District, where the two Pittsburgh offices are moving closer to the 2030 goals, and in the case of water, has achieved the 2030 goal at their headquarters building.  They have installed electric vehicle chargers throughout their Pennsylvania locations, and Fifth Avenue Place boasts a “green roof.”

Photo Credit Highmark Health

“Highmark’s evolution of sustainability and green buildings started with a focus on energy and water efficiency and recycling,” states Barber.  “And though those things are still important, we also recognize they cannot be achieved at the expense of human health.  By including water quality with water efficiency efforts and indoor air quality with energy efficiency, we have been able to make a clear business case for these projects and provide Highmark employees with healthy, high performing workspaces.”

“In addition,” continues Barber, “we look for ways to reuse and repurpose materials or donate them to organizations that can use them.”

Inspired by Jimmy Carter’s quote that “Every act of energy conservation is more than just common sense, it is an act of patriotism,” and impassioned with wishes to create a world where single use plastics are eliminated, energy and transportation are fossil free, where Pittsburgh has “good” air quality all the time, and where greenhouse gas emission levels are reduced to keep global temperatures from rising, Barber is proud of this recent accomplishment.

Phyllis Barber Highmark

“Seeing the results and how the WELL Health-Safety Rating supports a lot of what Highmark is already doing – while also providing guidance to improve our sustainability practices – is the greatest reward of this project,” states Barber.

Emerald Evening Vanguard Award 2021

Photo Credit Highmark Health

Thank you, Phyllis Barber and Highmark Health for your efforts to be sustainability stewards and leaders in our region by realizing that by protecting the environment, we can better nurture good personal health for all.  We are honored to recognize you with our Vanguard Award.  The Vanguard Award recognizes innovation in sustainable design and construction.  Both Fifth Avenue Place and Penn Avenue Place showcase WELL Health Safety as a great path forward for existing buildings and how it can be combined with other frameworks to create healthy, high performing buildings.  We appreciation your contributions for making buildings and places safe and healthy so we can all thrive.

Join us on September 9, 2021, at GBA’s Annual Emerald Evening to congratulate Highmark Health on their contributions to our region.

Additional Information

This achievement was a true team effort and could not have been possible without the support of:

  • Corporate Real Estate leadership
  • Facilities Management team in Pennsylvania and West Virginia
  • Our Building Engineers
  • Workplace Design & Delivery team
  • Oxford Development, our building management partners
  • Human Resources
  • Wellness Engagement
  • Corporate Security
  • Business Continuity

Photo Credit Highmark Health

ENERGY STAR Certified Buildings – 2020

  • Center Street, Camp Hill, PA
  • Data Center, Hershey, PA
  • Fifth Avenue Place, Pittsburgh, PA

LEED Certified Buildings – all Highmark new construction is certified

  • Data Center, Hershey, PA – Silver, 2005
  • Highmark West Virginia headquarters, Parkersburg, WV – Silver, 2009

WELL Health-Safety Rating – 2021

  • 19 N. Main, Wilkes-Barre, PA – 166,270 square feet built in 1949
  • Center Street, Camp Hill, PA – 641,000 square feet built in 1980
  • Data Center, Hershey, PA – 87,000 square feet built in 2005
  • Fifth Avenue Place, Pittsburgh, PA – 803,150 square feet built in 1987
  • Highmark West Virginia headquarters, Parkersburg, WV – 127,000 square feet built in 2009
  • Penn Avenue Place, Pittsburgh, PA – 586,500 square feet built in 1922


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