One of few buildings to receive the prestigious Living Building Challenge certification, this learning center was designed to both beckon and shelter its visitors.
In April of 2018, the Frick Environmental Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, became just the 21st project worldwide to receive full Living Building certification—the most rigorous green building performance standard on the planet.
Established by the International Living Future Institute, the Living Building Challenge is part of a bigger conversation about sustainability—one that asks architects and designers to think holistically about the built environment, and create structures that are ecologically restorative, self-sufficient, healthy and beautiful.
To receive the coveted full certification, a building must meet the Institute’s seven environment-positive standards, or Petals, by demonstrating actual performance measured and recorded over a consecutive twelve-month period. It’s no wonder that fewer than 25 buildings worldwide have received full certification to date.
The ultimate goal of the Institute’s sustainable design framework is to inspire architects and designers to build structures that actually give something positive back to the environment. It’s not just about doing less harm. It’s about doing more good. “It’s like LEED on steroids,” quipped architect Rob Aumer of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ), the firm that designed the Frick Environmental Center.
The Frick Environmental Center is an experiential learning facility for kids and gateway to Pittsburgh’s sprawling 655-acre Frick Park—the largest in the city’s park system. It also holds the rare distinction of being the world’s only free-to-the-public municipal building to receive full Living Building Challenge certification. For BCJ, however, achieving this prestigious designation was certainly no walk in the park.
When the city of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy issued the RFP for the project in 2010, they made clear their intention to achieve the Living Building certification. At the time, this was a lofty, almost audacious goal, considering only three projects in the entire world had received the full certification. In this sense, BCJ knew what they were getting into without really knowing what they were getting into—as this was also their first Living Building Challenge-targeting project. “It was virgin territory. We were learning as we went along,” Aumer confessed. While the sustainability goals and objectives of the Living Building Challenge are prescribed and would influence every single decision along the way, BCJ still had a building to design.
Situated at the threshold of Frick Park, the Environmental Center is the gateway to its vast vehicular-free network of hiking trails and crisscrossing paths. BCJ envisioned an open, light-filled structure people could pass freely through, as if transparent. A building so connected to the park and its natural surroundings, to seem like an extension of it. They wanted visitors to experience this strong connection, and there’s no better way to unite indoors and out than with windows. “We knew we needed a lot of glass,” Aumer said.
Because this was a Living Building Challenge-targeted project, BCJ couldn’t simply specify any window like they would on other projects. The windows—and all materials for that matter—had to satisfy the very specific and strict mandates of the Materials Petal, which included these imperatives: red list compliant, embodied carbon footprint, responsible industry, living economy sourcing and net positive waste.
When this project began in 2010, most manufacturers didn’t publicly disclose the material composition of their products or sourcing information. Today, of course, as sustainability, green living and environmental conscientiousness have gained mainstream acceptance, more companies have become transparent about their products and processes in an effort to be seen as environmentally responsible.
But back then, it was up to BCJ to vet their own suppliers, dig for the truth and validate that the products they specified for the project were Living Building-compliant. This meant asking manufacturers to essentially turn over their ingredient lists. As Aumer and his team would find, many simply weren’t interested. “We had many people just hang up the phone on us,” Aumer said. Marvin, however, was very willing to engage in the vetting process and extremely transparent with their sourcing.
“Marvin was an open book,” Aumer said. “They were extremely helpful throughout the entire process. It was just easy.” While compliance made life easier, BCJ didn’t choose suppliers simply to meet the Living Building standards. “As architects, we didn’t want the available materials to predict what we were going to use,” Aumer said. “We wanted to design a building that was right for the conservancy.”
Tall floor-to-ceiling Marvin window units on the South side of the building maximize views of the park and fill the interior with warm natural light. The tall, slender multi-window units are meant to mimic the shape of trees that can be seen through them. To minimize direct sun exposure, the windows are deep set to create a natural sunshade. Canopies over both north and south facades offer additional solar protection. Operable windows were chosen specifically to heighten one’s sense of living in the space. The idea there being that as you engage with the window’s locks and latches—opening a window to invite in a breeze, for example—you are actively creating a stronger connection to the outdoors.
The sheer amount of glass gives the building a certain permeability that allows visitors to still experience the park as they’re passing through. For a project that requires so much transparency to earn the Living Build Challenge certification, it’s fitting that the end result is a building that functions as though it is indeed transparent.
For more information about the Living Building Challenge visit Living-Future.org.
The Frick Environment Center project was the Best Commercial winner in the 2018 Marvin Architects Challenge.
Name: Frick Environmental Center
Location: Pittsburgh, PA
Architect: Robert T. Aumer, JR.
Firm: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson