An impressive 19th-century structure, the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens has remained unchanged since it was built some 120 years ago. Its original purpose as a green haven away from the smoky air of the ‘steel town’ of Pittsburgh still resonates, but today its main focus is on environmental awareness and sustainability. So, when Phipps decided to extend its facilities and build its Centre for Sustainable Landscapes, it was important that the new building was designed and constructed in an environmentally responsible way, in keeping with Phipps’ green principles.

To this end, Phipps' executives accepted the Living Building Challenge, a global initiative promoting the construction of zero-impact buildings. “We are very excited about moving our administrative and research operations to the [Centre for Sustainable Landscapes], which is designed as one of the greenest buildings in the world,” says Phipps' executive director, Richard V Piacentini, while touring the nearly finished construction of the centre and pointing out its green features, such as geothermal heating and natural ventilation.

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Staying local

Zero-impact buildings are required to source their construction materials from local suppliers and so Phipps' ambitious project relied on a strong supply chain of green-tech companies. One of these companies is Epiphany Solar Water Systems, which has developed a solar panel capable of distilling water, one of the innovative green technologies being utilised by the Centre for Sustainable Landscapes.

Epiphany's founder, Tom Joseph, says that such eco-related inventions are rapidly becoming typical of Pittsburgh. “We have a strong tradition of innovation here. That, together with a strong university system and incubators that support green-tech, definitely helps [in building a supply chain].” For its part, Epiphany received seed funding in 2005 from state-funded tech incubator Innovation Works, which enabled the company to get off the ground.

Phipps is not the only green-minded organisation in Pittsburgh. In August 2012, Pittsburgh joined the 2030 Challenge, a project that encourages cities to cut their energy, water and transportation emissions by half. More than 50 businesses are directly involved in the project, including PNC, a financial services corporation that has been a pioneer of eco-friendly solutions in the local real estate market.

“We started in 2000, [when] PNC Firstside Centre was opened. At that time it was the biggest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED]-certified building in the world,” says Gary J Saulson, executive vice-president and director of corporate real estate at PNC.

The company followed this with another project, the Three PNC Plaza, a skyscraper which attained gold LEED certification, one of the highest standards in environmental design. Currently the company is building what is being billed as the world’s greenest skyscraper – its new 40-storey headquarters – at a cost of $400m.

Similar to Phipps, PNC believes that the strength of the local supply chain plays a vital role in pursuing eco-friendly projects. “One of the premises of obtaining LEED certification is that a certain quota of materials used in a building has to come from within 500 miles [800 kilometres] of the construction site,” says Mr Saulson.

Waste water solution

Pittsburgh's green-tech revolution has also stretched to industries that are not commonly perceived as being eco-friendly. The city sits on the Marcellus Shale, one of the largest natural gas fields in the world. Controversy surrounds the extraction of shale gas, particularly the environmental damage done by the waste waters associated with the extraction process. But in Pittsburgh, a green-minded company has come up with a solution to this problem.

A local water purification specialist, Aquatech, is developing mobile treatment solutions for water used in the extraction process, which stops the discharge of waste water into surrounding waterways.

According to Chuck Kozdra, Aquatech’s regional business development manager, it is not by chance that his company is located in the Pittsburgh area. “Over here, people take pride in what they do and are increasingly environmentally aware. That certainly helps in the way we operate,” he says.