When it opened on September 10, the Frick Environmental Center (FEC) brought a new educational and community resource to the residents of Pittsburgh. The two-story building, a joint venture between the city and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, features classroom, gallery, and office spaces; it also sits at the edge of the 644-acre Frick Park, linking the lush, undeveloped area with the residential Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Yet the project, shepherded by local architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ), is notable for another reason: It’s the latest in Pittsburgh’s lineage of cutting-edge green buildings. Following in the footsteps of other city projects, such as the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (2012) and Gensler’s Tower at PNC Plaza (2015), the Frick is aiming to meet some of the most stringent environmental benchmarks and achieve not only LEED Platinum status but also full Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification.

The latter, a rating created by the International Living Future Institute, has seven rigorous performance categories, or Petals, which mandate everything from energy use to material sourcing. If the Frick does obtain its LBC rating, it will join the currently nine buildings worldwide (including the Phipps) to have done so. Project architect Patricia Culley walks SNAP through the process of developing the Frick’s green credentials.

SNAP: How did Pittsburgh’s reputation for green buildings inspire the Frick Center?

Patricia Culley: I think Phipps Conservatory was key in making the Parks Conservancy aware of the Living Building Challenge [LBC] certification. The decision to aim for it was driven by the Parks Conservancy and our team, although the city was also supportive. It was still a question—even through the start of construction— whether or not we could fully achieve the certification. It is a time-consuming, exhausting, and relentless process, but a wonderful goal.

The LBC’s water petal is especially demanding as it requires using stormwater for internal building needs, which often clashes with municipal water regulations. Was that the case here?

Yes. Our facility is designed to use city water, not reclaimed water, for potable; otherwise we would have had to become our own water authority, which we couldn’t do. We tried to brainstorm ways that the city could change the rules, but Pittsburgh is trying to ensure the health and safety of the public and you have to respect that. However, we budgeted for adding filtration systems in the building if the municipal rules change. Demonstrating this allows us to still fulfill the Petal and potentially achieve full LBC certification.

What other challenges did LBC fulfillment pose?

We found the Material Petal hardest to achieve. First you have to research each product, making sure no [harmful] red list chemicals are included. Then there’s transparency: LBC wants ingredient labels on the materials, much like those for food. We got caught up in the research, lost sight of the transparency piece, and didn’t bid on the project until 90 percent of the products were vetted. It was frustrating that as a designer, you had very little leverage to get manufacturers to open their books.

On the other hand, the Beauty Petal is interesting and unique as it requires projects to have elements of aesthetics, inspiration, and education. At Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, we believe that for a building to be truly sustainable, it needs to be beautiful, so users will want to serve as its stewards.

Did you learn anything during the design and construction process that you can apply to the next project?

The Living Building Challenge is very well named. I never assumed that it would be as rigorous and difficult as it was. But because of my experience with it, I’m learning about other green certifications, including the WELL Building Standard, which is primarily about operations and human health. So taken together, LEED, LBC, and WELL encompass the whole range of sustainable building. They are my new interest.