Frick Environmental Center
29. August 2016
LEED may be the most popular gauge for sustainable architecture in the United States, but its criteria is nowhere near as stringent as the Living Building Challenge, which bills itself as "the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment possible today." Only eleven projects have been certified since the LBC was launched in 2006, and the ambitious new Frick Environmental Center, designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, promises to make the list an even dozen. The architects answered a few questions about the project.
What were the circumstances of receiving the commission for this project?
Bohlin Cywinski Jackson was awarded the commission for the project after a formal RFP (Request for Proposals) and interview selection process. We were chosen based on our design acumen and our exceptional team, as well as our willingness and enthusiasm to engage with community stakeholders during the design process. Intended as a public facility in a well-used and beloved Pittsburgh city park, the community was very vocal during the visioning of the project, and it was critical that the team embrace this aspect of the design process. From this collaborative approach came many transformative ideas including an outdoor amphitheater and exhibition and teaching gardens that have made the project exceptional and inimitable.
River Rock Basin
Please provide an overview of the project.
The Frick Environmental Center is a new environmental education facility located in Frick Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The project encompasses a four-acre site and includes restoration of historic gatehouses and fountain, formal and native landscaping, an outdoor amphitheater, a barn outbuilding, and most notably, a new 15,500 sf three-story building, which will provide hands-on environmental education programs for residents and visitors of all ages. The project is a joint venture between Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the City of Pittsburgh, and is the first Living Building Challenge-targeted facility that is both municipally owned and free and open to the public.
What are the main ideas and inspirations influencing the design of the building?
The theme of “Neighborhood to Nature” has been a driving force throughout the design of the project. Physically and emotively, the building transitions its users from the built environment to the natural environment. Situated on the edge of a vast, undeveloped wooded park, the materials palette was carefully selected, and included the use of wood, stone, concrete and steel showcased in a fashion that mimics how materials develop in nature. The Environmental Center works in harmony with its surroundings, with many of its sustainable features such as the solar array and the natural ventilation system purposely exhibited, helping to promote environmental awareness and stewardship.
How does the design respond to the unique qualities of the site?
The project design and layout are heavily influenced by the site’s topography. A natural plateau in the middle of the site marks the area of formal landscaping between the historic gatehouses and the fountain. This plateau is one of the highest elevations in Frick Park, and near the point of origin for several watersheds. Along the south rim of the plateau, the Frick Environmental Center building is gently nestled into the hillside, designed with a simple sloped roof. During rain events, rainwater falls from the sloped roof of the Center in a dramatic, sheer curtain, called the Rain Veil, which is visible from both within and outside of the building. This falling water enters a river rock basin and is routed around the western corner of the building where it playfully makes its way down a hillside of stepped sandstone.
Visitors enter the building from raised bridges, giving the immediate effect of being elevated into the park. The south side of the building has circular steel columns placed at irregular intervals, mimicking the natural growth of trees within the dense woodlands surrounding the facility. Visitors can access the building’s south balcony, experiencing the park from the height of the tree canopy.
Was the project influenced by any trends in energy-conservation, construction, or design?
The Living Building Challenge, which is “the built environment’s most rigorous performance standard,” influenced every aspect of design and construction. The facility is targeted to achieve net-zero water and net-zero energy, and includes sustainable technologies such as a reclaimed water system, ground source heat pumps, and a large solar array. It is built using regionally sourced materials that are free of the “worst-in-class” chemicals commonly found in building industry products. Moreover, the entire team – from design to construction – was assembled from a mostly regional pool of professionals and tradespeople. This consideration not only helped minimize the carbon footprint by decreasing overall mileage for travel, but also maximized local economies by promoting a regional workforce.
What products or materials have contributed to the success of the completed building?
The building is clad in a vertical black locust wood siding. Native to the eastern United States, black locust is a dense, robust wood that requires little maintenance, and weathers to a beautiful silvery grey, allowing the building to harmonize with its surroundings. Full-height wood windows emanate warmth and allow for expansive views of the park from the elevation of the tree canopy. A warm, muted grey, ground-face block is used at the base of the building, paying homage to the stone of the historic gatehouses. Sandstone pavers and plinths are used throughout the site, adding a touch of formality and sophistication to the landscape that captures the essence of the original park masterplan, as well as promotes the Parks Conservancy’s vision for the future of Frick Park.
Email interview conducted by John Hill.
Frick Environmental Center2016
Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy & City of Pittsburgh
Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
Roxanne Sherbeck, FAIA
Jon Jackson, FAIA
Patricia Culley, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Robert T. Aumer, Jr., AIA
Michael Maiese, AIA; Kent Suhrbier, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP; Michele Mercer, RA, NCARB; Jason Brody, RA, NCARB; Gina Rossi; Matt Plecity; Matt Conti; Jason Morris, AIA
Barber & Hoffman
LaQuatra Bonci Associates
P.J. Dick, Incorporated
H.F. Lenz Company
Marvin Windows & Doors
Black Locust Lumber USA
Prosoco & Tremco
J+J Flooring Group - Kinetex
15,570 square feet
Bohlin Cywinski Jackson