Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Book Review: Building in Bloom

The making of the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
From Website: Center for Sustainable Landscapes

Do you remember when brown-colored recycled paper was the symbol of environmentally-mindedness? Back then it was one of the few visible ‘green’ aspects of our lives. It was also indicative of a culture only barely beginning to use its marvelous brains and wondrous hearts to change behavior on the way to creating the future. Building in Bloom, as it chronicles the creation of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL), Pittsburgh, PA, is a testimony to the capacity for humans to use those minds and hearts to create a beautiful future. 
If you are building, expanding or remodeling your site, please, please, please read this book. It shows us that we have the resources and the wherewithal - and the responsibility and talents - to do our work differently, to do it in a manner that guides others to a more sustainable future as we create sustainability for our own institutions. I am not saying we all need to become living sites, but I am saying that we can all dramatically change how we think about the sustainability of our present sites, and how all future ones can be and must be living sites.

The book is beautifully illustrated and so comfortably-written by Mary Adam Thomas that it is a joy to take up from your pile of professional reading. Move it ahead of what is already there.  Share it with others in your organization; read it together as if in a book group. Take the sections individually and think about how they apply to your institution – building projects or not – and to the way you think about the power of your site and the power of example to create meaningful change for the world.

Take careful note of these topics:
-          The importance of the group design process from the beginning. There were 14 full-day design charrettes. This significant design time was necessary in part because the CSL was one of the first sites to take up the Living Building Challenge, making extra work for both  the design team and the Challenge staff as they worked through the early-adopter phase, but in any project you cannot over-value the lessons and benefits of the collaborative design process for either the participants or the end result.

-          The importance of recognizing the project’s soul .  Rod Spearin at Cranbrook used that word in thinking about what was the goal for their green work; it is a perfect description of the guiding principles of a green project.  At some decision-making junctures Richard Piacentini, Executive Director of Phipps, had to make buck-stops-here decisions. They were based on what the project needed to be, not based on responses to barriers.

-          Ask questions. Years ago Richard taught me this most important lesson of all. Ask why can’t we? Why should we? Is there another way? Can we imagine another way? He did this during the CSL project because.

-          There are better ways and we will keep finding them. After all,  repeating past behaviors will not solve our sustainability issues; continually reaching for better is the only way.

“As I look back to when we first contemplated accepting the Challenge, I am not surprised that there never was  debate over costs or whether or not we should have done this. I think that is because when your mission vision and values encourage you to imagine and build a future worth living in you will find the will and the way to do it". – Richard Piacentini, Building in Bloom

About the text
The book is also an elegantly clear summary of the Living Building Challenge and you can access a complete version at  It is a building standard simultaneously rigorous and intuitive. There are six ‘petals’ or categories of performance addressing 16 imperatives, and there are two governing rules:

1)      All elements of the Living Building Challenge are mandatory. Many of the requirements have temporary exceptions to acknowledge current market limitations. These are listed in the footnotes of each section. Exceptions will be modified or removed as the market changes.

2)      Living Building designation is based on actual, rather than modeled or anticipated, performance. Therefore, buildings must be operational for at least 12 consecutive months prior to evaluation.

The Six Petals:

1)      Site: Restoring a healthy coexistence with nature

a.       Responsible site selection

b.      Limits to growth

c.       Habitat exchange

2)      Energy Petal: Relying on current solar income

a.       Net Zero Energy

3)      Materials: Endorsing products and processes that are safe for all species through time

a.       Red list (the no-go list)

b.      Construction carbon footprint

c.       Responsible industry

d.      Appropriate Materials/Services radius

e.      Leadership in construction waste

4)      Water: Creating water-independent sites, buildings and communities

a.       Net-Zero water

b.      Sustainable water discharge

5)      Indoor Quality: Maximizing physical and psychological health and well-being

a.       Civilized environment

b.      Healthy air: source control

c.       Healthy air: ventilation

6)      Beauty and Inspiration: Celebrating design that creates transformative change

a.       Beauty and spirit

b.      Inspiration and education


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