Once the epicenter of America’s manufacturing prowess, Pittsburgh has undergone decades of transformation as it shifted from its role as the center of the U.S. steel industry to what is now home to one of the leading technology clusters in North America. But in addition to software, biotech and robotics, Pittsburgh has also become one of the leading green building laboratories within the U.S.
Aurora Sharrard, Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Green Building Alliance and who also manages the media site Pittsburgh Green Story, recently shared her thoughts with TriplePundit on why this city of 304,000 has become a locus of new innovations in sustainable architecture and design.
So how did this Midwestern city known more for its sports teams and steel than innovative and energy efficient buildings become an area that shines as a playbook for green building standards such as LEED and BREEAM?
Opportunity, philanthropy and an attention to detail are a few ways in which Sharrard sums up Pittsburgh’s commitment to making current and future buildings healthier places in which to live, work and play. The region’s leading companies and universities were certainly helpful on this front as well, as they were crucial in the development of partnerships that transformed much of Pittsburgh’s commercial space. Much of this work is occurring within the Pittsburgh 2030 District, collections of high-performance buildings throughout downtown Pittsburgh, as well as the Oakland area, home to the city’s leading academic and healthcare institutions.
When it comes to fostering green building opportunities, Pittsburgh’s layout certainly helps. The city is only 58 square miles - contrast that size cities of similar populations, as in Tulsa, OK (more than three times the size of Pittsburgh) or Lexington, KY (almost five times its land area).
The city’s location allows for these next-gen buildings to be complemented by convenient transportation and mobility options. Sharrard explained that in Pittsburgh alone, transportation represents only 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, compared to the overall U.S. average of 27 percent. Sharrard also referenced a study the Alliance completed in 2015 that analyzed over 20,000 surveys of local commuters. The group found that 34 percent of these commuters reported that they used more than one mode of transportation each week; fewer than half of them drove to work alone; approximately 25 percent took public transportation, and nearly 10 percent biked, walked, or telecommuted. The city’s compactness is one reason why it has attracted the likes of Uber (though that relationship can be described as tense at best) and artificial intelligence companies that together harness “Steel City” as a test bed for autonomous vehicle technology.
Once they arrive at work, these same commuters are most likely walking into one of the country’s most sustainable workspaces. Sharrard claimed that Pittsburgh’s 2030 District is the largest of 17 similar districts across North America, with 493 buildings totaling 78.7 million square feet, which in turn will push Pittsburgh closer to meeting its goals of 50 percent reductions in energy consumption, water usage, and transportation emissions by 2030. “Whether you’re using certifications, measured performance, or other innovative approaches,” said Sharrard, “there is no question that Pittsburghers remain committed to ensuring that their buildings are sustainable by any measure.”
Pittsburgh’s legacy of corporate philanthropy was also a factor in the city’s green building boom. One example is seed funding from The Heinz Endowments, which in part allowed the Alliance to become one of the first nonprofits in the United States to focus on retrofitting a region’s commercial building sector so that more of its space could become more sustainable. The support from Heinz sparked many public, private, and nonprofit partnerships that positioned Pittsburgh as a leader of this movement. In 2000, three of the first 13 LEED certified buildings were in Pittsburgh; by 2005, Pittsburgh had more certified green buildings by number and square footage than any other city in America. Support from organizations such as the Richard King Mellon Foundation and The Pittsburgh Foundation have also worked with the city’s neighborhoods and buildings to become more sustainable in recent years.
The numbers are difficult to argue with: Sharrard says that these collective efforts help the city conserve over 760 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy, equal to the annual energy use of over 32,000 homes or 4.5 billion miles driven by car – in the meantime preventing over 305,610 tons of carbon that otherwise would have been emitted into the atmosphere. Water savings have added up, too, with 74.5 million gallons avoided in 2016, and a total of 222.8 million gallons avoided since 2014, which in turn saved these buildings’ owners or renters $4.6 million.
The attention to detail on each individual project accumulated to those aforementioned savings. One example is Tower at PNC Plaza. When PNC and Gensler launched the project several years ago, the overarching goal was to design and build the greenest high-rise on earth. The 544-foot tall building, which opened in 2015, includes features such as a double-skinned façade, a solar chimney permitting natural ventilation and grey water systems. But the tower not only allows its largest tenant, PNC Financial Services, to save on operating costs; it also enhances employees’ health, productivity and overall experience. Natural light flows into the building, and on the 28th floor, an indoor park with five stories of glass allow occupants and visitors to look out onto adjacent Market Square. Anyone in the building can take his or her laptop up there to do work or meet a colleague for lunch. In the end, Sharrard said the building’s design was instrumental in boosting engagement and morale at PNC while allowing for more collaboration within the company.
The efforts of organizations including the Alliance and its partners are achieving more than contributing to its overall goals of making the city far more energy- and water-efficient. They are also striving to improve employees’ indoor air quality, allow companies to seek increased returns on their investments, and contribute to the region’s overall growth and success. “Once known as the smoky city, Pittsburgh’s environmental renaissance has been dramatic enough to make other metropolitan areas green with envy,” wrote Eric Heyl on Patch.com earlier this year.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.