The State of Sustainability

The challenge of designing for the future

By Deborah Knox Posted on September 19, 2012

Sustainable design isn’t just about doing what is right. It’s smart, current, and for design professionals, has added an important layer to their work. The clear consensus is that green design adds value, but how professionals integrate sustainable design and use LEED certification varies through the region’s architectural community. This brief analysis highlights some of the issues and projects in the region.

Pittsburgh is second in the nation with 20 LEED certified buildings, most of them commercial, which is something to be proud of, but the commercial sector is still part of the problem. According to the Pittsburgh Climate Protection Initiative, the commercial sector is responsible for over half of the total CO2 equivalent emissions, which is a far greater portion than any other sector.

Designing for a future with a cleaner environment, with a multitude of interwoven factors, is a challenge to the architecture and construction professions.


“Happily, sustainability is the state of things now,” says Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh. “The next thing that I believe we need to work toward is buildings and structures that are self-contained and self-sufficient in terms of green roofs, waste water, and other systems. The ultimate expression will be buildings that have systems that are a closed loop.” That may be well and good, but what about Pittsburgh, where we have a huge stock of existing buildings?

While architects are going beyond the aesthetic of green design, Gould believes that they are utilizing the systems to work well and save energy – and be good stewards of the environment.


Along the Fifth-Forbes corridor in downtown Pittsburgh, a succession of redevelopment plans have been in the works for years. Under the current plan, Strada, LLC has two large projects in the corridor now. On Fifth Avenue between Wood and Market Streets, the firm is restoring the GC Murphy complex – six separate buildings that will have retail on the first floor, the YMCA on the second floor (with the pool in the basement), and approximately 50 housing units on the third floor. The second is Piatt Place, the former Lazarus department store. Neither project will be submitted for LEED certification, but both are using the principles of sustainable design.

“Millcraft came to us because they felt it was a great opportunity,” says Ed Shriver, AIA, principal at Strada, about the Piatt Place project. Their designers generated a dozen iterations and the plan emerged with retail on the first floor, including two restaurants, offices above, and 64 condominium units on the roof. They had to creatively come up with more capacity. The heat load for a 4-story retail building was dramatically different from the new use. They’re rebalancing energy requirements, and have been able to re-use the existing mechanical units on the roof for residential loads. “We have tried to incorporate sustainable design and we’re more efficient about using energy,” he explained. He added that finding local sources for materials and careful selection have been factors too.

All of the current buildings in design and under construction downtown is a plus, according to Rebecca Flora, executive director of the Green Building Alliance. “Any development that is a reinvestment in urban infill, with high-density residential development, mixed-use buildings, and access to transit are all good things. That is part of sustainability.” She added that PNC has made a commitment to sustainable design in all of their buildings, including Three PNC Place, now under construction at Fifth and Liberty Avenues.


Rothschild Doyno Architects has been working since 2003 to renovate the historic Sarah Heinz House near Ellwood City, built in 1913. The building renovations and 30,000 sf addition have been a challenge for the design team. “The Sarah Heinz House was nondescript,” explained Ken Doyno, AIA. Many of the neighbors didn’t even know about the programs and the history of the center. The renovation had to have a positive impact on the neighborhood. One large change was improving the building’s relationship to natural light. The outcome is dramatic, and with the placement of the new addition, the House is integrated into the neighborhood. Rothschild Doyno was fortunate to partner with William McDonough, FAIA, and his firm William McDonough + Partners, regarded as leaders in sustainable design. The original 1913 building is not headed toward LEED certification, but an application has been submitted for the addition, which will hopefully earn a LEED silver designation.


LEED is evolving. Each version of the rating system has addressed its ever-expanding scope.  Currently, the USGBC is welcoming public comment on their Homes Rating System, now in pilot testing, developing an Indoor Air Quality Design Guide, and with ASHRAE, they are establishing new minimum guidelines for green building practices. The program continues to expand as the industry evolves and professionals put the system to work in the field.

The Green Building Alliance encourages LEED certification. “I think right now we have a good portion of the professional design community engaged in green design as it relates to LEED criteria,” says Flora. “We need to start moving past the barometer and into the next by paying attention to the broader impacts on the community – social linkages, economic factors.” She added that certification can lead to reduced insurance costs, is a marketing tool, and is just good practice.

But not every one believes that pursuing LEED certification is the best route for commercial projects. “The GBA and USGBC have gotten sustainability accepted as a decision-making matrix. Sustainability is the subject on every project,” says Shriver. He believes that the LEED label may not be the most effective way to go in dealing with developers. “For most architects, sustainable design is just good design practice. I get a lot of pushback from clients on sustainability. It’s not a problem of selling conservation, but a problem of selling them on the certification paperwork. Skip the plaque, and go with conservation. This is a big deal.” He adds that, in his opinion, the point is not to get certified, but to conserve energy, create integrated, sustainable solutions, and meet the client’s (often a developer) project expectations within a budget.

“A lot of good design decisions don’t follow the LEED matrix,” admits Christine Mondor, AIA, LEED AP and principal of evolve environment :: architecture. She explains that her biggest fear is that LEED will be seen as a certificate so formulaic that it can be achieved without thinking outside the box and that there are projects that could push harder. She believes that LEED is really a great starting tool for discussion, but many of her clients have different motivations, especially in residential design.

Gerard Damiani, AIA, principal of studio d’ARC, has always embraced a sustainable design philosophy with his firm, but LEED certification for him has been elusive. While larger firms have gotten smart about financially assisting their architects and engineers to get LEED certified, it’s difficult for him to afford. “Studio D’Arc has a reputation of creating spaces that are environmentally sensitive.” They do all of the “critical things” and have been since the beginning of the practice. He would like to see the AIA consider helping smaller firms and individual practitioners financially so that they could get their LEED certification.

Point chasing and the inequities of the rating system is a factor that is a sticking point for some professionals.The LEED rating system gives one point for a $125 bicycle rack, and one equivalent point for a $30,000 mechanical upgrade. This is a glaring example of one inequity in the system. (One architect glibly suggests that they should just install lots of bike racks.)


Many contractors are also embracing the ethos of sustainable design, and Ernie Sota, president of Sota Construction, Inc. has been devoted to the practice since 1975, inspired to conserve during the oil embargo. He already had an attraction of natural materials, being the son of frugal immigrants who came from a rural setting. “The delight of biophillic spaces have always been there for me,” he explained.

Sota added that the National Association for Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP), CB Richard Ellis, and many large developers are all setting a green agenda and even talking about reducing the carbon footprint. The connection between health and buildings is also being made. “I heard a presentation at a conference in Toronto earlier this year where a developer asserted that she could save employers one sick day a year per person, and along with other employee metrics could make her green buildings essentially save their entire monthly rent (and this was at $40/sf Washington, DC rents),” said Sota.

Sota’s philosophy is that green buildings or high performance buildings are just that – better buildings that are more valuable. Like anything else, sustainable construction is a paradigm shift that is not easy to accomplish but he thinks that sustainable approaches lead (excuse Ernie’s pun) to better quality buildings that create more value for clients.  Designing in a way that minimizes cost first is the real trick in encouraging a wide range of developers and businesses to participate in green design.

Mascaro Construction also sees the future in sustainable design. “It’s the success of our company in the future,” says chairman Jack Mascaro. In 2003 they created the Mascaro Sustainability Initiative and are now working with UPMC and its medical school. “There is a benefit to sustainable design, but you need an enlightened developer,” he adds.


Developers have another set of challenges in incorporating sustainable design into their commercial projects, especially in dealing with chain store clients. Mark Minnerly, director of real estate for The Mosites Company is glad that sustainable has become ”sexier to talk about.”

“Now it’s easier to get your arms around (sustainable) design in the buildings,” he explained, but “it’s a little murkier in evaluating the operating benefits” when selling the idea to tenants. He agrees that the principals of sustainable design have to be infused through the different layers of corporate intelligence for it to work. One example Minnerly noted was PNC, who has a policy of making all of their branches green. “PNC’s leadership has taught their real estate people,” he said. That comprehensive education through all levels of their company has been instrumental in incorporating sustainable design into all of their buildings.

Other factors, such as bulk purchasing for standard interior finishes and materials, made some sustainable design decisions impossible to achieve. At the new Borders in the Eastside Development, the leasing agent told him that they would love to work with them on using recycled carpet, but they had a warehouse full of their standard carpet, and that’s what they had to use.

The Mosites Company found that there wasn’t a major capital cost difference to get LEED certification, and two of the new buildings in the Eastside Development are pursuing certification. “We want to be able to say we are following a nationally recognized protocol,” he said. “It could mean buying architectural services differently from the beginning. LEED provides a format for getting newcomers into the system, and when the information gathering is codified, it will become the normal course of doing business.”


Across the spectrum, businesses are joining the “green” movement because of marketability, and one can only hope that in their zeal to sell more products, they will truly educate themselves and their customers. We have become a first-cost, throw away society, and it will take longer to change on the individual consumer level. It’s frustrating, but all the more reason to help people make that shift that will lead to a better environment and better quality of life. Architects have the responsibility to lead the mission of educating the communities and citizens about sustainable design.

Deborah Knox is a freelance writer and marketing/business development consultant in the A/E industry.

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2 Responses to The State of Sustainability

  1. Editor’s correction: At the time of the original writing of this article (2007), Market Square Place was not going to be submitted for LEED certification; it has since been submitted and was certified LEED Gold in early 2012. Market Square Place has also recently won the Sustainability in Historic Preservation Award from Preservation PA. Congratulations Strada!

    Do you have any other updates about the projects mentioned above? Let us know!

  2. Pingback: The State of Sustainability | Design Center Pittsburgh

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