Frick Environmental Center & the Living Building Challenge: Where are We Now?

July 30, 2019 by Meg Baltes

Since Frick Environmental Center (FEC) opened in 2016, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has been diligent in collecting data on its energy usage. Between April 2017 and April 2018, FEC was in the running for certification as a Living Building, which involved adherence to a strict set of guidelines surrounding energy usage, water usage, landscaping, and more. In April 2018, after one year of demonstrating adherence to these guidelines, Frick Environmental Center officially achieved Living Building Status, and was declared one of the greenest public buildings in the world. Since certification, there’s been a lot going on at FEC, but we haven’t forgotten that we’re a Living Building! 

During the Living Building Challenge period (April 12, 2017 through April 11, 2018), solar panels at Frick Environmental Center generated 171,308 kilowatt hours of electricity -- that’s the same amount of electricity needed to power 21 average-sized homes for a year, or to charge 15,446,922 smartphones! The total demand by the building was only 118,891 kilowatt hours, so 52,417 kilowatt hours were returned to the Duquesne Light grid, reducing the need to burn over 40,000 pounds of coal by supplying neighboring houses with clean energy. The Living Building Challenge requires a net energy usage of zero, and over the course of this year, Frick Environmental Center’s energy surplus was 30% -- a comfortable buffer! 

Following official Living Building certification, between April 2018 and April 2019, the total power supply generated by FEC solar panels was less than the previous year (152,495 kilowatt hours, enough to power nearly 19 average-sized homes for a year). Reed Hoffmier, the Site Manager of Frick Environmental Center, attributes this decrease to Pittsburgh simply getting less sunlight this past year. Meanwhile, the building’s energy usage increased to 125,602 kilowatt hours, leaving an 18% energy surplus given back to the grid (enough to keep nearly 21,000 pounds of coal from being burned). While that’s less than the Living Building Challenge period, an increase in energy use signals that the building is getting more use and seeing more foot traffic, which translates to a positive development for the community as a whole. 

Reed points out a “14% increase in public program attendance” as a major contributor to the increase in demand for energy. He also cites rentals of the building for special events, such as birthday parties and weddings, as reasons for increased energy consumption.

However, the most constant and consistent users of the building are Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy education staff, whose offices are located on the ground floor. Patty Himes, Naturalist Educator, has thoroughly enjoyed working in a Living Building, citing “the view of the park and the ability to work [outside] on the staff deck” as highlights. 

During the Living Building Challenge period, Reed says that there was a serious ongoing effort among staff to remain diligent about energy usage in order to meet the challenge. Reed says that some of the increase in energy usage may be attributed to comfort among staff -- now that the certification period is over, there’s no longer a consequence for not turning out a light or not turning off the air conditioning -- though the staff continues to be mindful of efficiency and the spirit of operating a living building. He emphasizes that “even though [staff and the community] have increased use of the building, we’re still comfortably at net zero in terms of our energy use.”

To learn more about the Living Building Challenge and what sustainability looks like in your parks, visit the Frick Environmental Center, open to the public from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. on Saturdays, and noon - 5 p.m. on Sundays. 

For a detailed report on the Frick Environmental Center’s status as a Living Building, visit https://living-future.org/lbc/case-studies/frick-environmental-center/.

Frick Environmental Center, Frick Park, FEC