Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes. [Photo by Paul g. Wiegman]


Making a Glasshouse Relevant for the Future While Respecting the Past


By Reese Randall


December 16, 2020

Sustainability has never been more relevant or radiant. While Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens coalesces the two, it can only skim the surface of the deep-rooted message the non-profit organization strives to share. “It is important to recognize that we are a part of nature, not separate from it,” explains Richard V. Piacentini, President and CEO of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

Piacentini continues to explain that the earth is not a series of fragments. “Our ecosystem works together as a whole because we are all connected and a part of one another. We really see the challenge to connect people to nature and its beauty.”

This concept led Piacentini to another challenge. “Beauty needs to be a part of any green building. Sustainability in the past has given people the impression that they have to give up beauty, and that’s not true.” Phipps can be a hub of sustainability in all aspects, as well as an example of how society can be better than how we live now while upholding aesthetics.

“Leading by example, we show our visitors they can have an impact by living better. We started a program called The Climate Tool kit to work on climate change in which gardens can help each other to walk-the-talk,” says Piacentini.

Phipps uses oil barrels to demonstrate what emissions look like so people can visualize the amount of CO2 it takes to produce and power a typical household. “We’ve placed 16 barrels outside of Phipps as a visual,” says Piacentini. The success of this visual resulted in 5,500 families switching to clean energy. “When you start showing people that their individual actions can have an impact, that’s when we learn and work together and our purpose is served,” explains Piacentini.

In sharing the original purpose for Phipps Conservatory with an audience during his TEDx talk, “What We Can Learn from an Old Glasshouse”, Piacentini explained that Phipps was established to provide a place in Pittsburgh for people to see and enjoy the beauty of nature. “This was really important back then because the Pittsburgh of 1893 was a much different place than it is today. Back then people had an extracted view of the world and they thought there was no limit to the amount of pollution we could produce or natural resources we could use. In fact, they thought we were going to conquer nature. Nevertheless, people in Pittsburgh love Phipps and every year they would line up for hours to see the two and then later, three flower shows.”

This year, Phipps’ Winter Flower Show: Home for the Holidaysis a virtual video tour and can be purchased online. “It’s a great thing for people to watch who aren’t from here or who want to move here to share the beauty of Phipps,” says Piacentini. “We’re one of the only conservatories that still does year-round seasonal flower shows.”

Today, the seasonal flower shows and exhibits are housed on Phipps Conservatory’s 15-acre campus that includes a 14-room glasshouse, 23 distinct gardens and industry-leading sustainable architecture.

In his more than 25 years directing the organization, Piacentini led the sustainable and green transformation of Phipps Conservatory, including construction of the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (the only building in the world to meet Living Building Challenge™, LEED® Platinum, WELL™ Platinum, SITES™ Platinum and BREEAM Outstanding In-Use certifications). As explained on the organization’s web site, Phipps Welcome Center is the first LEED-certified visitor center in a public garden, featuring sustainable plant beds with drip irrigation systems, green roofs, non-irrigated organic lawn care practices, a captured-waste-heat snow-melt system, a recycled plastic parking grid planted under the front lawn, natural lighting and ventilation, recycled and regionally sourced materials, high-efficiency restroom fixtures, and sustainable and organic options in the café and gift shop.

“Our Special Events Hall was also built to high-efficiency standards,” adds Piacentini. It features energy-efficient lighting systems, solar control low-e glass windows, eco-friendly shading and a green roof. “We just replaced the bamboo floor and we decided to use a locally grown and harvested new oak floor,” explains Piacentini. “So, from the sustainable angle, it’s beautiful with a natural finish. We’re hoping we can start doing events soon. When we do, we’ll be ready.”

Phipps will be closed through at least Sun., Jan. 3. The Shop at Phipps will remain open for in-person and online shopping, and the Winter Flower Show Virtual Tour Video is available for rental or purchase for a safe at-home experience this holiday season. Join Phipps Conservatory’s Home for the Holidays virtual tour by clicking the link:

To view Richard V. Piacentini’s TEDx talk; click the link:

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, One Schenley Park, Oakland; 412.622.6914,


Reese Randall writes bi-weekly stories for The Green Voice. She's also the contributing restaurant editor for IN Community Magazines and food stylist for GNC. To see more food, fashion, photos and videos, go to