An Inside Track for Winning Green Designs

Greening a building the size and complexity of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh was not easy. It's a sophisticated urban building that celebrates its relationship with the riverfront, adjacent historic and cultural districts, the natural environment and transportation options. Perhaps the keys to its success were identifying green goals from the get-go and establishing a we...

By Rebecca L. Flora, AICP, LEED AP, Executive Director, Green Building Alliance, Pittsburgh November 1, 2004

Greening a building the size and complexity of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh was not easy. It’s a sophisticated urban building that celebrates its relationship with the riverfront, adjacent historic and cultural districts, the natural environment and transportation options.

Perhaps the keys to its success were identifying green goals from the get-go and establishing a well-defined request-for-proposal process, which was followed by the implementation of a solid decision-making methodology for the selection or rejection of green technologies and strategies.

Essential to the plan was the involvement of multiple civic and green organizations that would make sure the building became the symbol so many envisioned for Pittsburgh. This factor proved critical from the beginning. Originally, the local government agency responsible for building the convention center—what would become the Sports and Exhibition Authority—intended to hire a design-build team without going through a publicly conducted competition. Various community leaders, however, managed to convince government officials otherwise, successfully arguing for a design competition that would ultimately result in the selection of an internationally known architectural and engineering team.

Considering the inherent difficulties of a public bid process, tight budget, fast-track schedule and politics, the competition challenges were numerous. So what did we look for?

The selection process

The two-part architect selection process began with an RFQ document that was developed and published by the Lawrence Center design commission in the summer of 1998. It was sent to more than 100 firms with the goal of making the facility the “no. 1 medium-sized convention center in the world.” Criteria included experience with convention centers; with environmentally sustainable buildings—LEED, formally, did not exist at the time; examples of good civic and functional design; and last but not least, the inclusion of an award-winning lead designer.

The RFQ committee included members with both “form” and “function” expertise when it came to convention center design. Such diplomacy was critical to ensure that the end product included the best principles from each side. Two green building consultants—Vivian Loftness, head of the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, and Robert Kobet, a green architect—advised the committee as needed. These independent green experts were instrumental in the preparation of the competition brief and the review of submissions.

Twenty-five strong proposals were submitted. The committee selected seven firms to interview, and eventually, four finalists were selected to participate. A stipend of $100,000 was issued to each of the finalists thanks to the generosity of several Pittsburgh-based foundations under the leadership of the Heinz Endowments.

Once the finalists were chosen, a competition brief was issued to serve as a design guide. The document included not only the building program, but very specific details—particularly, strong green requirements to ensure the end product of the competition would be a realistic, conceptually strong, nearly schematic design that could move forward without delay. In order to achieve that goal, the instructions needed to be complete and detailed. Despite best efforts, three addendums had to be added: one for the placement of a future hotel; one changing the end date of the competition; and one adding a specific energy and environmental stipulation.

Two preparatory sessions with the competitors were set up. The first session included all competitors in one room with ownership experts from each relevant field: transportation, green building, public spaces, etc. Competitors spent a day or more in the city to learn firsthand about the issues and opportunities of the site and project.

After several weeks of conceptual work, a second, private briefing was held that allowed each competitor to meet individually with various area experts for the purpose of answering questions and providing preliminary ideas.

Finally, designs, which included a three-dimensional model, drawings and cost estimates, were submitted. While the competition consultants checked every submission for compliance, technical reviewers were invited to look over the submissions and prepare a report for the jury’s consideration. Jury members, by the way, were not allowed to participate in any of the previous meetings. The inclusion of these final provisions, we felt, helped shield the jury from possibly becoming slanted by flashy graphics instead of solid designs.

The jury was made up of nine members, five from outside Pittsburgh and four from the city. The jury convened for presentations by all competitors and to review submissions and technical reports. The responses to the competition process were astonishing, including everything from green roofs and daylighting to natural ventilation. In February of 1999 the jury unanimously selected the A/E team of Rafael Viñoly Architects (RVA), New York, and Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Assocs. (BHKR), whose proposal included a swooping roof that provided a perfect fit for natural ventilation along the Allegheny River. BHKR’s Butler, Pa. office served as the lead engineer on the project and proposed many green concepts, including a water reclamation system that would later become an essential component in the project achieving LEED gold certification.

Identifying a green champion

RVA’s submission was not only the best overall design, but it also responded most holistically to green design principles. Taking the firm’s plan from concept to construction, however, would require a champion to maintain green as a priority for the project. Since BHKR was hired primarily to be the mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers—not to execute the green components—this left the project without a clear manager or adequate technical assistance for green design. In 1999 the Green Building Alliance, with funding from the Heinz Endowments, became the project’s green champion (see “Notes From the Log of a LEED Navigator,” CSE 02/04 p. 47 ). The organization’s roles included that of advocate, manager and technical assistance provider, both directly and through the hiring of sub-consultants.

In that year, prior to the official launch of the LEED program, green building principles were still somewhat foreign to most of the project team. As a result, a full-day goal-setting workshop was organized by GBA to review how to use the LEED rating system. Bill Browning from the Rocky Mountain Institute helped me facilitate the workshop. Harry Gordon, a principal with BHKR, board member of the U.S. Green Building Council and active participant in the development of the building rating system, presented the first LEED matrix to the team utilizing the LEED 1.0 pilot guidelines. Follow-up opportunities were provided through ongoing GBA technical training workshops, including ones on commissioning; green specification writing; construction and demolition waste recycling; and LEED principles. During design development, GBA organized a two-day peer review process, funded by the Pennsylvania Dept. of Energy. The resulting report provided various recommendations, such as the need for a lighting consultant and additional modeling (see “Quantifying Daylight for a Big Box,” CSE 05/04 p. 49 ).

Spreading the seed

Had this undertaking been initiated in 2003, the process would have likely been much easier. On the other hand, Pittsburgh may not have experienced the same degree of green transformation without the stimulus of the project. But greening of the Lawrence Center presented many learning opportunities that have served to educate and transform the building industry in the city, as well as the convention center industry everywhere. As evidence, several other cities are considering green principles for upcoming convention center projects.