Joe in front of Phipps Conservatory in the snow

Joe in front of Phipps Conservatory

Today we visit Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh which has a special place in Joe’s heart because Garden Design Magazine asked him to write an article about the ‘Greenest Garden in America’. Patti gets a tour of the edible landscape and Nathan creates a special dish with one of Patti’s favorite finds in the garden.

Here is Joe’s orginial article for Garden Design which was later edited for length by the magazine:

How Ironic. A little over a hundred years ago, when the Phipps Arboretum was built by wealthy businessman, Henry Phipps as a gift to the city of Pittsburgh, the nation was enjoying an industrial revolution, and resources to construct and operate the building seemed unlimited. And yet, when Mr. Phipps set out to establish this project, he envisioned it to be a place “that will prove a source of instruction” for generations to come. Little did he know just how true that would be more than a century later.

In 1993, the city turned over control of the garden to a non-profit organization, charging it with maintaining financial stability and increasing the visitor experience as an established national attraction.

Now, heralded as “America’s Greenest Garden”, Phipps has become a model for other public gardens and conservatories around the world for sustainable building practices, energy conservation and eco-friendly methods. But it certainly didn’t start out that way.

As plans were underway to update and expand the buildings, bids were solicited from architectural firms. One of the firms responding included William McDonough, well know for his sustainable development practices. He proposed that Phipps leaders consider green building. His vision excited the board as a way to demonstrate environmental responsibility.

As they probed into ways to exemplify this in their expansion projects, they built the Welcome Center to be LEED Certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the accepted standard of measurement for high performance, eco-sensitive green buildings established by the United States Green Building Council.

Inside the growing greenhouse

Richard explains the special characteristics of the growing greenhouse

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden Executive Director, Richard Piacentini and team never set out to be this green when their expansion plans got serious in the mid nineties. However, as the building came to life, they quickly realized it was the right thing to do. “This should be a philosophy that drives everything we do to make sure it is as environmentally friendly and as sustainable as possible” said Piacentini.

He and his team, along with members of Pittsburgh firm IKM Architects, continuously asked questions during the design and construction process, constantly seeking a better way. By the time the current phase was finished, they had not only exceeded Silver LEED rating standards, they had created the greenest conservatory in the world.

Massive earth tubes are buried 15 feet underground, drawing 55˚F consistently cool air into the greenhouse as warm air rises and exits out of their innovatively designed open roof system. With no mechanical ventilation system, the greenhouse is 100% passively cooled. Remarkably, on any summer day, it is always cooler inside this immense building than any day outside; an amazing feat for a glass building, notorious for otherwise oven-like temperatures.

In winter, single pained glass on the greenhouse’s expansive south facing wall absorbs maximum sunlight while double-pained panels in the roof, root zone heating and extra thick side walls help absorb and retain heat in a most efficient manner. The net benefit is an energy savings of over $14,000 per year with these clever modifications.

104Phipps_DR_Agave_005An energy cell has been installed to efficiently produce much of the power used in the arboretum while all of the Welcome Center’s electricity is generated entirely by wind power.

Mr. Piacentini is especially mused by the irony of the original conservatory of 1893. “With no regard to limited resources, to me, it was the epitome of everything that was wrong. Now, we’re taking this building and gardens, and saying, o.k., here’s the right way to use it”.

As past president of The American Public Gardens Association, Piacentini sees a lot of gardens. He notes; “Fifty million people visit our gardens each year. They look to us for inspiration and learning. We have a tremendous opportunity to help change gardening practices which are very wasteful of energy and produce a lot of pollution, especially the way people misuse fertilizers and pesticides. Who better to get the message across than public gardens?”

And plans are well underway as Phipps takes on an even bigger vision; that of being the words greenest building with their latest addition, slated for completion by the fall of 2009. With examples from public gardens like Phipps leading the way, green is one color that should provide much inspiration in the garden we all cultivate together.

For more information visit


Growing A Greener World is a national gardening series on Public Television that features organic gardening, green living and farm to table cooking. Each episode focuses on compelling and inspirational people making a difference through gardening. This gardening series covers everything from edible gardening and sustainable agriculture to seasonal cooking and preserving the harvest.

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  1. Shannon Russell says

    Although I love ALL of the Growing A Greener World shows, this was ONE favorite just because I thought it was simply beautiful. It honestly was a pleasure for the senses to stroll through the conservatory with you. Even if I couldn’t smell it or feel it as the GAGW crew could, you guys work so hard to make it feel as if we were there with you. The facility itself was beautiful and smartly built, practicing sustainability all the way through. And, of course, all of the flowers and plants and edibles were gorgeous. The shots were captivating. Even a person with the worst case of Attention Deficit Disorder could have maintained focus on this entire episode, for fear of blinking and missing something truly wonderful. That would be a shame.

    Thank you for sharing your passions with us, as you always do.

    ~ Shannon

    • Joe says

      Wow Shannon. What a wonderful thing to read from your perspective. We DO work hard at trying to bring you along as best we can through the medium of television and it sounds like we did a pretty good job of that here. We’d go to Phipps anytime to feature their great conservatory but thank goodness we had a place to go like that in the dead of winter on a show about gardening! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We love the feedback and appreicate the time you take to offer yours!

  2. Pam says

    I too watched episode 104 on PBS. Until then I had not heard of “Growing a Greener World” or the Phipps Conservatory. I have always been anti-chemicals and all about natural. I have been driving my family crazy for years with the composting and recycling. Then I watched episode125 – Thomas Jefferson It was so interesting that I got online and looked up your web page. I sat there reading the different episodes and watching a couple of them. I also signed up for your newsletter. I went to bed listening to your pod cast “Dispelling Gardening Myths” with Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott . I also watched the episode on composting. That too is incredible. You looked like you had a blast there. We have a place that makes compost, its called the Brazos River authority and I love going there but it is nothing compared to the place you visited. Your episode on the Lady Bird Wildflower center was also very intriguing. I live here and I was interested. Thank goodness I have never seen a rattle snake.

    I would like to know about the episode that is mentioned in podcast 001 “GGW – A Chicago community garden story, why leaves change color, great nursery deals” I could not find it on the episode link. I would love to watch it.

    Anyway, I love the show and the web page and podcast. What a great job you have. Thank you for all of the great information and the cool place.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Joe says

      Wow Pam, thank you! I’m so glad you found us and then took the time to explore all the cool things we have going on to get the word out about “growing a greener world”. Yes, I love my “job” but like they say, if you love what you do, it’s really not work and I never think of what I do as work either. Although I spend countless hours at this, it’s a passion I share with my team to create content that is not only entertaining and informative, but important for educating our viewers, listeners and readers to the issues you and I share as being so important. I so “get” what you mean when you say you drive your family crazy with all the composting and recycling. But like my family, I’m sure you’ve got them pretty well trained by now!

      As for the podast episode “001 GGW” that was created before the show ever existed so we don’t have a televison episode that refers to the Chicago garden in the podcast. However, we have an episode in season 2, which will air in fall of 2011 which will adress why leaves change colors, why they fall, and what to do with them once they do.

      Anyway, it was so nice to ready your nice message and I really appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. If you are on Facebook, you’ll want to “friend our page” since we stay very active there keeping you up to date and sharing behind the scenes info and details. Here’s the link:

      Thanks again and best regards,
      Joe Lamp’l

  3. Marty Coleman says

    Hi, I saw your program on Public T V , and I enjoyed it so much I went to your website, I have been an Organic Gardener for 35 years , I work in a Garden Center , at home I have a little Green house, with 3 big Gardens outside and 30 Fruit Trees, mostly red Apple trees, your grateful Gardening friend, Marty

    • Joe says

      Thanks Marty for the kind words. If you liked the Phipps episode, you’ve got 25 others to enjoy and this summer, we’ll have another 26 for your viewing pleasure. Thanks again for letting us know how much you enjoyed the show.

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