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Monday, May 13, 2013

Book Review: Building in Bloom

Building in Bloom: The Making of the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens by Mary Adam Thomas
Ecotone Publishing, 2013
Paperback, 152 pages

The Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh opened its doors in December 2012, but it won't be until some time in 2014 that the project will receive a Living Building Challenge Certification, what is certainly the most stringent green building system in place in the United States. As I describe the Challenge in this week's dose on CSL, a year of operation needs to occur before it is determined if the project meets all of the "petals" and "imperatives"; so far, only four projects have received certification. Things are looking good for Phipps, given the publication of this book by Ecotone, the imprint of the International Living Future Institute, which administers the Living Building Challenge (LBC). The optimism is infectious after reading this book, since it paints a great picture of just how much the design process and the construction went beyond the green features that are boasted about in just about any project these days.

Author Mary Adam Thomas structures the book into three sections whose titles tap into the horticultural aspects of the client and project: Fertile Soil (the history of Phipps and its sustainable mission), Strong Seeds (the key players, the design process, and the final plan), and Shoots and Buds (detailed descriptions of LBC's six "petals": site, energy, materials, water, indoor quality, beauty and inspiration). About 2/3 of the book is devoted to the six petals, and for good reason, since that is the heart of LBC and these chapters provide the most information that other architects and even clients can learn from. The first part reads like some PR text on the institution, and the second part gives only cursory information on the all-important integrated design process, but the third part makes up for any shortcomings in those sections. This isn't too say that the book is a manual on how to design an LBC building, or overly technical in its details; it is more a narrative account of the building. Thomas does a great job of making what could be dry and technical understandable to many, while weaving in the stories of why certain decisions were made and how they affected the outcome of the project.

Throughout the book are the voices of some of the key players: Richard V. Piacentinti (executive director at Phipps and the driving force behind the project), L. Christian Minnerly (principal and design architect at The Design Alliance), and José Almiñana (landscape architect at Andropogon Associates), to name just a few. Their quotes go beyond Thomas's text (they are not pull quotes), so they offer a secondary reading of the book (a tertiary one occurs through reading the illustrations and captions). Combined with the fact that each spread encapsulates one idea or detail within the project, the book can be seen as interrelated vignettes that add up to something greater. This is akin to the CSL itself, which is but one element in Phipps's larger plan for creating harmony with nature.

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