Richard V. Piacentini, Botanist and Innovator

A life’s recounting in the subject’s own words
Renee Rosensteel Richard Piacentini has convened a group of local thinkers, funders and contractors to build one of the world's greenest buildings. Richard Piacentini has convened a group of local thinkers, funders and contractors to build one of the world’s greenest buildings.
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I was born in New York City and grew up on Long Island, practically across the street from a several-​thousand-​acre state park in which we played all the time. I loved being in the woods as a kid. I was always interested in plants and animals — mostly plants, to be honest — during my early years.

I used to love looking at things with my dad under my microscope.I was the oldest of three brothers. My father was an engineer. My mother was a kindergarten teacher and a fabulous cook. She pretty much made everything from scratch. My parents loved to throw big parties on the holidays, and my mom made Thanksgiving meals for as many as 25 people. That’s where I acquired my love of cooking. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

While I was growing up, the most satisfying thing to me was learning to sail. I had polio as a kid and because of that I was not really good at the kinds of sports that one normally would play in high school. That, combined with the fact that I was shy, meant that I wasn’t very popular. But when I was around 12 or 13, my parents signed me up for sailing lessons and I really excelled at it. In time, I became a sailing instructor for both children and adults. I also got very involved in racing dinghies. I was the skipper and my brother Kevin was the crew, and we got to the point where we were winning almost all of the local races we entered. In high school, I was anonymous. But when I went sailing, everyone wanted to know me. It was like living a dual life. The best thing about my success at sailing was that it gave me self-​confidence.

In the early 1970s, when I first went to college, I picked a school simply because it had a great sailing team. Once there, of course, I had to choose a major, and I was leaning toward biology because, basically, I liked it. Then my dad suddenly got laid off, and I had to start thinking about a career in which I could get a job immediately after graduation to help my family financially. I decided to major in pharmacy, even though it was a five-​year program, because it would almost guarantee me a job quickly — and it delivered. Fortunately, my dad was quickly rehired, too.

I started my career in pharmacy with Peoples Drug stores in Washington, D.C., and worked there for about a year before realizing that it wasn’t right for me. Then I went to work as a consulting pharmacist for nursing homes, and did that for about a year, too. Next, I got a job as a pharmacist at Children’s Hospital National Medical Center and, about a year into that position… you guessed it. It wasn’t right for me either. But while all of this career confusion was going on, I became interested in growing Japanese bonsai. I got involved in the Potomac River Bonsai Society and found myself spending a lot of my spare time at the National Arboretum, which has the best public bonsai collection in the country. I loved walking through its gardens and studying all the plants. At that point, it became plainly evident that I had made the wrong career choice. One day at the Arboretum, I met a botanist and surprised myself by saying to him, “I’d love to run a place like this someday. What would I have to do to make that possible?” He looked at me matter-​of-​factly and said, “These days, you have to run a nonprofit like a business, so I suggest you get a business degree. And, by the way,” he continued, “you should get a botany degree as well.” It all made perfect sense to me. I knew that I needed a change of direction career-​wise, but I almost didn’t act on the impulse. Then I remembered something that happened once when I was sailing, and decided to plunge in headlong.

One summer back on Long Island, there were 14 local regattas and my brother and I won 12 of them. (In the two we “lost,” we actually tied for first.) That year, the nationals and the North American championships for the 420 class, the one in which we had been competing, were set to take place in Massachusetts. We thought about entering, for about a minute or two, but then decided to forget it. It was inconceivable to us that we could win anything like that, so we decided not to go. But two guys — who we consistently beat all summer long — did enter and came in first and second in the nationals, and third and fourth in North America. To this day, I wonder, “If we had gone, would we have won? If so, how different might our lives be today?” Of course, we’ll never know. But that experience stuck with me. That’s why I decided I had to go for the career I wanted. I didn’t want to be asking myself forever, “What if…?” So I went to Virginia Commonwealth University to get my business degree first, because I figured, if I ever found myself burning out on being in school, a pharmacy and business degree together would be a lot more useful than degrees in pharmacy and botany. Fortunately, I didn’t burn out. After getting my M.B.A. in 1982, I entered the Ph.D. program in botany at the University of Connecticut.

Studying botany was interesting, but soon I realized that research didn’t appeal to me. I don’t have the patience for it. And while I was acquiring a lot of useful knowledge in school, I was gaining very little practical experience. I wanted to be the director of a garden some day, but had never worked at one. So I decided to volunteer at the Planting Fields Arboretum on Long Island for the summer. I drove down from Connecticut to work there for two days a week. I was also working for my advisor and as a research assistant in the horticulture department. And on the weekends, I was still working as a pharmacist part-​time! Then, lo and behold, I was offered a job as the executive director of a botanical garden just outside of Seattle called the Rhododendron Species Foundation, and I went for it, ending my formal education at the master’s level. The foundation was having financial problems and I think the fact that I had an M.B.A. probably was the reason they offered me the position. I stayed in Seattle for seven interesting and productive years before accepting a position at the Leila Arboretum in Michigan, which was a much bigger garden. I worked there for two years and then got recruited to come to Phipps, but I almost didn’t come because I was happy in Michigan. And to be truthful, at that point, I had never heard of Phipps Conservatory. I wasn’t too keen on moving to Pittsburgh, either. I had never been here before, so my mind shuffled through all the old stereotypes of a decaying industrial town. But I was intrigued enough to come for an interview and fell in love with the conservatory the minute I saw it. I thought, “How could I have not heard of this place? It has to be the most beautiful conservatory in the country.” From that moment, Phipps was it for me. Luckily, I made it through the interview process and was offered the job. And I didn’t hesitate to accept. I also immediately fell in love with Pittsburgh.

When I arrived, Phipps was in pretty bad shape due to a lot of deferred maintenance. The production greenhouses looked like they were going to fall down. In fact, I remember one of the first things I had to do was cover them with plastic because they were leaking so badly. Eventually, it got to the point where I had to prevent anybody from going into one of the houses because I was afraid it was going to collapse. The conservatory went private in June 1993. The board hired me in June 1994, and when we got into planning, we had to figure out how to make the organization self-​sufficient. We realized immediately that the dilapidated production greenhouses had to be replaced. We also had to replace the visitors’ entrance because the 1960s style of it was totally out of character with the nature of the facility. Plus, it was terrible at meeting visitors’ needs. It had a very small gift shop intermixed with the admissions area, which didn’t work very well. We didn’t have a café or anything like that, but we knew that when people make decisions about what to do with their leisure time, questions such as, “Are there shopping and eating options?” would present themselves. We also recognized that, at that time, people were able to tour Phipps in less than an hour, which was not good. If we wanted people to come from all over and feel as if they’d had a memorable experience, we had to get the visitor stay-​time up to more than 90 minutes. And to do this, we’d have to build a whole new conservatory, which would be no small feat. So we began by sending out requests for proposals to design firms, and one had a man named Bill McDonough on its team. Bill McDonough, at the time, was probably the most famous of the “green building” architects. Naturally, he started talking to us about building something called a green building. This was 1999, and we had no idea what he was talking about. He explained how buildings are responsible for most of the energy we use, most of the water we use, and most of the pollution we produce. All of a sudden, it occurred to us: “At Phipps, we care about the environment. Why shouldn’t our buildings reflect our values?”

When we started our master planning process, we broke things down into three phases: revamping the Welcome Center was phase one; building new greenhouses, a tropical forest and a special events hall was phase two; and the design and construction of our education, research and administration building was phase three. This was all supposed to be part of a $36.6 million capital campaign. But as we got involved in the building, particularly in phase two, we knew it would be a struggle. This was in the mid-​2000s when the price of concrete and steel was going through the roof. By that time, too, we had been adding a lot of interesting “green” features to the Tropical Forest Conservatory in particular, and doing it on the fly while construction proceeded. It wasn’t the smartest way to go about it, but we did it anyway. Eventually, I had to go to the board and say, “Listen, we have to make a choice here. If we want to do all three phases for $36.6 million, we’re going to have to cut everything to the bone and that means cutting out all of the green stuff.” However, I suggested an alternative. “Let’s do phase one and phase two right. Let’s keep all the green components and put off phase three until a couple of years down the road.” Fortunately, the board agreed to this revised approach and we were able to keep incorporating all of the good sustainable features in phases one and two. The Welcome Center became the first LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certified visitor center in a public garden, the production greenhouses are now the first ever to be LEED certified, earning the Platinum level through the U.S. Green Building Council’s rating system for existing buildings, and the Tropical Forest Conservatory opened as the most energy efficient structure of its kind in the world. Just as we were finishing the Tropical Forest Conservatory, which was in November 2006, I went out to the Green Building Conference in Denver. By that time, we found ourselves thinking in systems, which is how nature works, and recognized that everything in this world is connected. Buildings are connected to other buildings and to the environment, and whatever you do in one area affects everything else. So we had completely rethought the way we were going to deal with our phase three. We wanted to connect everything. Anyway, at the Green Building Conference, I was showing a diagram of what we were thinking to the man who actually came up with the Energy Star logo for the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. He looked at our diagram and said, “You guys actually are planning to build a living building.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Didn’t you hear Jason McLennan [the keynote speaker] challenge all 12,000 people at this conference to go beyond LEED Platinum standards and build living buildings?” In essence, a “living building” is one that has been created to meet the most advanced measurements of sustainability in the built environment.

When I returned to Pittsburgh, I called my board chair. “You’re not going to believe what I just learned,” I told her. “There’s this new challenge and we’re positioned to capitalize on it. We’ll have one of the first living buildings in the world.” She said, “Wait a second, Richard. You promised…” And she was right to hesitate because, when you think about launching big capital campaigns, you have to give your board and donors breaks in between them, otherwise people see you coming and run the other way. So I said, “OK, we’ll wait.” Less than a month later, we opened the new conservatory and people loved it. A couple of days after that, representatives from the local foundations started coming to see the building and what we did with the money they invested with us. Several of them made the mistake of saying, “It’s great! So what’s next?” I said, “Well, since you asked…” I told them about the Living Building Challenge and every one of them said, “You have to do this now.” So I went back to my board chair and said, “Look, I’m getting great feedback from the foundation community. They want us to do this.” A month later, in January 2007, our board voted to accept the challenge and we were off.

In 2013, we moved into the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, the building we designed to meet the Living Building Challenge. It creates all of its own energy, and treats all of its own water on site. We’re in the evaluation phase now and it looks as though the building is doing what it was designed to do. At the end of 2014, we hope to be officially recognized as a living building. We have already received our LEED Platinum certification, getting the highest number of points ever awarded under version 2.2, and ours is the first facility to receive a four-​star certification for landscapes from the Sustainable Sites Initiative [SITES]. There’s a term out there now called biophilia, which is based on the idea that human beings have an innate desire to be connected with other living organisms. If our buildings can do anything to help bring that about, then we’re part of the solution to what ails us all. In the end, people are inspired by beauty, and a beautiful place like Phipps is a great place to be inspired. But to me, the buildings at Phipps Conservatory are not the endpoint. The questions were and probably always will be, “Why are we doing what we’re doing? And how can we get more and more people to recognize that we are a part of nature and to see that it is something that helps to nourish as well as inspire us?” I believe that our work at Phipps is about connecting people with the natural world. As a society, we’ve become so disconnected from it, which is one of the reasons we have so many environmental problems in the world today. Going forward, we must dedicate ourselves to figuring out how to reconnect everyone and everything.

Jeff Sewald

Jeff is an award-​winning independent filmmaker and writer who specializes in defining the cultural significance of American people, places, things and events. Among other projects, he is currently producing a television documentary about the history of jazz in Pittsburgh, and is co-​authoring the memoirs of famed forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht.

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