By Mary Grauerholz

Projects implementing LEED are poised to leverage the shared advantages of complementary rating systems.

Big sustainability projects often begin with big dreams. Visionaries John Schmid, CEO of Propark America and the developer of Canopy Airport Parking in Denver, and Richard Piacentini, executive director of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, both recall the moment they crystallized remarkable concepts to save the Earth’s resources.

Schmid set his mind to constructing a parking facility that would elevate energy efficiency to a lofty new level. Piacentini and his board, using a master planning process, began with the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system and then folded in other sustainability certifications for a robust solution.

Phipps Welcome Center, opened in 2005, was the first LEED-certified visitor center in a public garden in the world. Photo: Denmarsh Photography, Inc

As Schmid recalls, “We set out to build the most sustainable parking facility on the planet. Two years later, we welcomed a baby called Canopy Airport Parking, which we then used as a springboard to influence, challenge, and inspire the parking world to emulate.”

When Phipps began its journey toward sustainability in the early 2000s, Piacentini says, his group originally pursued LEED Silver. “As we became more familiar with the reasons behind all of the LEED requirements and why they are important,” he says, “we shifted our sights and now start every project with LEED Platinum as one of our primary goals. We like using LEED because of what it stands for, and the broad recognition it has in the marketplace both locally and nationally.”

Phipps is the first project in the world to achieve LEED Platinum, WELL Building Platinum, Sustainable SITES Initiative (SITES) certification for land design and development, and the Living Building Challenge certification. Denmarsh Photography, Inc.

Phipps Conservatory 

After serving as a botanical refuge funded by the City of Pittsburgh for 100 years, Phipps Conservatory became a privately funded nonprofit in 1993. Piacentini came on board shortly after and helped begin a master planning process, as he says, “to figure out the best way to make the conservatory thrive as a private nonprofit organization.” Then he learned about LEED. “We didn’t know that buildings were responsible for so much environmental damage,” he recalls. “We knew that our buildings should reflect our values.” 

Phipps Welcome Center, opened in 2005, was the first LEED-certified visitor center in a public garden in the world. That was just the beginning. “We got excited with everything that LEED was all about,” Piacentini says. Today, Phipps is on the forefront of sustainability, its vision culminating in the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL). The popular attraction is a model of environmentalism and the first project in the world to simultaneously achieve LEED Platinum, Sustainable SITES Initiative (SITES) certification for sustainable land design, development and management, and the Living Building Challenge certification.

Achieving LEED got Piacentini thinking about a flood of topics: toxic pesticides, plastic bottles, composting, and irrigation systems. “We started making massive changes in what we were doing, following the guidelines in LEED certification,” he says. Today the CSL produces all of its own energy using sun and wind; manages 3.25 million gallons of stormwater per year, processing sanitary water through constructed wetlands; and provides shelter and food for local wildlife. 

Piacentini was looking at the CLS in terms of systems. “Everything is connected between buildings, the natural environment, and human health,” he says. “We realized we could minimize the impact of buildings on human health and Earth’s health and make things better than they were. The four rating systems actually work very well together. It was possible to build off each of them.” 

After LEED certification, achieving SITES certification for sustainable landscapes seemed the next logical step to Piacentini. (SITES aligns land development and management with innovative sustainable design—defining what a sustainable site is and, ultimately, elevating the value of landscapes in the built environment.) “We decided the landscape and building needed to be environmentally connected,” Piacentini says. For example, he says, both LEED and SITES recognize the importance of redeveloping degraded sites. “We then went on to SITES to design our stormwater capture systems as visitor amenities and restore the native plant communities with 100 different species of plants.” 

“Then we heard about the WELL building program,” Piacentini recalls. “We became totally focused on how buildings significantly impact human health, as we spend 90 percent of our time in buildings.”

For Piacentini, it was consistently shooting for the stars. “We created a track record of continually raising the bar and achieving successes,” he says. Phipps now includes two net-zero energy buildings, so the buildings literally have no cooling, electric, or heating bills. 

“We meter all the energy we produce in each building against all the energy each building uses,” he says. “Both buildings produce more energy than they use, so there are no energy bills.”

Overall, since 2005, carbon dioxide emissions at Phipps have been reduced by 56 percent on a square-foot basis across the entire campus. As Piacentini says, “We’re way ahead of the Paris Climate Agreement.” 

Before connecting rating systems, Piacentini says, identify your goals. “My advice is to sit down and understand what’s important to you,” he says. “Try to see what your focus is. Once you understand that, you can look at the rating systems and see what resonates with your values.” 

A strong certification project is the way to start, he says. “I’ve seen too many projects where people say, I’ll follow the LEED guidelines and build to standard, but not go for certification. I see so many problems when people do that. It’s too easy to cut corners, if you’re not worried about third-party verifications.”

For Piacentini, combining LEED with other rating systems confirms that Phipps “is walking the walk.” 

“It allows us to take a comprehensive, holistic approach to maximize human and environmental health, Piacentini says. “By doing so, Phipps has become a sustainability leader and model, inspiring guests from around the world.”

The Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens generates all of its own energy and treats all storm and sanitary water captured on-site.
Photo credit: Paul G. Wiegman

Canopy Airport Parking

West of Denver International Airport, Canopy Airport Parking has staked a claim as a paragon of sustainability. The pavement that runs underneath the facility—enough space for 4,200 vehicles—was built with recycled roofing shingles. The railings were created with steel reclaimed from old cars. The 72 solar panels and eight wind turbines on site pump out energy and, along with LED lighting, make Canopy 80 percent more efficient than traditional parking facilities. Nine Juice Bar brand electric vehicle (EV) charging stations (and a 10th on the way) are offered free for patrons.

“We created a new standard in energy-efficient parking facilities,” says Dennis Safford, corporate director of marketing and communications for Propark America, a parking management company that operates facilities across the country. 

A $16 million project, Canopy was the brainchild of John Schmid, who wanted to make all operations as sustainable as possible from the ground up. 

Schmid first pursued LEED certification for Canopy and achieved Gold certification. When the rating system changed several years ago—to require that parking facilities be connected to a building—Schmid saw a void. He reached out to other parking companies and vendors and started the Green Parking Council, which began the Green Garage Certification project. Ultimately, the council came under the aegis of Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), which also administers LEED, and relaunched as Parksmart in 2016. 

Today, Parksmart is the world’s only rating system that advances sustainable mobility through sustainable parking structure design and operation.

“John knew that incorporating sustainable values into our operations was good for the environment and good for business,” Safford says. “This is one way he wanted to leave his mark.”

LEED and Parksmart are natural partners, Safford says. “All the aspects that made Canopy Airport Parking LEED Gold were absolutely beneficial in getting the project Parksmart certified. We custom-built the facility to achieve a high LEED rating, and that made it easier for us to achieve Parksmart certification, because our facility was already built upon sustainability.” 

Joining LEED certification with other, more specialized rating systems creates a stronger entity, both Piacentini and Safford say. 

“In creating the Green Parking Council, John rallied the industry to come together in a common thread of sustainability,” Safford says. “Our philosophy was that ‘nobody is as smart as everybody,’ so it was important to get as many industry thought leaders together, in a collaborative sense, as possible. We wanted to chart the most intelligent course toward helping to create the new standard of sustainability within parking. I think we achieved what we set out to accomplish.”

Canopy achieved LEED Gold and set a new standard in energy-efficient parking facilities.