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Pittsburgh LEEDs Sustainable Movement

Hotels such as the Fairmont Pittsburgh are contributing to Steel City’s remarkable sustainability makeover.

Friday, August 31, 2012
Jeff Heilman
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A new study from the Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management & International Studies at the University of Pennsylvania finds that “after five decades of sustainability debates and policymaking, the world is still lacking a comprehensive strategy that recognizes the complexity of the issues and tradeoffs involved.” The report cites weak governance and conflicting agendas as contributing roadblocks, with people typically taking sides rather than action.

This is decidedly not the case in Pittsburgh, which against daunting odds, has evolved into a global showcase of sustainability on the strength of a coordinated, collaborative and comprehensive action plan and governance structure. After its declining steel economy finally collapsed in the mid-1980’s, it was do-or-die time for the devastated industrial powerhouse, with little leeway for debate, tradeoffs or disunity. Working together, Pittsburgh’s civic, corporate, educational, non-profit and other leaders would eventually save Steel City with a plan that included investing in knowledge, education, technology, sports and cultural tourism—and environmental recovery.

Taking in the pristine views of downtown Pittsburgh from atop Mount Washington today, it seems inconceivable that the city was once blighted with pollution, the black smoke of coal fires blotting out the sun and its three rivers toxic with waste. In 1868, writer James Parton called Pittsburgh “hell with the lid taken off,” a condition that endured until the 1950’s as the city’s steel, coal and aluminum industries relentlessly chugged away.

“Renaissance I” (1946-1973) was Pittsburgh’s first attempt to improve the region’s air and water quality, while Pittsburgh-area native Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which “called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world,” was a major influence on the global sustainability movement.

Wind forward to 2009, when the White House chose Pittsburgh to host the G-20 Summit. The decades of investment, belief and unity had paid off: the city was selected in recognition of its pioneering achievements in economic and environmental renewal.

Featuring two of the first 12 buildings in the U.S. awarded LEED certification, Pittsburgh’s “green” tipping point came in 2003, when the David L. Lawrence Convention Center’s LEED Gold rating made it the world’s first “green” convention center. Built on a riverfront brownfield site in the heart of downtown, the DLCC went Platinum—the highest LEED certification available—in 2012, making it the world’s first convention facility with these dual LEED honors.

From totally green-powered Carnegie Mellon University to the new CONSOL Energy Center, the NHL’s first LEED-certified arena, green is now a defining color in Pittsburgh. Popularly known as “The Green Heart of Pittsburgh,” the circa-1893 Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, a key G-20 venue, is at the forefront of global green development. Already boasting the first LEED-certified welcome center in a public garden and the world’s most energy-efficient conservatory, the Phipps is about to open the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, a completely self-sustaining building destined to be among the greenest structures on Earth.

Another local green champion is PNC Financial Services Group. Recognized for its commitment to environmental responsibility and green building practices, PNC, the global leader in newly constructed LEED certified buildings, features a living wall on its downtown headquarters and is now building the world’s greenest skyscraper across the street.

Nearby, Three PNC Plaza, one of the nation’s largest green mixed-use buildings, includes a property from sustainability pioneer Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.

Fittingly for a city of green firsts, the 185-room Fairmont Pittsburgh is the brand’s first LEED certified project, earning LEED Gold shortly after opening in 2010. The hotel made a strong green statement even before its debut. Diverting 99 percent of all construction-related waste from landfills, the project recycled around 900 tons of concrete, metals and other materials into other projects or new products.

When workers started finding glass bottles, dishware, doll heads and other artifacts during excavation, PNC halted construction and commissioned a local archaeology firm to investigate the Market Street site. Ultimately producing some 26,000 items dating from 1840 to 1872, the dig revealed the plot’s past lives as a German boarding house, toy store and other commercial enterprises. Naming several suites and boardrooms after these former businesses, the hotel’s museum-style displays of some of the artifacts elegantly reinforces the theme of reuse while enhancing the property’s “Art and Industry” motif.

As realized by globally preeminent architecture and interior design firm Gensler—itself a recognized sustainability leader—the hotel comes with an impressive set of high-efficiency, low-consumption green features.

Energy Star-compliant equipment and appliances use up to 30 percent less energy than non-certified equipment. The combination of energy efficient bulbs, guestroom occupancy sensors and plentiful natural light reduces annual lighting power requirements by the equivalent of 50 households while avoiding eight automobiles’ worth of CO2 emissions. Low-flow toilets and automatic sensors on public restroom sinks contribute to annual savings of around 930,000 gallons of water, while dedicated ventilation units supply 100 percent outside air to the guestrooms.

With a focus on healthy, non-toxic paints, sealants, floor finishes and upholstery, the hotel uniquely features no vinyl wall coverings. Sustainably harvested forests supplied the wood floors and millwork, with organic or recyclable fiber going into most guest bedding. Instead of disposable plastic bottles, the hotel provides glass bottles fillable at water filter stations on each floor. In-room tent cards and directories are minimized to save paper; there are no phone books or Bibles, the latter available at the concierge desk.

Low-toxic and eco-friendly, housekeeping products avoid bleach and aerosol spray cans. Sheets are changed every three days in stay-over rooms unless otherwise requested, and the hotel donates used linens and towels, along with half-used amenities and toilet paper, to local women’s shelters or mission trips.

Led by Executive Chef Andrew Morrison, the hotel’s culinary team also figures significantly in the sustainability program. Each week, the kitchen purchases whole sides of beef from a local farm and butchers it in-house to reduce waste. The team then uses every part of the animal, bones included, with the tallow (rendered beef fat) used to create hand-made all natural soaps.

As a member of Buy Fresh, Buy Local and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, the hotel routinely sources ingredients from family-owned farms across the state. All-Clad, headquartered less than 20 miles away, supplies the cooking pans, while Riverside Glass in Pittsburgh’s appealing Lawrenceville neighborhood supplies recycled glass dishes. The hotel’s Habitat restaurant also recycles paper, plastic, glass, aluminum and waste kitchen oil, and uses a unique enzyme-based digester that biologically converts food waste into liquid.

“Art and Industry” meet again in the cut I-beam sections used as side tables, with the surface tops in the lobby bar and health club made from recycled aluminum shavings. Also in the health club, where spa-goers use eco-friendly products and wear reusable rubber slippers, the wallpaper is actually recycled wood pulp and much of the furniture is made with durable, sustainable teak.

“Like so many industries, we are seeing an increased focus on sustainability among our guests and clients,” said Matthew Sterne, general manager of the Fairmont Pittsburgh. “Our commitment to sustainable tourism has certainly set us apart from competitors, and our status as a LEED Gold certified hotel has even been the determining factor for several pieces of business coming to Fairmont Pittsburgh over other venues.”

In the fragmented, dis-aggregated world of hotel management, ownership and operation, institutionalizing the mindset and practice of sustainability from the top down and across departments can be a real challenge. With the present economic climate heightening the pressure on revenue growth and bottom line results, the cost of investing in new green technologies, practices and products may also present a stumbling block for some operators.

Yet, as more policymaking, legislation and consumer buying preferences are being dictated by green, hotel and other sector investment in sustainability will only make greater economic sense.

The American Lung Association used to issue warnings about living in Pittsburgh. Now it is ranked 30th on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2012 Global Livability Survey, second in the U.S. only to Honolulu at number 26. If once hellish Pittsburgh can go clean and green with operators like Fairmont doing their part in the larger context of a city-wide collaboration, the message surely is that anyone can do it.


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Jeff Heilman
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Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division
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