IKM Inc

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Tropical Forest


Location: Pittsburgh,  PA
Completion: 2006
Project Area: 12,000 ft2
Services: Architecture


With the Fall 2006 opening of the Tropical Forest featuring a Thailand exhibit, the 12,000-square-foot addition represents completion of Phase II of the most ambitious expansion project undertaken at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens since 1893.

This revolutionary design balances the latest eco-technology and exquisite horticulture in a dramatic, new glass house.  The design captures the sun’s path as it travels across the site overlooking the south-facing plaza and the lower boundaries of Schenley Park, in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Reaching 60-feet in height, the current horticultural display takes visitors to the tropics with a strong aroma of jasmine, cascading waterfalls, gushing streams, calm pools, a Healer’s Hut and hidden grottos.

A walkway that projects into the forest canopy provides dramatic, panoramic views over the Conservatory below and to the local landscape beyond the glass walls.

In the ground-level Palm Circle as many as 40-visitors can gather for presentations and programs and learn from staffers about the building’s use of ancient and innovative technologies. The adjacent Trustees Hall is a special events addition that includes kitchen facilities and other amenities suitable for gatherings of 200+ participants.

Like the silver LEED-certified Welcome Center addition also designed by IKM, the Tropical Forest Conservatory employs a sustainable design approach including a number of architectural and mechanical features to provide optimal conditions for the plants and visitors with a minimum of energy use.

Due to the importance of light in plant growth, particularly in winter, conservatories typically do not use double-glazing in windows. In the Tropical Forest Conservatory, the roof slope was intentionally selected so that all winter light enters through the south facade. This allowed the use of double-insulated glazing in the roof.

The concrete walls anchoring the northern end of the space have insulation on the outside surfaces only. This allows them to serve as thermal reservoirs; during winter days, they absorb heat that they release to the space at night. Half of the 12,000 sq. ft. north-sloping roof has automatically controlled vents.

By opening the vents, a controlled amount of hot, building air can be released. Future control modifications will take into account the Venturi effect of the wind speed and direction blowing over the opened windows.

As an organization, Phipps is passionate about protecting the global environment and believes they must set an example through their more sustainable operations.

Tropical Forest: Thailand is one more part of the $36.6 million expansion project and was designed by IKM architects, of Pittsburgh. The first phase of the project was the Welcome Center that opened in March 2005 and features a casual dining café, improved ticketing area, and an expanded gift shop. The expansion project also included state-of-the-art Production Greenhouses that opened in summer 2006, Trustees Hall in December 2006, and a planned phase-three education and administration building.