The Thinking Behind the Building
By Megan Moser
For the bank whose motto is, "The Thinking Behind
the Money," the intelligent design of Firstside Center
demonstrates PNC's commitment to its employees and environmental
PNC is the 14th largest financial institution in the US,
with seven distinct businesses employing 26,000 employees
in 40 states. In 1997, the PNC Financial Services Group
announced plans for a new facility in Pittsburgh to consolidate
critical bank activities for the Midwest region. When the
Green Building Alliance, a nonprofit promoting green building
in Western Pennsylvania, heard about the project, they dreamed
of it being a strategic demonstration of the viability and
benefits of green building. Not only would this be a high-profile
commercial building in downtown Pittsburgh, it would be
particularly visible to two critical market sectors: the
bank and real estate industries.
By the time it was dedicated in September 2000, the green
features of PNC Firstside Center had earned it a Silver
rating in the 2.0 version of LEED? It was the first building
to receive a rating in the revised, more demanding system.
Designed by L. D. Astorino Companies and built by Dick Corp.,
Firstside Center was completed three months ahead of schedule
within a budget of $155/square foot, including systems furniture
and redundant systems.
PNC's vision for a workplace for the future is a five-story,
650,000-square-foot, largely daylit building, in an accessible
downtown location on a brownfield site. The floor plate
is 2.7 acres. The HVAC systems use an innovative hybrid
design, combining ventilation from under the raised floor
with reconditioning from an overhead system. Building users
are treated to panoramic views of the Monongahela River,
artwork throughout the building and a cascading trough fountain
along the urban street.
The success of Firstside Center demonstrates for the private
market the link between intelligent design and environmentally
sensitive building. Its impact is being noticed by developers
and by building professionals alike.
such style and intelligent design would befit a corporate
headquarters, Firstside Center is for the ordinary worker.
The building consolidates 1800 employees performing a number
of functions that had been conducted at scattered locations.
It houses PNC University, which provides training to the
company; O'Brien Family Center, which provides emergency
childcare for employees; and human resources. It also houses
employees doing routine operation activities, such as check
processing, management of electronic transfers, corporate
loan service and PNC's data communications and telecommunications.
These functions introduce some rather constraining needs.
Whole departments wanted to be on one floor so that work
could flow horizontally. The anticipation of technology
changes and of a high churn rate made flexibility a high
priority for the interior design. Operations require extensive
redundant systems to guarantee uninterrupted power. Further,
the building must run continuously, with work going on 24
hours a day, 7 days a week. The design challenge was to
meet these functional constraints in a human-scale, employee-oriented
The green champion for this project is Gary Jay Saulson,
senior vice president of PNC Realty Services. "We certainly
wanted a building that would be pleasant to look at, but
it was more important to create a building that was pleasant
to look out of," Saulson says. "The project group
put themselves in the place of an employee working there
every day and asked, 'What sort of environment do I want
to work in?'"
Open space, fresh air, natural light and a view of downtown
Pittsburgh all became vital. The driving issue was that
of employee cost. The costs of building construction and
operation are insignificant when compared to the cost of
recruiting, training and enabling the employees to do their
work. Thus, a lesser work environment has a higher employee
cost because of its negative impact on productivity and
retention. Hard work produces income for the shareholders.
It's good sense for a business to do something that benefits
both shareholders and employees.
Saulson sees green building strategies as part of a package
to create an environment where workers thrive. Another part
of the package, trimming ongoing operating costs, is a welcome
benefit. Because 50% of the life cycle costs of a building
are operations and maintenance, it is important to build
an energy efficient building. Since PNC's operations require
redundant systems, it is making plans with the local utility,
Duquesne Light, for Firstside Center to voluntarily resort
to its generator when power is less available. In addition
to the operational savings provided by this arrangement,
"it's a social responsibility not to waste resources,
to use power efficiently and when it is more available,"
says Frank Walters, vice president and manager of Major
Executive management backed Saulson's leadership on the
project. They completely endorsed the concept from the beginning,
and their enthusiasm has only increased. In a recent letter
to all shareholders, James Rohr, president and CEO of PNC
Financial Services Group, announced, "We're particularly
proud that PNC Firstside Center is the nation's largest
building to receive the US Green Building Council's LEED
Employee-Friendly, Environmentally Responsible
major green features of the building - its location, its
daylight, its hybrid HVAC system and its materials - illustrate
how well PNC's commitment to an employee-friendly building
blends with environmental responsibility.
PNC considered 17 sites before selecting a brownfield site
along the Monongahela River, just outside the gridlock of
Pittsburgh's downtown. A major factor in the decision not
to use a suburban site was a survey of employees that revealed
the large majority used public transportation to get to
work. A suburban site would be a hardship on many employees,
and it would certainly be a hardship on the environment.
Early investigation of the possible sites established that
a suburban site would require almost 20 acres for surface
parking and for stormwater management. Compare this to just
over four acres for the selected site. A former B&O
railroad station site, the location is a strategic one for
revitalization of Pittsburgh's downtown and has served to
strengthen PNC's partnership with the city.
Rather than have PNC be in the business of providing transportation
or parking to its employees, the urban site allowed them
to work with the city to enhance these services for the
downtown. Once the project was underway, PNC approached
the city transit authority to install an adjacent light
rail transit stop that would serve the nearby courthouses
as well as PNC employees. The stop will be opening in November
2001. Similarly, the parking authority cooperated in building
a nearby parking garage for 1200 cars, which will open in
In building an employee-friendly space on such a large
floor plate, the challenge is to avoid a cavernous, monotonous
interior. Incorporating natural light was a goal, but many
areas of the building would have to be far from the perimeter.
The solution for this building was to break the building
mass into three distinct sections, each of which connects
to the urban and natural context. The three sections come
together at a five-story atrium.
Perpendicular to the atrium is "the slice," a
skylight that runs along the entire roof elevation and brings
light down into the fifth to the third floors. Exterior
shading devices are placed at an optimum depth and frequency,
and motorized interior shades are operated by solar sensors
on the roof. These elements, along with the use of 11-foot
window walls and an open office design, result in 90% of
the floor area receiving natural light and a view to the
Again, the employee-friendly objective dovetails with environmental
responsibility. In part due to reduced lighting and cooling
loads, the building is estimated to be 33% more energy efficient
than the biggest building the operations are being relocated
Another energy efficient feature is the twin fuel options
available for the chillers. Both gas absorption and electric
chillers are installed, and each can be run with an alternative
fuel, depending on the price and availability of the primary
fuel. The electric chillers can be run from the generators,
which run on fuel oil. The gas absorption chillers can also
be run on fuel oil. This saves operating costs, preserves
scarce resources and provides the redundancy crucial to
the operations in the building.
The need for technological and reconfiguration flexibility
quickly led to the consideration of raised floors. After
comparing raised floors to conventional overhead alternatives,
the team developed a dual distribution system. The primary
system is a raised floor system that supplies all outdoor
ventilation, as well as services the relatively constant
cooling load components (approximately 60% of the load),
such as lighting and miscellaneous electrical loads. The
secondary overhead system services the variable loads such
as solar, people and transmission.
The advantages of this hybrid system are numerous. Two
partially redundant systems increase the reliability and
simplicity of controls. About 400 fewer VAV zones were needed
in the overhead system because its distribution is only
about 40% of the typical requirement. Airflow distribution
points can be changed by moving raised floor panels, increasing
the flexibility of space. Ventilation is improved with this
approach because, when the overhead cooling is not required,
displacement ventilation forces contaminants and heat through
the occupied zone to the ceiling returns. Temperature control
and comfort are better than for a dedicated raised floor
system due to reduced airflow at the floor. The systems
are more easily maintained than the alternatives because
there is superior access to all components. And the dual
system maintains most advantages of a raised floor distribution
system and eliminates the disadvantages of a dedicated overhead
Comparing the costs of the hybrid system with a traditional
overhead system involves several components. The hybrid
system provided considerable savings on the mechanical systems
and on ductwork in the ceiling when compared with an alternate
VAV with reheat system. However, the hybrid system also
required additional cost for the raised floor. The dual
system may be justified simply on first cost alone, or nearly
so. For PNC, the capacity to easily reconfigure technology
and space make the hybrid system extremely valuable. In
fact, this flexibility is enhanced in the hybrid system
when compared to a standard raised floor system because
the systems under the raised floor are simplified and therefore
easier to maintain and reconfigure.
Throughout the building, recycled and recyclable materials
were used whenever possible. The systems furniture, for
example, is comprised of over half recycled materials. The
scale of the project enabled the team to work with research
and design departments of several companies to affect manufacturing
of products, including floor-coverings, accessible flooring
and light fixtures. The selection of colors and patterns
of Interface's Solenium and Déj?Vu products were extended
to accommodate PNC's preferences. In the pendant light fixtures,
the shape of the reflector was modified for better distribution
of light in response to work on this project. The modified
fixture is now a stock item.
Teamwork Pays Off
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette calls Firstside Center "a
sensuous, smart, sophisticated building that seems to have
done everything right." It is remarkable that a building
of this size, complexity and innovation was built on a two-year
fast-track schedule and completed three months early. How
did they do it? Sincere cooperation among a good team was
PNC decided to consolidate scattered operations groups
into one building. Because it is a Pittsburgh-based company
with a strong commitment to regional development, it sought
local talent for the project. Five local firms were invited
to submit prototypes. L.D. Astorino & Associates, Ltd.
was selected because its designs were the most responsive
to PNC's vision for an employee-centered environment. Astorino
Branch Engineering, the associated engineering firm, was
part of the team from the beginning. Four months into the
project, PNC hired Dick Corp. as the construction managers,
and the integrated teamwork began.
Astorino has a practice of holding weekly all-day project
meetings - which it calls "constructability meetings"
- to mull over the issues. They go beyond typical project
meetings because the heads of departments participate. "Rather
than just bringing issues to the table, the meetings focus
on resolving the issues at the table," explains Elmer
Burger, the Astorino principal in charge of the project.
It was common for these meetings to include alternative
equipment choices spread out on the table, light fixtures,
for example, and decisions made on the spot.
Immediately following PNC's announcement of plans for its
building, Rebecca Flora, executive director of the Green
Building Alliance (GBA), met with Saulson to advocate the
idea of incorporating green building strategies as a means
of improving bottom line efficiencies. When GBA began four
years ago to develop a market-based approach to promoting
green building in the Pittsburgh region, it was consistently
told by design professionals that their clients do not ask
for green. For that reason, one of GBA's key strategies
has been to educate owners and facility managers on the
added value of green building. It is an approach of driving
demand by reaching out to key decision-makers, the progressive
thinking business leaders. Firstside Center is an excellent
example of how GBA had hoped this would work. "Experience
has shown us that the key to success is a green champion
on the owner's side," says Flora. "Design professionals
cannot impose this on their clients. A green project needs
a Gary Saulson."
As a result of discussions with GBA and with Carnegie Mellon
University's Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics
(CBPD), it became apparent that there is a synergy between
the goal of an employee-friendly building and green building.
The notion of an environmentally friendly building was appealing
to Saulson from the start. Exactly what that meant for the
planned operations center was not yet clear, but Saulson
had a staunch commitment to finding out. He recognized that
they would need to be more involved in the process than
had been their practice "We had to be day to day quarterbacks,"
he says. His leadership was essential to pushing the design
team on the issue of green. He insisted that it had to be
done green, and it had to be done right.
The initial decision to redevelop an urban brownfield site
set the tone for sustainability to be criteria throughout
the project. Thereafter, it was considered hand-in-hand
with other criteria for decision-making. Return on investment
analysis was used to compare various alternatives, using
a two-year payback requirement. The ROI for most sustainable
features was an obvious answer, yielding either an instant
wash or instant savings, according to Burger. Rather than
impose difficult constraints, the sustainability criteria
helped suggest new solutions. "Environmentally sound
design was a guide that enabled us to solve underlying issues,"
One of the more complex decisions for the project was the
issue of how to best bring daylight into a building with
such depth. Physical and computer models were applied to
the analysis of daylight alternatives with the assistance
of CBPD, work led by Vivian Loftness, professor and head
of CMU's School of Architecture. This work helped to establish
the effectiveness of daylight penetration from the slice.
Too often these analyses are not done. Loftness stresses,
"The cost of physical modeling and computer simulation
is extremely small compared to the long term impact of the
decisions that are made. These things cannot be changed
in the physical building."
Other assistance with the green features of the project
was provided by Rocky Mountain Institute, Paladino Consulting
and Green Building Alliance.
The design and construction team worked together to maintain
the green features throughout the project. Their target
LEED rating was a useful tool in this process; the team
regularly revisited their scorecard. To prepare the LEED
application, Astorino tracked the documentation that would
eventually have to be assembled. Throughout construction,
they made specific requests for items needed from Dick.
Going for the Gold
When asked about the returns from his green building, Saulson
has no doubt about where they will lie: employee retention
and productivity. He has asked the Katz School of Business
at the University of Pittsburgh to do a comparative study
of workers in the new building to those in the old building
that he hopes will confirm this expectation. The study is
underway, though no results are yet available. In the meantime,
the employee response has been enthusiastic. In addition
to the amenities, they appreciate PNC's concern for environmental
The response from the development community has also been
enthusiastic. Groups such as the Building Owners and Managers
Association (BOMA) and the International Facility Management
Association (IFMA) have asked for tours, and the National
Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP)
is planning a special panel discussion among the design
and construction team. According to Saulson, the more corporate
decision-makers he can bring through the building, the better.
"When they hear it is a green building, they expect
it to be odd, with mud floors and hay walls. When they come
through, their reaction is 'It doesn't look environmentally
friendly.' It's the highest compliment they could pay."
They simply have no concept of how a building can be environmentally
friendly. The Forbo marmoleum on the floor is a good example.
The vinyl composition tile that it replaces is much less
environmentally benign and is not recyclable; the new product
is sawdust and linseed oil. Once they see it, they love
Burger concurs. Firstside Center illustrates to the uninitiated
design professional that a green building can look like
any other building. It is not just about installing photovoltaic
panels. As his work on Firstside Center has increased his
focus on green design, he has come to view it as a process
of relating the design to its context.
Firstside Center has received several awards for its design.
It received first place in the commercial category of the
Northeast Sustainable Energy Association's Green Building
Awards, and the Project of the Year 2001 award from the
Engineers Society of Western Pennsylvania. It also received
a STAR from OSHA for its outstanding safety record. And
it is a finalist in the Three Rivers Environmental Awards.
The list is sure to grow.
The tremendous success of Firstside Center has had no small
impact on the design team. Neither owner nor architect will
return to business as usual. For PNC, the experience has
shifted their expectation about how to approach projects.
They are committed to building green exclusively, and expect
to be active in the design process. They have learned that
green projects can work, and they proved that there is a
positive benefit to employees and to shareholders.
For Astorino, Firstside Center helps to make the concept
of green building legitimate and to establish their expertise.
They have also found the LEED rating system a helpful tool
in legitimization because it codifies green design. The
team of PNC, Astorino and Dick, has already begun their
next project: a 112,000 square foot renovation in Delaware.
This one will be gold.
Green Building In Pittsburgh
While PNC Firstside Center stands out as the most prominent
green building to date in Pittsburgh, it is far from the
only one. Two other Pittsburgh buildings received certification
in the LEED pilot program: Greater Pittsburgh Community
Food Bank, designed by Gardner + Pope Architects; and the
KSBA Architects Office. The region also has numerous early
adopters - buildings that were designed with green objectives
and built before LEED was available. At over 1 million square
feet, the new Pittsburgh convention center will supersede
Firstside Center as the largest LEED certified building
in the nation when it is completed in 2003. US Green Building
Council President Christine Ervin notes, "There's a
very sophisticated green building community in that region,
and we see Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh as one of the hot
spots in the country."
Green Building Alliance
Green Building Alliance is a non-profit organization that
educates the development community on the benefits and techniques
of a green building approach to development. Services are
available to Western Pennsylvania, through the following
Public Relations & Policy. Seeks
to establish the Pittsburgh region as a national leader
for green building programs, policies and practices.
Education & Research. Expands local capacity for better
building practices through workshops, tours, a library and
Green Team Builders. Offers direct
project services to facilitate the team-based approach that
is the key to green building.
Megan Moser, Ph.D., holds the position of director of education
and research at the Green Building Alliance, where she manages
training for building professionals, educational outreach
and the GBA Resource Center. She graduated from Carnegie
Mellon University's Heinz School of Public Policy and Management
with a master's degree in Economic Development. She has
a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania
and an undergraduate degree in Computer Science from Brown
University. She has held numerous research and project management
positions throughout her career. She can be reached at 412-431-0709