2015 Winner: Take Me to the River

The greatest percentage reduction in indoor and outdoor potable water use.

Who led the charge

Richard V. Piacentini                Executive Director, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens


Leading the green transformation of Phipps since 1994, Richard Piacentini focuses on the critical connection between people and plants, particularly as it relates to human and environmental wellness. He serves as Chair of the International Living Future Institute™ (ILFI) board and is a past president of the American Public Gardens Association. Piacentini has received numerous professional honors, including the ILFI and U.S. Green Building Council leadership awards.


  • Systematically assess and rehabilitate water systems                                                                 
  • Be willing to push the envelope by trying new and/or unconventional sustainability methods

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens Reduces Water FootprinT


When asked to call out the most special aspect of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ campus-wide potable water-use reduction program, Richard V. Piacentini, Phipps’ executive director, doesn’t hesitate. “It’s our commitment to knowing that we need to walk the walk in everything we do,” he says.

As Piacentini knows, it takes a lot of water to make a garden grow. And when that garden is Pittsburgh’s Phipps, the water footprint can be significant. After installing water meters in 2012, management at the 122-year-old, nonprofit public garden confirmed its annual consumption of about 12.5 million gallons of water.  Acting on this data, Phipps implemented a successful campus-wide project to reduce potable water use, including installation of automated control boards, timers, and level sensors to decrease water waste. 

Phipps also trimmed water use by grouping plants with similar watering needs inside the Conservatory and planting native and climate-appropriate plants in the Outdoor Garden, which eliminated the need to use an existing underground irrigation system. “The reduction of Phipps’s water footprint has been a gradual process,” says Piacentini. He explains that conventional return on investment is not easily measurable, and a simple cost-benefit analysis would not “account for the various environmental benefits achieved by reducing demand on the City of Pittsburgh’s combined rainwater and sanitary sewage system, which is frequently subject to environmentally damaging and costly overflow.” Instead, Phipps’s metrics monitor how well it meets its goals and stays aligned with its values.


"If we want to inspire others to adopt more sustainable lives, we need to show them how those lifestyles can be beautiful, comfortable and fulfilling."


To fill 100 percent of Phipps’ irrigation needs, the Phipps team is now exploring ways of capturing more rainfall from the Conservatory roofs. “We base our operations and capital projects on systems thinking. Everything is, after all, connected—this is how nature works,” says Piacentini. 

And the results are measurable in gallons.

CLOSE UP: phipps conservatory and botanical gardens

What did we do?
The initiative reduced potable water use across the entire campus.

Why we did it: 
The project was designed to conserve water and increase operational efficiencies, while maintaining constant alignment with the organization’s ethics and principles.

Our Approach: 
The Phipps team systematically assessed and rehabilitated water systems through repairs, patchwork and resealing.



  • Reduced water consumption by 45 percent
  • Opened the first LEED Visitor Center in a public garden
  • Became the first greenhouse to earn LEED certification