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PNC: green groundbreaker, the financial giant creates the world’s greenest building

By Veronica Kropf

The Pioneer

Renderings courtesy of Gensler
Renderings courtesy of Gensler

In 1998, when Rebecca Flora heard on the radio that PNC Financial Services Inc. was beginning construction on what became its Firstside Center in downtown Pittsburgh, she decided to make a chance phone call to see if the company would consider employing sustainable business practices.

“I just thought this would be a great opportunity for a new green building; we were in the startup of the green building alliance at the time,” said Flora, then director of the fledging Pittsburgh Green Building Alliance.

Flora cold-called Gary Saulson; PNC’s Director of Corporate Real Estate and asked for an hour of his time where she hoped to convince him of the benefits of green buildings.

“I told her she could have half an hour, she came into my office and after a two hour conversation I had decided to commit to making Firstside a green building” Saulson said.

Fifteen years later, that chance contact is looked upon as the initial stepping stone in an inspiring story of sustainable success. Today, PNC’s newest and most ambitious project is The Tower at PNC Plaza. Expected to be the most energy efficient sky rise in the world, the tower sets new standards in sustainability while still satisfying employees and remaining profitable.

“Green buildings save us money on a constant basis; our operations and maintenance costs are down, our energy consumption is down and our employee satisfaction is up,” Saulson said.

In the late ’90s, when the concept of green  business practices was relatively unheard of, Flora never expected a call back from Saulson.

“Calling up the head of real estate of a big corporation like PNC and actually getting a response was a longshot,” Flora said.

Flora explained that even though Saulson was open to the idea of environmentally friendly construction, she still needed to make a convincing business-conscious case.

“During that conversation, the thing to understand was that there were two points of view. Gary had some very real issues that he had to deal with from a banking institution’s stand point, in terms of security and functionality of the building. By the same token, PNC is a very community oriented bank and I think Gary was very open minded to new ideas and how a green building could help with overall performance,” said Flora, who is now President of her own company RLF Collaborative in Maryland, which specializes in creating sustainable environments in corporate settings.

Saulson, at the time, was unfamiliar with environmentally friendly construction and unaware of the potential benefits.

“I thought a green building had straw floors and dirt walls and people walked around in Birkenstocks,” Saulson said.

In the end, it was the financial benefits and the likely boost in employee morale that convinced Saulson that sustainability was PNC’s future.

“After talking to Rebecca and getting a team together, we focused on making the most environmentally friendly buildings possible,” Saulson said. “We want to give people the opportunity to work in an environment where they’re comfortable and [where] they can thrive.”

In 2000, PNC celebrated the opening of its Firstside Center in Downtown Pittsburgh, the first in a long line of environmentally friendly structures to receive the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Firstside Center was built using 90 percent recycled steel, 72 percent recycled carpeting and 100 percent of the hard floor surfaces were made from recycled material as well. Due to the buildings open design and access to natural light it is 33 percent more energy efficient than the PNC office it replaced. Operational cost savings like this dissipated any doubt in the minds of PNC administrators that a banking institution couldn’t be environmentally conscious.

“Gary did a good job of making sure we as a company saw the benefits of these green buildings. We’re looking at making our operations more efficient, we’re looking at increasing employee satisfaction . . . it’s great for business, and Gary was thinking in business terms and that’s how we were able to gain the support of our executives and move forward with these efforts,” said Benson Gabler, Manager of Corporate Sustainability at PNC.

Renderings courtesy of Gensler
Renderings courtesy of Gensler

During the construction of the Firstside Center, PNC may have inadvertently helped pave the way for manufacturers to supply more environmentally friendly materials. Saulson explains that the biggest obstacle during construction in the late ’90s was finding green materials.

“It was nearly impossible to find carpeting – now every commercial carpet company makes environmentally friendly carpet,” Saulson said.

More recently in 2009 PNC became the proud owner of the largest Green Wall in North America. Located on the side of One PNC Plaza, the wall does much more than add some greatly needed beauty to a concrete city.
With more than eight varieties of plant life the Green Wall is an innovative approach to make PNC’s headquarters more energy-efficient by keeping the space behind the wall 25 percent cooler.

Each of the 602 two foot by two foot aluminum panels are made from recycled aluminum and each is said to offset the carbon foot print of one person. The twenty ton wall produces almost zero water waste, according to George Irwin, the President and CEO of Green Living Technologies, who created the wall’s design.

“The wall was originally put up in time for the G-20 summit . . . It was clearly a marketing effort on the part of PNC,” Irwin said about the 2,380 square foot structure. A firm named Philly Green Wall also helped in the construction and implementation phases.

The new Tower at PNC Plaza will be the world’s most environmentally friendly sky rise, according to the company officials. Reaching thirty stories high and approximately 800,000 square feet, the $240 million tower will be one of the largest LEED platinum certified buildings in the world, which is the highest level of LEED certification that can be awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council.

“The main component in the new tower . . . is the focus on natural ventilation and the conditioning of the interior space . . . instead of having to use boilers and chillers to heat or cool the building, the exterior walls of the building are designed so you can use outdoor air . . . to provide a comfortable temperature and humidity within the building,” said Catherine Sheane, a Sustainability Analyst for PNC.

The Tower will incorporate a double glass façade, which is a construction technique that will reduce cooling costs and promote natural airflow into the building. The tower will, of course, reduce energy cost by taking advantage of as much natural light as possible. Also, a pair of living rooftops that will consist of different plants, much like the company’s Green Wall will be implemented to collect and channel rainwater and reduce heat gain.

According to Saulson, PNC’s sustainability team examined buildings all over the world to set the standards for the new tower.

“We’ve taken bits and pieces of ideas from other buildings that we’ve seen and liked, plus some new thinking to create what we think is going to be the greenest sky rise in the world,” Saulson said.

For PNC energy efficiency doesn’t just include new downtown construction; it extends to every facet of the corporation. PNC has even acquired the trademark of the “Green Branch” term.

“The idea of sustainability integrated into design takes into consideration multiple components at once, and not only how much money is being saved in your water expenses or energy expenses, but how you’re building an environment that’s healthy and productive for your employees,” Sheane said.

Some of the features that separate PNC branches from other financial institutions include; 15 percent of all carpet and furniture is made from recycled materials, energy usage is reduced approximately 50 percent due mainly to the use of natural lighting, cabinets are made with wheat board, a renewable material, used in the place of plywood; and window glazing is used to keep the building cool, just to name a few.

“To me the highest compliment is someone going into one of our green buildings and not realizing that some of the building materials are different,” Saulson said.

This past year PNC has invested over $200,000 in efficient lighting systems in Two PNC Plaza, which was built in the 70s. This building is now 30% more energy efficient and has achieved Energy Star certification, according to Gabler.

Renderings courtesy of Gensler
Renderings courtesy of Gensler

“This project has practically paid for itself in just one year,” Gabler said.

PNC has spent approximately $32 million on lighting upgrades in a variety of office buildings and bank branches, in the last three years, which will save the company $10 million per year, according to Gabler.

PNC has recently become a member of Pittsburgh’s 2030 District, which is an organization dedicated to reducing energy and water consumption in buildings in Downtown Pittsburgh by 50 percent by the year 2030.

“Pittsburgh, I believe, is the third American city to create a 2030 district of this kind, so we as a city are really part of something that is unusual across the country even among cities that people might consider more sustainable than Pittsburgh,” said Sheane who is a member of the Green Building Alliance board of directors.

With numerous awards and more LEED certified buildings than any other company on earth, PNC is certainly setting an environmental example for corporate responsibility.

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