A Walking Tour of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Frick Environmental Center

A Walking Tour of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Frick Environmental Center

This blog was written by Scott Roller, of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

View of the Frick Environmental Center from site’s southeast edge. Irregularly spaced columns and variation in window width pay homage to random placement of trees in nature. Image: Nic Lehoux

Pittsburgh’s amazing city parks are the ultimate outdoor classrooms. There’s plenty of space, great things to see and do no matter what the weather, and there’s always something new and amazing around every tree, hillside, or winding trail. Now, with the newly opened Frick Environmental Center, you also have one of the world’s greenest buildings as your welcoming starting point for your incredible parks. Designed to be the first LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge certified building in the world that is free and open to the public, now is the perfect time to take a walking tour of this awesome building and grounds. Designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson with landscape architecture by LaQuatra Bonci and built by PJ Dick, the Frick Environmental Center will be a hub for environmental education programming for the Pittsburgh region. Here’s a 12-step guide to the highlights of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Frick Environmental Center in Frick Park.


Solar arrays cover parking spaces, collecting the sun’s energy and guiding rainwater into storage cisterns for non-potable on-site use. Image: Scott Roller

As you approach the front gates off of Beechwood Boulevard, look at the gatehouse to your right. Look for flower and leaf shapes in the ironwork of the gatehouse door and windows, including a lily at the apex of the entrance door. It is just one of many details meant to bring touches of nature to the Frick Environmental Center building and site. As you pass the gatehouses, bear to your left and walk toward the large covered parking lot. Once you’re under the roof (and have checked for approaching cars), look up. You’ll notice that this is no normal roof. In fact, this one is made of thousands of solar cells. These solar arrays gather the sun’s energy, and help the Frick Environmental Center collect as much energy as it uses. The solar arrays’ sloping roofline also help collect rainwater, funneling in into the two large silver water barrels you see at the front edge of the parking lot. This water will be used for watering plants and other non-potable uses.

Now take a look at the garden space in front of the silver water collection barrels. Check this space in the spring, as new plantings will add one of the site’s key educational pieces when the From Slavery to Freedom Garden joins the landscaping in front of the solar array-covered parking spaces. A partnership with the Heinz History Center, the From Slavery to Freedom Garden will feature plants native to our region that were utilized by escaping slaves making their way north to freedom. Used for food, shelter, and medicinal purposes, these plants played a key role in their journey. Look for interpretive signage to be in place soon, as well as long-term programming components built around the garden installation.

Kid sized doors – in addition to regular adult-size doors – were designed by architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson to make visitors of all sizes feel welcome. Image: Mark Simpson

Next, walk past the barn and restrooms, around the curving path until you reach the fountain. Inspired by the original fountain that stood nearby, this one is designed to have a lower water stream while stillhaving the sound and reflective qualities of the original fountain. Its design will use much less water than other fountains its size, and has edging stones meant for sitting to rest or meet friends. Now continue on the curved path, and pass onto the bridge that leads to the entrance doors. As you approach the doors, look to your left, and you’ll see one of the two outdoor classrooms. These covered open air spaces are perfect for being outside while still shielded from sun and rain. Now, notice that you have two entrance doors to choose from. In order to make everyone feel welcome, there is a full-sized adult door, as well as a smaller, kid-sized door.


Pittsburgh-based UrbanTree crafted furniture for the Frick Environmental Center’s living room and class rooms. Exposed woodgrain and tree rings are intended to spur questions and conversation. Image: Scott Roller

Once inside, walk along the windows until you see the entrance desk at the other end of the building. It’s no ordinary desk, though. It’s made from wood found on the construction site of the Frick Environmental Center, and its intertwining support branches and exposed wood grain are amazing to see. Take a left at the desk, and you’ll be in the living room, where you’ll see other furniture – including square end tables with big open circular cut-outs. They’re perfect for climbing through, or for counting the rings to see the age of the tree it’s made from. Now, step out on the balcony to see another fun detail. Look at the windows and the two-story support columns. The windows are different widths, and they – and the columns – are spaced unevenly from each other. They are designed this way to give the feeling of the random placement and varied sizes of the trees in the surrounding woods.

After you’ve looked around the interior of the building – which is heated and cooled through a system involving 18 geothermal wells drilled over 500 feet deep – exit past the front desk. Pick up a map before you go outside, though, and check out the energy diagram on the back. It shows where the geothermal wells, water collection, natural building ventilation, and other innovative energy highlights of the Frick Environmental Center are located.

Carved sandstone emulates topographical layering in this detail of the site’s rainwater feature installation by environmental artist Stacy Levy. Image: Scott Roller

Once outside, look down to the curving, layered sandstone below. If you think it looks like layers of earthfrom a topographical map, you’re spot on. When it rains, water from the roof will be channeled to the sandstone, flowing over like a river making its way over layers of earth. Finally, as you cross over the bridge look to your left and you’ll see the outdoor amphitheater. With regionally-sourced sandstone benches, and Frick Park’s trees and trails as its backdrop, it’s quite possibly the best seat in city. Take a look at the black walnut wood siding, and notice that it is unfinished. This will allow the blonde-hued wood to fade naturally to shades of grey, matching the bark on the trees in the surrounding woodland of Frick Park. The wood will age differently depending on its exposure to the rain and direct sunlight, serving as a spark for conversation about how the elements affect nature. Finally, as you exit the bridge, look at the round, grey-painted iron gate. See if you can spot the tree and roots in its design. It’s just one of the many creative nature-inspired design touches built into your Frick Environmental Center.

For a slide show of the Frick Environmental Center, please visit www.pittsburghparks.org/frick-environmental-center.

View of the Frick Environmental Center from site's southwest corner, with outdoor amphitheater visible in the foreground. Unfinished black walnut siding will age naturally to grey hues that match the bark of trees in the surrounding woodlands. Image: Jeremy Marshall
View of the Frick Environmental Center from site’s southwest corner, with outdoor amphitheater visible in the foreground. Unfinished black walnut siding will age naturally to grey hues that match the bark of trees in the surrounding woodlands. Image: Jeremy Marshall.