Pittsburgh’s Frick Environmental Center: The Ultimate Outdoor Classroom

September 1, 2016, Department, by Scott Roller

The LEED Platinum- and Living Building Challenge-certified Frick Environmental Center, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.It’s no secret that early experiences in parks can help foster wonder, creativity and expression. These encounters with the natural world can fill the souls of urban children with sights, sounds and smells that one day can be expressed in the creative arts and in the curiosity that feeds scientific inquiry. It is with this in mind that The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, in close partnership with the city of Pittsburgh, set out to build the Frick Environmental Center. Designed to be LEED Platinum- and Living Building Challenge-certified, the building is itself a learning tool, and serves as the entry point to the 644 acres of rolling hills of Frick Park that serve as the setting for environmental education of Pittsburgh-region kids of all ages.

A Wish Granted

In the early 1900s, industrialist Henry Clay Frick’s daughter Helen asked for a park for the children of Pittsburgh as her debutante gift, and her wish came true when Frick Park was established in 1927. It was carefully designed with no public internal roads to immediately immerse those who enter from the bustling surrounding neighborhoods in thriving woodlands. With more than 11 miles of trails of varying degrees of challenge, streams, lush valleys and cliffs that contain horn-coral and crinoid fossils, Frick Park is the ultimate outdoor classroom. 

Helen Frick’s son Childs also loved the outdoors, and his childhood exploration of the hills behind his family’s home spurred his passion for nature and guided him to become a renowned vertebrate paleontologist and trustee of the American Museum of Natural History. Those hills eventually became part of Frick Park and, in the 1970s, an environmental center was built in its northeast section. After the center was destroyed by fire in 2002, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, city government and community members began planning the new Frick Environmental Center, putting neighborhood input front and center. “The Parks Conservancy has always found that early and extensive community input is a critical guiding light for any project, and the Frick Environmental Center is no exception,” says Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Founder and CEO Meg Cheever. More than 1,000 members of the community were involved in the public visioning and planning process for the new center. Ideas and concepts from the public planning sessions — the location of restrooms and an intimate outdoor theater to name but two — have been incorporated into the new Frick Environmental Center building and site.   

The opportunity for the new Environmental Center to be a groundbreaking building that could serve as a teaching tool for all its patrons, along with the Conservancy’s increasingly in-demand environmental education programs became key design tenants. Architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, challenged with creating a design that both respected the site’s heritage — including the park entrance gatehouses designed by Jefferson Memorial architect John Russel Pope and a formal tree-lined allée — and allowed for a state-of-the-art green building, beautifully achieved all points. Even details of the entrance doors were carefully considered, as children entering the building immediately feel welcome as they pass through a kid-sized door located beside the full-size doorway.

“The building is beautiful, but is it also a living, breathing structure that can teach its visitors about the relationships between nature, energy and the built environment,” says Parks Conservancy Sustainability Coordinator Maureen Olinzock. “Our hope is that in ways small or big, those who experience the Frick Environmental Center will incorporate some of what they learn into their own homes and lives.” Designed to collect as much energy as it uses, the center gathers solar energy via a parking lot covered with a photovoltaic panels, and utilizes a geothermal heating and cooling system. Water is collected from the parking lot’s angled solar panel roof, and stored on-site in a 5,000-gallon underground cistern for non-potable use. Windows are designed to allow natural ventilation, and a set of valves from the geothermal wells have been left visible in the building to encourage conversation. Energy components of the building were intentionally designed to be seen by park users; the questions they spark give Parks Conservancy education staff ongoing opportunity for teachable nature and energy moments. 

Fun in Any Weather

With STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) education and school partnerships at the heart of the Parks Conservancy’s environmental education programs, art plays a key part in the Frick Environmental Center. Rain water and its circular journey from sky to ground and back are the focus of two installations. A rain veil — a 30-foot awning designed to drop a thin sheet of rainwater from the building’s main roof over an outdoor walkway — encourages exploration and play, while the Rain Ravine channels stormwater through a series of sandstone sheets carved to suggest the layers of rock that erosion can expose, ultimately guiding the water into holding ponds that allow it to slowly absorb into the woodland. “When it rains, we want kids and their adults to say, ‘Let’s go to the Frick Environmental Center!,’ and to realize there is fun to be had outdoors in any weather or season,” says Parks Conservancy Director of Education Camila Rivera-Tinsley. 

Permanent outdoor signage that outlines the park’s history, landmarks, trails, wildlife and plants creates an immediate connection for visitors, giving them a baseline of knowledge for the woodlands they are about to enter and placing it within the context of the region’s watershed. This knowledge of their park’s role in the city’s conservation efforts, combined with year-round programming for all ages, builds pride and bonds patrons to nature in a lasting way. A hill-top clearing in the park’s interior uses felled logs and stumps to create an outdoor classroom with a seating area. Outreach to diverse communities, summer camps, evening “Bump in the Night” programs for kids and their caregivers in the fall, all-ages winter hikes, and spring Earth Day and volunteer events keep visitors returning and maintains interest. “Giving users of all ages knowledge about their parks, and getting them outdoors in every season creates lasting dedication and support,” says Cheever. 

The new Frick Environmental Center opened to the public in early September 2016. Henry, Helen and Childs Frick would surely be pleased with the lasting effects of their parkland gift and the love and exploration of nature that the center inspires. “The Parks Conservancy is honored that the Frick Environmental Center — one of the greenest buildings on earth — is set to be the first to serve the public seven days a week,” adds Cheever. “It is a wonderful way to inspire the park stewards of the future to conserve our natural resources.” 


Scott Roller is the Senior Manager, Communications and Creative, for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.