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Credit: Ed Massery, Massery Photography

It takes vision, calculated risk, and sometimes a leap of faith to create real change. In 1998, when Rebecca Flora, then the executive director of Pittsburgh’s Green Building Alliance, initially contacted PNC Bank to discuss a different, more sustainable approach for the bank’s new downtown office tower, crews had already begun erecting steel. “First I said, ‘Maybe you can catch me on the next one,’ but she persisted: ‘Can I meet with you for an hour?’ ” recalls Gary Jay Saulson, director of corporate real estate for PNC Financial Services Group. “So I said ‘I’ll give you half an hour.’ ” Saulson oversees management of all properties, construction, and development for the financial corporation. “Rebecca told me about LEED and convinced me why I should make this a green building—that it was the right thing to do for our employees, our shareholders, and the community,” he says. “She was still in my office two hours later.”

The next day, Saulson announced his plans to the project team. Despite concerns about higher costs, schedule delays, and the necessity of redrafting construction documents, they proceeded with pursuing more sustainable measures. With the aid of Tom Paladino of Seattle-based Paladino and Co. as green-building consultant, the project finished early and $4 million under budget in September 2000. Saulson’s decision had several unintended consequences. The five-story, 647,000-square-foot project became the first to achieve Silver certification under LEED-NC Version 2.0, and also became the world’s largest green building at the time, as well as the first LEED-certified financial institution.

As the lead architectural and engineering designer for the project, Pittsburgh-based Astorino was charged with researching sustainable design trends and incorporating new features to achieve a LEED rating. However, many of the necessary elements were already in place: high-efficiency glazing, optimal building orientation, and lighting and daylighting controls. In addition, PNC had chosen to locate the new building on a former brownfield site. “Our challenge was really just testing our design against the LEED scoresheet and credits, to see how it stacked up before we did a lot of design modifications,” explains Bob Ward, president of engineering for Astorino. “It was a pleasant surprise that a lot of what we had already designed fit in there nicely.”

The building’s large floor plates, each 125,000 square feet, are divided into three major elements that align with the urban grid massing and surrounding natural elements. Major entrances are located to tap into to larger urban circulation patterns. Light wells bring daylight to 90 percent of the building’s floor area, while exterior sunshades reduce glare and heat gain. The majority of the office features underfloor air delivery to ensure occupant comfort and control. In addition to energy savings, the raised access floor offers flexibility for the company’s high churn rate as departments are able to easily move around the open-plan layout. PNC planned this as a 24/7 mission-critical facility, explains Ward. “But mostly,” he says, “they wanted the interior environment to be conducive for minimizing employee turnover and absenteeism while increasing employee efficiency.”

An AIA COTE Top Ten Green Project award winner in 2001, PNC Firstside Center continues to create market ripples, its design remaining fresh after more than a decade. As the first LEED-certified project for Astorino, it represented a shift in focus for the firm. The firm went on to partner with PNC on the J. Richard Carnall Center (completed in 2003, and certified LEED-NC Gold) in Wilmington, Del., and Three PNC Plaza (completed in 2010, and certified LEED-CS Gold), a 23-story, 780,000-square-foot multiuse facility in downtown Pittsburgh. To date, Astorino has completed 14 LEED-certified buildings, with another 25 projects pending LEED certification.

For PNC Financial Services, Firstside set a dynamic new course for its portfolio of corporate properties. To date, the company’s 125 LEED-certified buildings make it the largest private owner and developer of newly constructed LEED projects in the world. It also led to creating the Green Branch concept in 2002, now totaling more than 100 environmentally friendly bank branches—each including recycled materials and design elements such as daylighting and high-efficiency HVAC—across 12 states, with plans for more under way. This program, under which branches are designed and constructed to LEED-certified requirements as a minimum, was part of the pilot program for the LEED Volume program for high-volume property developers.

The premise of making a healthier, more productive workplace conveyed during that first two-hour meeting between Flora and Saulson still resonates with Saulson. “Twelve years ago, we wanted to be the employer of choice, to build an open-area environment where people want to go to work,” he says. “We said we’d figure it out.” And it remains an integral part of the bank’s three-pronged approach to sustainability “as a community builder, as a climate responder, and as a workplace innovator.”

David R. Macaulay is the author of Integrated Design: Mithun, and the blog greenarchitext.com. To read an additional case study produced by the AIA about the 2001 COTE Top Ten Green project, visit aiatopten.org.