Rookies of the Year

Of all the convention centers opening this year, two stand out for making the most of their environments -- literally. In Pittsburgh, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center's pioneering "green" design uses natural light and wind sweeping off the Allegheny River to minimize energy expenses. Its state-of-the-art facilities will help advance Pittsburgh as an emerging convention destination.

Meanwhile, Washington D.C.'s huge new center conceals most of its square footage underground, allowing it to draw large groups in a premier location without disrupting the historic and monumental skyline of the nation's capital.

Natural Wonder

Pittsburgh's new $367 million David L. Lawrence Convention Center had its grand opening in April of this year. Set on the banks of the Allegheny River, the facility replaces the old center and triples the city's meeting space with its 313,000 square feet of exhibition space -- 236,900 of which is column-free. The building also houses 51 meeting rooms, two 175-seat lecture halls, and a 36,000-square-foot ballroom.

In the fall, Pittsburgh will find out if it has received official acceptance as the nation's first "certified green" convention center. The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, announced by the U.S. Green Building Council, would not only recognize the center's many environmentally friendly design features but would also free up $150 million in state funds contingent upon the rating.

The center has many green features. At least 25 percent of the building is constructed out of recycled materials. Its water reclamation system reduces the use of potable water by nearly 60 percent, and its use of natural daylight and natural airflow should produce energy savings to run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Three of the center's five exhibition halls feature skylights that substantially reduce the need for artificial light, and the sloping roof acts as a chimney to pull the cooler air from the river into the facility.

The center is currently connected to a 613-room Westin Hotel by a skywalk, and is scheduled to announce construction of a 500-room property adjacent to the main building this year. www.pgh-conventionctr.com

A Capital Plan

After nearly 10 years in development, Washington D.C.'s new, $833 million convention center opened in March. And there's much more to it than meets the eye. The 2.3-million-square-foot center, billed as the largest building ever erected in the nation's capital, covers six city blocks with 725,000 square feet of column-free exhibit space, 36,000 square feet of registration space, and 70 breakout rooms. But nearly 40 percent of the total exhibit space and its 40 loading docks are completely underground and beneath major thoroughfares.

The center was built this way to avoid disturbing Washington's historic look and feel without sacrificing the need for square footage. In addition to the exhibit halls and meeting rooms, the center also features a 52,000-square-foot ballroom that can accommodate up to 3,000 for dinner and boasts views of both the Washington Monument and the Capitol building.

The entire facility has wireless Internet capabilities and also includes 40,000 square feet of retail space, of which 18,000 is dedicated for a multiconcept food court. And throughout, the new center displays what it considers the largest public art showcase in any U.S. convention center, for which it spent $4 million to commission and acquire pieces. www.dcconvention.com

Right now the front-runners for Rookie of the Year honors in the near future are centers currently under construction in Boston and Puerto Rico. Both promise innovation for improved functionality.

Beantown Beauty

The 1.6 million-square-foot, $800 million Boston Convention and Exposition Center project broke ground in South Boston in 2000 after years of contention and controversy, and is scheduled to open in June 2004. Billing itself as the largest convention facility in New England, the center will allow the city to host the large meetings and conventions that couldn't squeeze into the considerably smaller Hynes Memorial Center. The BCEC will feature 516,000 square feet of contiguous exhibition space, 86 meeting rooms, and a 41,000-square-foot ballroom overlooking the city and the harbor. The center will also feature a new, adjacent 1,200-room Starwood-branded hotel.

The new center is a four-minute drive from Boston's Logan International Airport and has its own exit from the Ted Williams Tunnel. It's also accessible by public transportation thanks to the new Silver Line electric underground busway that connects it to the city's transit system. www.mccahome.com

Viva La Convencion

Scheduled to open in 2005, the Puerto Rico Convention Center promotes itself as the largest meeting facility in the Caribbean and Latin America. Set on 113 waterfront acres that were once the U.S. Navy base at Isla Grande in San Juan, the center will be able to host more than 10,000 attendees at a time. In the 580,000-square-foot facility, the exhibition hall will span 158,000 square feet and nearly 40,000 square feet will be meeting space with 12 rooms that can be further divided into 25 smaller areas. The ballroom, which center officials say will be the largest in the Caribbean, spans 40,000 square feet and can be divided into two smaller sections.

The convention center will be the centerpiece of a $415 million destination project called The Puerto Rico Convention Center district, which will include an adjacent 850-room hotel and casino (to open in 2006), 950 parking spaces, as well as various offices, retail shops, and restaurants. The district will be quickly accessible from the nearby Luis Munoz Marin International Airport. www.prconvention.com