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Living In The Lab

When firms need firsthand evidence that green building strategies work, they turn to their own offices.


By Tristan Korthals Altes

They are not perfectly controlled and calibrated laboratory experiments, but that’s not the point when firms deploy green building practices in their own offices. They need firsthand evidence something works or doesn’t work, especially when many of those practices are relatively new to most in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry. These handful of firms want to test a product or strategy in a real-world setting, while insulating their clients from repercussions. And with LEED certifications for their offices becoming de rigeur, they have their own projects as willing guinea pigs.

Living In The Lab
Photo © Michelle Litvin

With most staff using workstations in an open office plan, HOK also offers attractive meeting rooms like this one for group collaboration.

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Some firms have put their employees’ productivity on the line to explore and prove a strategy. As part of its LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI) certification, the global architecture firm HOK moved 235 of its St. Louis office staff from a traditional segmented office to an open floor plan. A handful of closed offices remain, and a variety of conference work stations are available for meetings or phone calls, says Tim Gaidis, a senior associate. “The rentable area per employee went way down—we consolidated 78,000 square feet to 60,000 square feet,” he says. “There was a breaking-in period where people had to get used to a new way of doing things,” he notes, but it has been a success that has carried over to clients. “If we can’t walk the talk, how can we expect our clients to really believe in what we’re proposing?” asks Gaidis.

HOK continues to learn from its space. “Our space does not have thermostatic controls for everyone, but it does have receptacles,” Gaidis says. Many people bring in fans, space heaters, and task lights to improve their comfort. “For our corporate clients we recommend considering personal controls,” says Gaidis, in part based on this experience. Clients resist the added cost of the strategy, he adds, but plug loads and purchases of fans and space heaters by staff allows HOK to argue that leaving out personal controls merely sidesteps, but does not avoid, their needs.

As with other companies pursuing LEED certification, firms cannot always afford to pursue all the green strategies they would like. OWP/P, a Chicago-based architecture firm, faced this problem with its current pursuit of LEED-CI certification, says Rand Ekman, AIA, senior associate and director of sustainability. “We decided that wasn’t a good enough reason not to test them in a laboratory setting,” says Ekman. “If it was a good idea, we would implement it at some level.”

Outside OWP/P’s main conference area is a roof-deck patio with large planters the firm installed in order to study five different green-roof systems. The firm will leave it to others to monitor green roofs for stormwater and thermal benefits; the purpose here is to provide a visual demonstration and test for obvious installation and maintenance issues. “We can sit there in a conference with a client and say, ‘What about a green roof?’—and there are five right outside that have been sitting there for a couple of years,” Ekman says. “They can just go and see how it works.”

A 3,600-square-foot green roof grows prominently outside Cook + Fox Architects’ LEED-CI-Platinum office in New York City, partly for environmental benefit and partly to push the envelope. “Our office is focused on the next steps of the green movement,” says Jared Gilbert, communications associate at Cook + Fox. “From just about anywhere in our office you can see the green roof and be able to see the changes in the weather, sun, and seasons and how we are knitting back together the ecosystem of the city,” Gilbert says, discussing regenerative design and biophilia as part of the firm’s focus on health and productivity. Anyone visiting the offices, he notes, “can feel that connection back to nature and back to the outside.”

A3C Collaborative, an architecture firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich., made itself the guinea pig in its own LEED-CI-Gold retrofit. Among its energy-saving projects is a closed-loop ground-source heat-pump system. The firm’s building takes up its whole lot but is adjacent to a city-owned alley. “We approached the city about the use of the alley as our geofield,” said Dan Jacobs, AIA, principal. It took A3C eight months to complete the paperwork, but it pulled it off even though “there were no other models in the state for doing this,” Jacobs said. The experience, unusual as it was, came in handy soon thereafter when A3C helped another company with a sidewalk right-of-way in front of its offices. It would have taken a dedicated client to persist through the bureaucratic obstacles A3C faced, but by volunteering as that client, A3C greased the skids for the next project.

Lighting is another common focus of testing and continual improvement for many architects. In the New York office of sustainability consultants Atelier 10, the company relies on “an exceptionally low-power lighting system,” says principal Paul Stoller. Ambient lighting is provided at 0.6 watts per square foot—a low level even before the office staff dims or turns off the lights to use daylight as well as task lights. Though Atelier 10 took this concept further than most companies would be willing to go, says Stoller, “people come to our offices and say, ‘Cool lighting, can we do this?’ ” Atelier 10’s offices also use natural ventilation far more than most offices in the city. True to the firm’s high-performance design focus, the office relies on a psychrometric chart to decide when to use adaptive-comfort tools like windows and fans and when active cooling is needed. The experience has taught the firm that comfort decisions affecting the office need clear policies as guidance and one person with the authority to make decisions.

“We would rather have it fail on our own building versus failing at a client’s site,” says Meredith Elbaum, AIA, head of architecture firm Sasaki’s Green Laboratory Group at its offices in Watertown, Massachusetts, summing up a common reason for firms to experiment in their own offices. Sasaki’s group installed five different types of pervious paving in 10 of its own parking spaces and verified the performance of each in stormwater infiltration and in reducing surface temperatures.

However, pervious paving, like any paving in the Northeast, sees its greatest trial in the winter, and Sasaki’s team looked to the first snowstorm as a key test. Both a gravel paving and a grass paving system “were torn up and pushed against the building,” Elbaum said. The next spring, the firm replaced the failed spots with one of the paving systems that had survived, and observation of the parking lot goes on. “All week long people bring clients out to see the spots,” Elbaum adds, noting that by putting pervious paving to the test, Sasaki gained credibility in proposing the strategy to clients.

For firms willing to experiment, the learning opportunities are valuable and numerous. Most firms leverage these opportunities by making demonstrations as visible as possible and by involving their staff in implementing strategies. When HOK’s St. Louis office was pursuing LEED, “we took interested staff members and said ‘you document this credit’ and ‘you document that credit,’ and we were able to spread the learning opportunity broadly,” says Gaidis. At Cook + Fox, the staff provided most of the labor for installing the green roof over a weekend. As a result, “Everyone takes pride of ownership,” Gilbert says. The staff has a gardener’s attitude of patient expectation toward the roof, he adds, providing an apt description for the approach of all of these firms to green building strategies: “We watch it grow, weed it, and do a little bit of watering.”

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This article appeared in the January 2008 print issue of GreenSource Magazine

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