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High-Tech Headquarters

Silicon Valley's tech giants are embracing sustainable design in a big way—with a technology battle they can all win.

By Sam Lubell
July 2012
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Illustration by Jamie Portch

Companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook are known for technological innovation, but their offices' architecture has until recently been unremarkable, and more oriented toward promoting a state of extended adolescence (pool tables, slides, bars, etc.) than responsibility. That has changed in the past few years. Executives, employees, and localities (California's CalGreen building standards already get new buildings close to LEED certification) are all much savvier. Only a handful of buildings in Silicon Valley were LEED certified in 2006; that number has jumped to over 100 today.

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Broadly speaking, high-tech companies seem genuinely interested in minimizing their environmental impact, but sustainable design also makes good marketing and business sense. Green strategies save money in the long run, improve employee health and productivity, and even help attract new talent. Besides, how could a company claiming to be on the edge of technological advancement create a building that is anything but technologically advanced? "People are really starting to understand the idea of triple bottom line: people, profit, and planet," says Mike Foster, cochair of USGBC's Silicon Valley branch.

The most widely anticipated new tech headquarters (and the most mysterious) is Apple's, in Cupertino, designed by Foster + Partners. While derided by many for its insular nature, it will nonetheless become a model of sustainability in many ways. The ring-shaped building, whose expansive glazing will admit ample daylight, will incorporate large green spaces—facilitated by moving parking underground—increasing the site's permeable surface. Technical details are still under wraps, but according to documents filed with the city of Cupertino, "a significant amount" of energy for the building will be generated on-site from renewable resources.

While the mantle of greenest company in the area has long belonged to San Jose–based Adobe, Google, in Mountain View, is quickly taking over, says USGBC's Foster. Consisting of more than 50 buildings—most of them retrofits of existing structures—the "Googleplex," as the headquarters is called, showcases the benefits of aggressive policies the company is implementing worldwide. The most visible result is the 168,107-square-foot, 1.6-megawatt solar array, which generates 30 percent of the complex's peak power. A large solar hot water system—consisting of 30 solar collectors—supplies 2,750 gallons of hot water throughout the day. A building management system monitors the entire complex, and most offices have been fitted with materials and furniture that were screened to exclude hazardous ingredients and with Energy Star–rated appliances and electronics.

Since 2011 Google has been targeting LEED certification for all new buildings and projects, and worldwide it has 4.5 million square feet of building space set to achieve LEED certification. The company is working to certify the remainder of the Googleplex. It hopes to eventually achieve Living Building Challenge certification, which demands, among many other things, net zero energy use.

Of course, it's not sheer altruism that drives Google, whose slogan is, famously, "Don't be evil." "There's a strong business case for everything we do," says Google clean energy spokesman Parag Chokshi. Anthony Ravitz, who leads the Green Team for Google's Real Estate and Workplace Services group, says green improvements make for a better workplace environment, and therefore lead to better products. It's an argument echoed by most of the major tech players in the area, who are looking for every advantage in a hyper-competitive atmosphere.

Perhaps trying to retake its green crown from Google, Adobe is now updating its headquarters, whose three San Jose towers were certified LEED Platinum for Existing Buildings in 2006. The company recently added 20 wind turbines, a small PV array, and a dozen 100-kilowatt fuel cells to provide renewable power. A new film on the windows reduces solar impact by more than 90 percent, motion sensors control all lights and electronics, and a smart technology chiller plant increases efficiency.

Architects Valerio Dewalt Train, who are also behind eBay's new five-story, LEED Gold offices in San Jose, recently overhauled a suite of offices to serve as a prototype for several other spaces in the building. Adobe has reduced annual operating costs by about $2.1 million at its San Jose office, according to George Denise, the San Jose complex's facilities manager. The company has completed over 140 energy conservation projects over the past 10 years.

Of course, you can't talk about tech in Silicon Valley without mentioning Facebook, which has been competing with Google and others to build the most energy-efficient data centers. In 2009 the company hired Studio O+A to retrofit a Hewlett-Packard laboratory building in Palo Alto. That space achieved the equivalent of LEED Gold within the Palo Alto Green Building Program, according to O+A principal Primo Orpilla. Not surprisingly, Facebook has already outgrown these offices, and it relocated into a new Gensler-designed complex in Menlo Park late last year.

Gensler has completed just over half of the 1.1-million-square-foot Menlo Park project, inside a complex originally built for Sun Microsystems. Aiming for a LEED Gold rating, the revamped buildings' annual energy use, Gensler senior associate Randy Howder points out, is about 15 to 30 percent lower than Sun's was. Their annual water use is about 30 to 40 percent less. And, like Google, the company is promoting ride sharing, biking, and other sustainable solutions in addition to building design.

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