The Terry Thomas
No A/C? It’s a breeze: In Seattle, the four-story Terry Thomas building takes the LEED with a less-is-more approach by Weber Thompson.
Terry Thomas was a British film actor famous in the 1960s and 1970s for playing upper-class cads and scoundrels. For Weber Thompson principal Scott Thompson, AIA, lead designer, part owner, and workplace occupant of the 64,600-square-foot Terry Thomas building in Seattle’s up-and-coming South Lake Union district, the irony of designing and working in a LEED-Platinum (interiors) and Gold (shell and core) building named after a dastardly bounder is not lost. The building is on a 13,800-square-foot site at the corner of Terry Avenue and Thomas Street, so naming it after the actor was apropos and got a chuckle from everyone involved who knew the comedic connection. “We think it’s pretty funny,” Thompson says.
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All kidding aside, this building is about as serious an example of the “less-is-more” approach to sustainable design as it gets. The Terry Thomas replaces a light-industrial brick building that could not be renovated (Weber Thomas recycled 93 percent of the demolished structure’s materials). With four stories and 37,000 square feet of naturally ventilated, minimally finished office space, 3,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space on the ground floor, a central courtyard, and two below-ground parking levels for cars and bicycles, the tenants—Weber Thompson on half the first level and all of the second and third levels, a marketing firm on half of the fourth level, and a dental office moving into some of the unoccupied retail space on the first floor—are proud participants in what Weber Thompson principal Peter Greaves, AIA, calls a big science experiment. “We polled the Weber Thompson’s younger collective, which is most of the firm,” says Thompson, “and they challenged us to give them a workplace with natural ventilation and daylight. We decided to go a step further.”
Stepping further meant going back to thinking about how buildings were designed to keep occupants comfortable without the luxury of air conditioning. “It used to be that architects designed buildings in shapes that allowed air to flow through them,” says Thompson. A square, donut-shaped mass around a central courtyard gives the Terry Thomas its “alphabet building” status. Bringing technology into the picture meant having the courtyard work with vents, controls, and window openings to create a stack effect, drawing warm air out and up through the courtyard. Visitors enter into the courtyard to a lobby, where an interior staircase or an elevator rises to one’s chosen level. “There’s also an exterior covered staircase to encourage people to take the stairs,” says Thompson. “The elevator’s pretty slow, so that’s been successful.”
Surrounding the courtyard, floor-to-floor heights were reduced without the need for air-conditioning ductwork. The narrow floor plates’ width and the ceiling heights were adjusted for cross ventilation and daylight penetration. Automated exterior venetian blinds are controlled by a rooftop sensor that measures the light level and sun angle and adjusts as necessary to reduce solar-heat gain and glare in the south-facing courtyard as well as at the northeast and northwest corners of the building.
The east and west elevations feature punched, screenless windows protected by custom-designed, tinted-glass-and-steel sunshades. “We relied heavily on our mechanical engineer,” says Greaves about the challenge involved with harnessing sunlight, “and the Seattle Daylighting Lab at the University of Washington.”
The objective at every turn was to make the building operate efficiently without a lot of expensive technology. “We’ve cut our energy consumption by 50 percent,” says Thompson, “without using photovoltaics or other technologies that were too expensive at the time for this project. But the building was set up to easily be retrofitted for them later.” Another old-school technology used to keep the building green included a gas-fired boiler with perimeter radiators for heating. “We tried to keep everything simple,” says Thompson. “To keep the budget down we chose materials that served multiple functions—the structure was left exposed on the interiors with no dropped ceilings to hinder ventilation. A concrete slab became the floor. Acoustical Homasote panels serve as light reflectors and can be used to pin up sketches.”
Thompson admits that the team was concerned that the space could become too warm. Their testing showed that during a year’s time, there could be 18 to 25 hours where the temperature might get up to 85 degrees. “If it gets up that high, then we just have to go,” he says, adding that adjusting schedules for those few days hasn’t been a problem. “The building works very well for our business. There’s only one closed office—for the comptroller, and everyone works very collaboratively, so a hermetically sealed box with lots of closed spaces isn’t right for us. And if it’s a little warm, well, everyone can come to work in shorts if they want to.”
Thompson and Greaves also admit that the building might not work in another location. Seattle is not a place that comes to mind when heat and bugs are mentioned. “But it can be pretty gray and depressing,” says Greaves. “This building counters that. It feels light and airy all the time.” Air and light aren’t the only perks of working for Weber Thompson—all employees get free passes for public transportation (the streetcar stop is across the street), those with hybrid and fuel-economy cars get special parking spaces, and there’s a shower (with low-flow showerheads, of course!) on every floor to encourage bicycle use. Weber Thompson’s principals are making every attempt to practice what they preach.
“We built these ideas into our work,” says Greaves, “and we’ll continue to gently nudge private developers and clients to realize how uncomplicated and cost effective it is to design a building like this.”
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