Modernism with a Mission: A new headquarters for the U.S. Green Building Council translates the organization’s values into material reality earning a Platinum rating under the group’s own recently revamped system.
In the world of non-profits, the 16-year-old U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) can hardly be called a mature organization. However, the group is emerging from a slightly awkward adolescence where it grew as fast as any gangly teenager. Between December 2003 and December 2005, the council staff almost doubled, expanding from 31 to 60 employees. And, not long after moving into offices near Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle in late 2006, it became clear that the group would soon need larger quarters.
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USGBC leadership saw its next move to two floors of a 10-story office building a few blocks away as an opportunity: “Our organization is coming of age and we needed a physical space expressing that,” explains Linda Sorrento, the council’s director of education partnerships and manager of the new office project. The USGBC’s assignment for its architects, D.C.-based Envision, was to create a “clean, modern, and timeless” environment, says Ken Wilson, FAIA, one of the firm’s principals. The resulting $8.7-million fit out, completed earlier this year, satisfies the mandate for business-like legitimacy, but without being at all sterile. For example, in the reception area smooth, white terrazzo floors contrast with walls clad in salvaged gumwood of varied hues. And, from behind a minimal glass-and-steel, open-tread stair, a water feature makes a soft, soothing sound.
Underlying this pleasing combination of biophilia and cool modernism are some serious sustainable strategies. One of the most fundamental is an adaptability that should allow the addition of another 100 employees to the current 200 without major demolition or construction. The offices have a modular layout with demountable partitions and low-voltage light fixtures that can be connected to new switches without rewiring. A wireless mechanical control system should also make the relocation of thermostats and ceiling variable air volume (VAV) boxes relatively straightforward.
Well before the design team started selecting light fixtures and VAV boxes, USGBC’s real estate broker, CB Richard Ellis (CBRE), negotiated a “green lease” with the building owner. Of the agreement’s many provisions, one of the most significant provides sub-metering of energy consumption, making the USGBC responsible for only what it uses. Although the mid-1970s building had a new high-performance curtainwall and upgraded mechanical systems, the council planned further improvements. “The tenant should see the benefit of these investments,” says Jennifer Ralph, a CBRE broker.
Consumption-reducing features installed by the USGBC run the gamut from waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets to a dedicated demand-controlled ventilation system with heat recovery for the conference rooms. However, the most innovative resource-conserving element may be the circulation space that runs at the edge of the floor plate, primarily along the south-facing curtainwall. The idea, eventually dubbed the “eco corridor” by the project team, was first proposed as a way of making the open-office area as non-hierarchical as possible. By pulling the workstations away from the perimeter, “everyone gets a window, and no one gets a window,” explains Wilson.
The mechanical engineer, Paul O’Brien, president of D.C.-based GHT, recognized that the layout had energy-saving implications. Since people only travel through this zone, its upper and lower temperature thresholds could be different from the rest of the office, he explains. Savings will be most dramatic in the summer, when energy requirements for cooling the perimeter will drop by 5 percent for each degree the temperature is set above that for the more regularly occupied areas, according to GHT.
The concept also works to the advantage of the daylighting scheme. “In many offices with desks at the windows, occupants lower the shades to avoid glare and then deprive everyone else of daylight,” points out Dane Sanders, a principal at Clanton & Associates, the project’s Boulder, Colorado-based lighting consultant. But, with desks pulled away from the curtainwall, direct sunlight is less likely to interfere with work surfaces.
Clanton suggested that light-colored carpet would further contribute to the eco-corridor strategy. It transforms the floor into a light shelf, improving penetration of reflected sunlight and helping reduce dependence on electric lighting.
Creative solutions like the eco corridor, which cross the boundaries between design disciplines, are a large part of the reason the USGBC offices earned 94 LEED points—14 more than the minimum required for Platinum under the recently revamped rating system. Although the team regularly evaluated the headquarters against the then-still-evolving version of the system now known as LEED 2009, for Wilson, the project wasn’t a point-chasing exercise. “We tried to make every decision on the basis of the budget, sustainability, and functionality.”
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