Climate Works Foundation
Naturally Inspiring: A nonprofit’s office interior in the City by the Bay gives off abstract, natural vibes in its design, but in practice, this group is changing the world for the better.
What do dragonfly wings, turtle shells, and clouds have to do with architecture? No, it’s not the design of a sixth-grade science classroom, but inspiration behind the office for ClimateWorks Foundation, a nonprofit working to prevent climate change—starting with its own workspace. The 13,000-square-foot office successfully relates to the above-mentioned natural elements, despite its location in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district. This biomorphic connection was a key theme throughout the design process. “The client is working on behalf of the natural world on the 13th floor of a high-rise,” William Leddy, FAIA, principal architect, explains. “Part of the challenge was how to abstractly evoke natural ideas to enliven the space.”
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The result is a bright, ambient workplace that would make any nine-to-five office employee jealous. Despite a standard program of workstations, conference rooms, a kitchen, and a reception area, this design is anything but ordinary. Choosing the historic E-shaped Russ building for its headquarters, ClimateWorks occupies the north wing of the floor, leasing out the central connecting section to other nonprofits, with plans to rent out the southern wing as well once Phase II of its build-out is complete. Constructed in 1927, the high-rise embodies age-old traditions of simplicity with operable windows, natural lighting, narrow floor plates, and high thermal mass. “It was easy to have effective daylighting by taking advantage of the architecture,” says David Malman, lighting consultant.
Matthew Lewis of ClimateWorks jokes that they employed a “back to the future” mentality to preserve the historic goals of the building with natural ventilation and lighting. “We’re shifting the expectations of thermal comfort,” Lewis explains. “It’s San Francisco; do you really need air-conditioning all year round?”
The team decided the answer was no and settled on an outside air-based cooling strategy to take advantage of the generally mild San Francisco weather. “Rather than replacing or renovating the existing HVAC system, we removed almost everything except for supplemental cooling in one conference room,” says Christine Moy Harmon of GCI Construction, the general contractor. “We installed ceiling fans and utilized the operable windows.” Due to sub-metering, the recently certified LEED-CI Platinum office can monitor energy usage independent of the total building. Estimated results show 2/3 less HVAC use and 1/3 less lighting energy than a typical office interior in California. “But the lighting energy use is based on a connected load, assuming everything is on at full,” explains Malman. “Actual usage is much lower.”
The lighting was a large part of both the aesthetic and pragmatic design strategy. The team utilized sophisticated lighting controls including a dimming system that was so new the kinks were still being worked out after ClimateWorks moved in, much to the employees’ frustration. (Those problems have since been resolved.) Sculptural ceiling elements composed of large, white lighting structures resemble cloud and dragonfly shapes. “The nature-inspired fabric bowls were designed by the architect to diffuse the light,” Malman says. The light-colored interior walls together with the windows leave little need for artificial lighting in practice, but the hovering, futuristic saucers of various sizes certainly make a stylish statement.
The lighting is enhanced by all-glass facades in the private offices and a noticeable lack of typical cubicle-type partitions between workstations in the open floor plan, such that 97 percent of regularly occupied spaces have access to natural daylighting. Lewis jokes that no one has any privacy at all—no video games or online shopping in this office.
On a more serious note, Leddy points to research supporting “biophilia,” the idea of using nature in design. Improved indoor-air quality and natural light have made a difference in employee productivity and health. “People respond to their work environment; they’re biologically influenced by the space,” Lewis confirms. Many workers take advantage of the bike storage room, with a shower providing further incentive to cycle. Others choose public transportation, which is easily accessible within a quarter mile of the office.
An expression of biophilic design, the creek-like fountain serves as a central focus of the office. Since the stainless-steel basin for the water feature needed to remain intact when it was installed, the team removed a window and used a crane to get it into place. Adjustments were made to lower the sound of the flow to its current background noise level. The rock-filled fountain, once a splashy distraction, has since become an employee favorite, furthering the built space’s connection to nature.
By courting nature in the design process, this green interior design project underscores daylighting, natural airflow, and organic forms. The advocates, researchers, and administrators can collaborate here to work in a space that truly resonates with the mission of the foundation.