INTERIORS CASE STUDY:
National Audubon Society
Nature Calling: FXFOWLE’s Manhattan headquarters for the National Audubon Society offers lessons in how to maintain green leadership
Some organizations jump through elaborate cost-benefit hoops before deciding to build a green office. But for the National Audubon Society, the choice was a no-brainer. When changing needs prompted the century-old, New York-based environmental advocacy group to move its headquarters elsewhere in the city, “We wanted to make sure we were maintaining our leadership in green architecture,” says John Flicker, its president and CEO.
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After all, upon its completion in 1992, the Audubon’s previous location on lower Broadway was a model of eco-friendly construction—albeit in a way that sounds almost quaint today. “The [motion-sensitive] lights would go off every ten minutes,” Flicker recalls, “so we were always waving our arms around.” With technology and know-how markedly improved, the society looked to FXFowle, whose principal Bruce Fowle, FAIA, designed such eco-groundbreaking projects as 4 Times Square, to create a new home that would take it back to the leading edge.
Located in a former printing house near Soho, the latest office condenses operations from the earlier site’s 40,000 square feet spread over three floors to 27,500 square feet on just one floor—though with the same number of staff. “We didn’t need that much space,” says Flicker, adding that the closer quarters improve worker communication. Presented with the smaller footprint and ample 12-foot ceilings, FXFowle senior partner Guy Geier, FAIA, had a “blank slate,” he says, with which to design an office that “would resonate with the Audubon’s culture” of nature and wildlife conservation.
Arriving at the seventh-floor, LEED-Platinum-rated space, the visitor enters from a central core wrapped in barn planks reclaimed from upstate New York. Opposite is a 10-by-20-foot screen of the same, separating the entry from a communal area on the other side. With polished concrete floors, tables topped by salvaged wood, and Eames chairs made of recyclable polypropylene, the common area is bracketed by two conference rooms. All three spaces can be combined into one, thanks to pivoting partitions covered in eco-friendly Xorel fabric. “We were able to use sustainable materials almost everywhere,” says Geier.
However, it is with the slightly elevated walkway abutting the windows that the project begins to reveal its unseen green credentials. Flanking the communal area and core, the main open-plan office spaces are on 11-inch raised-access floors—salvaged, at an estimated savings of $55,000—that provide efficient under-floor air distribution. Swirl diffusers offer individualized control.
In fact, “we were able to create an entire infrastructure from scratch,” Geier says. A cooling tower was installed on the building’s roof, linked to new air handlers at the four corners of the office floor’s core. Meanwhile, existing perimeter steam radiators “were needed and in good shape,” says Ken Hamilton, the Audubon’s vice president of property and facilities management. So they were kept—but not before they were retrofitted with thermostatic valves.
It was in part because of the radiators that no individual offices were placed along the perimeter. In winter, any enclosed space would get too hot. Instead, a continuous 5-foot corridor “democratizes the windows,” Geier says, the aforementioned’s generous 8-foot heights offering plenty of daylight and views for everyone. (“We can see birds migrating by here,” says Audubon spokeswoman Delta Willis.) Thus, overhead fluorescent lighting levels, set on state-of-the-art sensors and dimmers—no arm waving required—could be lowered to 35 foot-candles at work surfaces rather than the standard 45. Individual LED task lights provide any needed fill-in. According to Hamilton, these and other efforts should reduce energy consumption by about 30 to 35 percent, with a payback period of 10 to 15 years.
Of course, the rest of the sustainability laundry list was also checked off: Plyboo cabinetry. Countertops of reconstituted glass and recycled cardboard. Easily reconfigured demountable office and workstation partitions. Waterless urinals and low-flow fixtures, reducing water usage by about 40 percent. Materials obtained from within a 500-mile radius. Then there’s the cork flooring and the eco-friendly carpet tiles—the latter covering the raised-access floors in natural tones of taupe, olive, and wheat.
Indeed, the Audubon wasn’t content to express its values by way of the LEED scorecard alone. Visual cues like the earthy color palette and reclaimed barn siding also suggest an environmental commitment—reinterpreted from images that Audubon staff picked out from a stack of flashcards that Geier and his team created early on. Meanwhile, conference rooms are named after Audubon project sites—the Everglades, Platte River, and so on—“so that our people in New York, who rarely get out to the field, can connect better to our work,” says Flicker.
To be sure, the move caused some anxiety among staff—for example, the open-office plan prompted concerns about noise. In the end, however, “the pride of employees in being a green leader is a big deal. People like working here.” Flicker says. What’s more, he adds, “I think we’ve again set the standard—in a way that’s replicable for other businesses.”
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