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Sustainable Workplace Design Creates Innovation Opportunities

July 9, 2009
Today’s innovative design and construction techniques help companies implement new ways of working – with positive results to the bottom line

Toss around a phrase like “workplace of the future” and people may imagine a super-high-tech, utopian model of business efficiency. Others may dismiss the thought as one that’s unrealistic when it comes to budget. Yet these “workplaces of the future” are being designed and built today at costs comparable to typical office space.

Needs change. Work environments evolve quickly. Today’s innovative design and construction techniques help companies implement new ways of working – with positive results to the bottom line. A trend that’s here to stay is the sustainable open-office work environment. An open-office environment encourages collaboration while providing a framework for incorporating design concepts that support sustainability goals.

Sustainable Design: How Does it Better the Workplace?
Economically. Sustainable workplaces help employees do more (improve productivity), reduce operational costs (through energy cost savings), eliminate waste (renewable/recyclable materials), and provide the flexibility to adapt to change.

Socially. People are immediately and constantly linked to the place where they work. Studies show that people are happier at work when they have access to the natural environment. A recent study by Grand Rapids, MI-based Haworth says: “Employees with a natural view exhibit less job pressure, more job satisfaction, and fewer ailments, and recover from stressful situations more quickly.” According to a report by David Morrison of Grubb & Ellis, 43 percent of Fortune 1,000 firms have filed Corporate Social Responsibility Statements that indicate their carbon footprints and corporate sustainability goals. Sustainable workplaces can instill pride in the workforce and demonstrate an organization’s commitment to “walk the talk.”

Environmentally. Sustainable workplaces respect the planet. There are a number of sustainability measures available as design resources, including LEED and ENERGY STAR.

Workplace design is one of the most undervalued tools that can be used to help achieve goals. The power of space to influence our energy, interaction, health, and drive is tremendous.  

Any good CEO will tell you that his or her organization’s employees are the most critical component to success. Not only is the staff often responsible for the majority of a company’s revenue (either through the services it provides or products it makes), employee salaries are often one of the largest costs borne by a business. Recruiting may not be a priority in today’s economy, but retention of the best talent never loses importance. Productivity, too, remains a critical factor, no matter the economic circumstances.

Though an investment in sustainable workplace design reaps energy cost savings (particularly within a build-to-suit environment), the best bang for the green buck comes from improvements to employee productivity and well being.

Study after study shows that well-designed sustainable solutions can positively impact productivity by 3.5 to 10 percent or more. Morrison’s report lists the impacts (see below).

Of course, there are also energy cost savings. In Doing Well by Doing Good? An Analysis of the Financial Performance of Green Office Buildings in the USA, published by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) in March 2009, the authors say that “the impact of energy costs directly affects the bottom line of tenants and building owners. Energy represents 30 percent of operating expenses in a typical office building; this is the single largest and most manageable operating expense in the provision of office space.”

How many new ways of working could be developed by using that money spent on operations costs for research and development, or marketing and communications?

Sustainable Case Studies
Sustainable work environments can be implemented in a lease situation or build-to-suit (BTS) scenario. A BTS is often ideal because it offers a clean slate – even though there may be site constraints, a good building design can take maximum advantage of sustainable design opportunities, such as solar orientation, prevailing wind directions for natural ventilation, and geothermal heat sources.

An example of a new build-to-suit “workplace of the future” currently under construction is the U.S. Department of Energy’s 218,000-square-foot Research Support Facility (RSF) on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) campus in Golden, CO. This office is designed to achieve (and go beyond) LEED Platinum to become a net-zero-energy building. Home to more than 740 workers when it’s complete in 2010, the RSF is intended to become a prototype that can be replicated by the government and commercially at costs competitive with traditional office buildings.

The “H” shape of the RSF building is derived from the desire to illuminate the entire workplace with daylight without penalizing the facility with undue energy gain or loss.

A sustainable open-office environment can be a significant culture shift for many organizations. NREL is addressing this culture shift by building out a full mock-up of the workplace in its existing Golden Hill office and touring employees through it before the move to the new permanent office. The goals of the RSF are identified on the NREL’s website:

  • Meet the needs of the workforce – current and future.
  • Maximize the efficiency of employee workspaces.
  • Make the best use of the space while using the lowest attainable amount of energy per square foot.

To meet these goals and the LEED Platinum rating, the NREL understands it needs an innovative space to facilitate this new way of working. “As a result, tearing down walls is an important concept in the RSF, both literally and figuratively,” says NREL spokesman George Douglas.

In the RSF example, the design-build team is providing a solution of modular workstations and demountable walls. This approach works in synergy with the project’s energy goals, contributing greatly to daylighting and natural ventilation strategies while also providing flexibility.

Demountable walls are manufactured with standard construction materials and made in a factory at specified widths, and can be reused and moved into alternate configurations. This eliminates the need for drywall demolition and reconstruction as needs change, reducing waste.

Any background employee chatter in the open-office spaces is mitigated through a soundmasking system that provides white noise. The modular workstations are also 100-percent movable and reusable. Their low profile allows better flow for natural ventilation via user-operated windows, and daylight and views to reach all of the occupants within the space.

The open-office environment, modular workstations, and demountable walls also work hand-in-hand with a raised-floor environment, which provides an infrastructure for an underfloor air distribution (UFAD) system. UFAD gives individuals the ability to control the temperature in their immediate work areas, is much more energy efficient because it reduces cooling loads, and provides better indoor air quality.

The raised floor system also allows for easy relocation or reconfigurations of workstations; IT systems, cable trays, and electrical installations are not tied in to permanent walls or floor.

Though the RSF project demonstrates the opportunities of a build-to-suit workplace and is expected to use 50-percent less energy than current energy code standards for new buildings, even lessees can take advantage of implementing a sustainable open-office workplace.

If private offices are necessary, the workplace can be designed so that enclosed offices are located in the center of the space with low-profile workstations on the perimeter, allowing daylight to penetrate throughout the space. Perimeter offices can have glass walls so the daylight filters to the interior spaces.

A recently completed sustainable interior build-out is the new Van Gilder Insurance headquarters in Denver. “Separate from the herd” is how insurance powerhouse Van Gilder describes itself when compared to the competition. Reflecting this ideal, as well as the 100-year-old evolution of the Van Gilder brand, was the top priority as the company relocated to a new 60,000-square-foot space in a downtown Denver speculative office building. Healthy and sustainable design solutions were key strategies.

“Van Gilder set out to create an office atmosphere that would not only be visually appealing, but also functional in attracting and retaining employees and clients,” says Michael Van Gilder, CEO and president. “Operating in a green environment has definitely been a stepping stone to helping us achieve this.”

Van Gilder resisted the temptation to ring the floor with private offices that would block urban views and natural sunlight. Workstations were intentionally lowered in height to encourage a more collaborative work environment.

A demountable wall system provides maximum “down-the-road” flexibility. Colorful environmental graphics serve as visual cues for collaborative work zones in each of the open-office “neighborhoods.” Informal cafés, lounge spaces, standing-height “war rooms,” and more traditional conferencing areas are scattered throughout, promoting impromptu brainstorming and improved communication among staff.

Learning by Firsthand Experience
RNL had the chance to test fit these strategies for itself when it designed its new 44,000-square-foot headquarters to meet LEED Gold. It makes good business sense energy wise; shows RNL’s level of commitment to its clients, who it encourages to build green; and provides a demonstration space of the possibilities and advantages of green design. Some of the energy-saving features include daylighting and skylights supplemented by high-efficiency lighting systems, and automatic daylight and occupancy sensors, which turn lights off when they’re not needed.

Sustainable materials, which can be implemented in any space, whether a tenant improvement or build-to-suit, were a “no-brainer.” As sustainable workplace design becomes the baseline standard, manufacturers have taken notice. Many sustainable building materials have comparable or superior performance to traditional products – with little or no cost premium. Ceiling tile, cork flooring, and carpet tile are examples of the recycled, renewable, and locally manufactured materials used throughout the space. Low-emitting paints and adhesives are used throughout.

RNL also conducted a post-occupancy evaluation of the space. On the issue of productivity, 69 percent of the respondents felt that the new space improved organizational productivity; 59 percent said it improved individual productivity. Eighty-two (82) percent of the staff felt that the new space would improve recruitment and retention, and 94 percent felt it was better than the previous space.

Sustainable Environments are Progressive Environments
Successful businesses understand that they need to operate in a way that earns the respect of their employees and clients. Open team areas for collaboration send a message of progressiveness and leadership that’s well respected by staff, clients, and shareholders. Transparency, agility, and sustainability are part of the new image. With the inherent benefits of sustainable workplace design, it’s easy to make a compelling case to be “deep green.”

Josh Gould is CEO and chairman at RNL, which has offices in Los Angeles, Denver, and Phoenix.

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