Environmentally conscious real estate is no longer simply a trend, it’s a new commercial reality. With some studies reporting that buildings and construction account for as much as 39% of global CO2 emissions, businesses have become increasingly concerned about the impact of their office space on the planet. Almost every building has the potential to become more environmentally friendly, which means almost every landlord should consider ways to make that happen. There are many excellent blog posts providing reasonable, small-but-effective ways to help green your office space.
This is not one of them.
This is a no-holds-barred, tell-Santa-what-you-really-want-for-Christmas post. An extreme, what-kind-of-building-would-you-design-if-you-had-a-$30-million-grant-and-four-years-to-make-it-happen kind of a post. So prepare to pick your jaw up off the ground and read on to find out what some exceptionally forward-thinking companies and institutions are doing to make their workspaces as environmentally friendly as possible. You might be inspired to join them.
(1) The Kendeda Building—Atlanta, GA
An apiary. A blueberry orchard. Over 900 solar panels. Georgia Tech’s new Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design (scheduled to fully open this month) is attempting to be the first building of its size and function to obtain Living Building Challenge (“LBC”) 3.1 certification in the hot and humid southern U.S. To achieve this certification, the building must meet the rigorous LBC standards over a period of twelve consecutive months, creating “a positive impact on the human and natural systems that interact with [it].”
A functional part of the university, the Kendeda Building houses an auditorium, classroom spaces, makerspace, and labs. Its construction made use of local reclaimed material—much of it sourced from right on campus—selected to avoid materials and chemicals known to cause the greatest harm to people and the environment. The building is designed to collect more water and energy than it consumes: to give more than it takes.
While the LBC is particularly popular at educational institutions and environmental centers (Pittsburgh’s own Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes—considered “one of the greenest buildings on the planet”—counts LBC certification among its many sustainable building certifications), even companies without an overt environmental bent are becoming increasingly focused on meeting this challenge, or some aspect of it. For example, Google’s Chicago office is an LBC certified Petal renovation, as is Etsy’s Brooklyn headquarters. PNC Bank’s Davies & Andrew Branch is LBC certified Net Zero.
(2) Bullitt Center—Seattle, WA
Kendeda may be currently pursuing LBC certification, but in 2015, Seattle’s six-story Bullitt Center— designed to be the greenest commercial building on the planet—achieved it. In 2016, Bullitt’s 575 photovoltaic panels generated 30% more energy than the structure needed, making it one of the largest net-positive buildings in the world. The Center also boasts a 26-well geothermal heat exchange system, a rooftop rainwater-to-potable system, and an onsite composting toilet system. Its elevator generates electricity by braking between floors, and the facility even offers a bicycle garage—complete with repair and wash station.
Appropriately, the Bullitt Center opened on April 22, 2013: Earth Day. With an anticipated 250-year lifespan, the Center is fully leased and offers tenant-ready spaces. Every tenant within commits to energy and water budgets in accordance with the building’s net-positive-energy features.
(3) Epic Campus—Verona, WI
It’s hard to imagine a more creative work environment than software company Epic’s 25-building Madison-area campus. With meeting rooms and hallways that bring to mind Dungeons & Dragons, Indiana Jones, and Star Wars, a cafeteria inspired by King’s Cross station in London, slides, waterfalls, a tree house conference room, a four-story barn, artwork installments of all types and sizes—not to mention comfy hammock chairs—the campus is truly like no other. Epic chief administrative officer Steve Dickmann has stated that the complex was “designed to promote productivity, creativity, comfort.” Clearly environmental awareness was also at the forefront of construction.
While Epic may not be currently pursuing LBC certification, that doesn’t mean the company takes sustainability any less seriously. Among its energy sources are one of North America’s largest geothermal heating and cooling systems (thousands of miles of geothermal pipes reaching 500 feet underground), six wind turbines (located on farms about 11 miles from campus), and 6,2000 photovoltaic solar panels (spanning 18 acres). Storm water is collected and treated on-site. As Epic’s website extols, “On a bright windy day we’re practically off the grid.”
The majority of Epic’s parking is underground, which both preserves sightlines and minimizes water and waste runoff. Epic’s 11,000-seat auditorium is underground, too, for the same reasons. The auditorium is home to not only monthly staff meetings (popcorn and coffee are served), but also Verona Public High School’s annual graduation ceremony—one of many ties Epic has to the local community. Notably, the company also minimizes environmental waste by donating to the community building materials that arrive not-quite-as-specified. In 2005, it donated 300,000 bricks that were the incorrect color to help build both a school and a library in Verona.
* * *
Creating an environmentally friendly office space on the scale of a Bullitt Center or an Epic Campus may seem out of reach for the majority of us. But the fact that these types of places are being built is a good reminder of the steps we can all take right now.
Significantly, construction of the Bullitt Center utilized only off-the-shelf products—ones that were already available—to show what was possible in today’s construction. As the building’s website stresses: The era of harm reduction, half steps, and lessor evils is behind us. As a society, we need to be bold in ways that were once unimaginable.
Whether it’s moving toward new construction that’s LEED—or LBC—certified, or ensuring that any renovation includes only energy-efficient appliances and light sources, make it a priority to add sustainable features. Such features are not the stuff of science fiction. They are here today, and make long-term financial sense. Tenants want them, and the planet needs them.
Written by: Kim Pierson