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December 11, 2014

Sustainable workplace? Yes, but what about design?

  • Businesses can tell their stories through office design thanks to a bevy of modern eco-friendly products and finishes.
    Robin Chell Design



    Seattle’s building boom is also proving to be a boom for sustainable design. If there’s one thing that we’ve all learned from the recession, it’s the need to conserve resources, spend wisely and minimize waste. In this respect, the fundamentals of creating a more sustainable workplace are already ingrained within the minds of many business owners and developers.

    From office remodels and historic renovations to major new commercial projects, Seattle is becoming a hub for the new sustainable workplace. Business and building owners have learned that it has become much easier to meet basic green-built standards, and as a result we are seeing more projects that are LEED certified or similar.

    Beyond the base green-built standards, however, are buildings and interiors that are raising the bar for sustainability. Projects reaching for this upper echelon include Gerding Edlen’s Pine + Minor Apartments, Skanska’s Stone34 (Brooks headquarters) in Fremont, Ballard’s Greenfire Campus, and the Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill.

    Why go green in the workplace?

    There are multiple reasons for businesses to go green. Not only is green design good for the environment, it can also boost the bottom line as customers, vendors and employees seek businesses that offer sustainable workplaces. A poll by MonsterTRAK.com found that 80 percent of young professionals were interested in working for firms that are committed to the environment.

    Photos by Brent Smith [enlarge]
    Today’s sustainable office can be playful and welcoming, such as the main conference room in Ballard’s Greenfire Campus.

    Our firm has found that more commercial clients are interested in incorporating sustainable design elements into their new or remodeled offices. People spend most of their time indoors, so quality of the office environment is important for workers. Interior design plays a significant role in creating workplaces that are both attractive and functional, which helps to engage us and elevate our experience.

    Benefits of a sustainable office

    Elements such as air quality and natural light contribute to a healthier workplace. In addition, the use of eco-friendly furniture and finishes that don’t contain gas-emitting toxins provides another important benefit. Specifying energy-efficient appliances, lighting and plumbing fixtures can substantially reduce utility costs.

    Even simple changes can make a big difference in creating a more healthy, sustainable and stylish workplace. These include:

    • Replacing artificial plants with real plants or green walls

    • Low or no VOC paints

    • Formaldehyde-free furniture and finishes

    • Energy-efficient light fixtures

    • Open workstations that allow for more natural light

    In the Northwest, maximizing daylight in the workplace is important, especially during the gray winter days when most of us wake up in the dark and get home in the dark. Since daylight is not always adequate here, energy-efficient LEDs are quickly replacing incandescent lighting for better lighting levels and energy savings.

    Colorful acoustic felt and carpet tiles are some of the eco-friendly finishes found at the Bullitt Foundation offices.

    The benefits of a sustainable workplace are many:

    • Healthier environment. Fresh air, low toxins and plentiful light can contribute to a healthier and happier workforce.

    • Increased productivity. Healthier employees and a more attractive and functional workplace all contribute to higher productivity.

    • Competitive edge. Companies that emphasize their commitment to providing an environmentally friendly workplace can distinguish themselves from competitors.

    • Attracting the best employees. Sustainability has become a common expectation for younger workers. A sustainable workplace can attract more dedicated and productive workers.

    • Updated, attractive space. Today’s green design includes finishes and furnishings that range from vibrant and modern to sleek and industrial. Traditional businesses, creative companies and tech-related business alike will benefit from a more personalized and updated interior that is at the same time fresh, welcoming and sustainable.

    • Enhanced public image. Companies that emphasize their commitment to sustainability tend to gain favor among the general public.

    • Reducing sick days. According to the Green Business Bureau, companies providing a healthier workplace report a 20 percent decrease in the number of employee sick days.

    • Cost savings. Companies that use energy-efficient appliances, lighting and plumbing systems not only help the environment, but also reduce their energy bills.

    A memorable workplace

    The good news is that sustainable interiors have come a long way in the past decade. The choice of high-quality, stylish and low-impact products is greater than ever. In particular, local vendors and craftspeople have created exciting new products that are sustainably designed and manufactured. From recycled glass tiles to furniture made from locally reclaimed wood and metal, there are abundant options.

    Photo by Brent Smith [enlarge]
    A massive live-edge conference table, made from a reclaimed Elm tree, is the centerpiece of the Bullitt Foundation conference room.

    The diversity of modern eco-friendly finishes can also help personalize and customize a space, giving businesses an opportunity to tell a story through design. This can reinforce a sense of business or building history, or it can reflect a company’s core values or products.

    For example, our firm is designing several projects for a developer with strong ties to Capitol Hill’s historic Auto Row. Like many new projects in the Pike-Pine corridor, the original facades of low-rise commercial buildings are being incorporated into larger mixed-use structures. We are working with the client to recycle and incorporate as many original interior elements as possible.

    The results of these efforts are projects that preserve a strong sense of place, and truly tell a story about the developer’s commitment to sustainability.

    Bullitt Foundation offices

    Robin Chell Design was the interior designer chosen to complete the Bullitt Foundation offices inside the new Bullitt Center.

    Our firm, having designed office interiors for Ballard’s Greenfire Campus (LEED platinum), was very familiar with eco-friendly design. However, the Bullitt Foundation offices took sustainability to a new level.

    The Bullitt Center is striving for the first Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification for an office building in the U.S., so we knew that the interior finishes would be subject to rigorous environmental standards. This included a “red list” of environmental requirements for all materials.

    Since many familiar products and finishes were not acceptable for this project, we looked forward to the challenge and knew the result would be something special.

    One of our major goals as a design firm was to provide an office interior that was not only sustainable, but also visually exciting, comfortable and welcoming. In this respect, we developed a unique solution that represented the intentions and values of the client, and that also captured the natural elements that define the Pacific Northwest.

    The job was a small but complex tenant improvement for the entrance lobby and the client’s office space. Existing spaces were beautiful and modern, but given the rigid requirements of the LBC, they lacked softness and color and did not address the acoustical needs of the client. In addition, the Bullitt Foundation wanted to create a more welcoming and memorable environment for tenants and guests.

    Photo by Brent Smith [enlarge]
    The lobby of the Bullitt Foundation is a vibrant mix of sustainable design: a living green wall, colorful fabrics made from recycled bottles, and a coffee table made from the original project sign.

    Key elements of the design were a new green wall and furniture using textiles made from recycled plastic bottles. Customized floor and wall treatments addressed the acoustic concerns in functional and playful ways. Felt acoustic panels were incorporated throughout the spaces and conference rooms, and in some instances also served as art pieces. Custom carpet tiles were made by Interface and Mohawk.

    The centerpiece of the main conference room is a large reclaimed wood slab table made by NK Build, a Seattle firm specializing in sustainable custom furniture. The 14-foot table weighs 1,800 pounds, can seat 18 people, and was designed to be assembled on site. Its unique trapezoidal design was inspired by the shape of the room.

    The table also uses metal sourced in Portland and made in Seattle. In order to adhere to the LBC requirements, NK Build used biodegradable, non-toxic, plant-based waxes and oils.

    The client’s goal is for the table to last as long as the building — at least 250 years.

    Lessons learned

    The success of the Bullitt Foundation project came from a passionate client and design team working together to create “something visually striking, stimulating, that captures the ethos of this building.” The result is a stylish, eco-friendly workplace that showcases the values of the foundation and reflects an urban aesthetic that is uniquely Seattle.

    Sustainability has come a long way, and it’s great to see the growing number of companies that recognize the multiple benefits of green design. Seattle offers great examples of eco-friendly commercial interiors, as companies are becoming more committed to providing healthy and sustainable workplaces.

    For us, the learning curve for the LBC was steep, however the entire team was left with a much better sense of why sustainability is so important in the workplace. We also were able to greatly expand our understanding and knowledge of local, low-impact and eco-friendly products.

    Robin Chell Design is a Seattle-based interior design firm specializing in commercial, hospitality and multifamily projects. RCD is working on several commercial buildings that are striving for LEED gold or platinum.

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