Sustainable, active design tops corporate agenda

July 05, 2016

Summer 2016

By Liz Switzer

Millennials are bringing different work preferences to the corporate environment with a preference for more open spaces.

Millennials are bringing different work preferences to the corporate environment with a preference for more open spaces.

As the traditional C-Suite headquarters gives way to a millennial-driven workplace — multigenerational users often in remote locations — architects and designers in today’s corporate sector must have more on the drawing board than structures.

Corporate design today is about far more than places or destinations; it has to reflect the corporate culture that moves a workforce into the future. With a growing focus on people, health, wellbeing and productivity, active design and the careful selection and use of materials tops the agenda in 2016 and beyond.

“The most important theme in sustainable design is an authentic reflection of the organization’s culture and viewpoint,” said Diana Horvat, principal at Perkins+Will, Washington, D.C. Horvat has been practicing architecture for more than 25 years, specializing in interiors and sustainable design. “In the past the integration of sustainable design was a checklist-driven exercise that was subsequently noted in the sustainability statement posted on an organization’s website. Today it must genuinely reflect the organizational brand and culture.”



Carol Little of Corporate Design Group, Roseville, Calif., designed this bright, user-friendly lobby in Sacramento.

Carol Little of Corporate Design Group, Roseville, Calif., designed this bright, user-friendly lobby in Sacramento.

As active design catches on, workspaces are reimagined with the following in mind: mobility and heightened engagement levels that increase innovation and bottom-line performance. At the root of all of this is a focus on employee wellbeing — think of sitting as the new smoking.

It’s all about employee health, options and ergonomic features, noted Meena Krenek, interior design director and associate principal, Perkins+Will, New York. “Designing a workplace that is sustainable can take on many facets. We are seeing more and more corporate cultures understand the value of employees’ physical, mental and emotional health, using strategically placed printers, communicating stairs and coffee stations to encourage an active workday.”

A combination of space restriction and millennials joining the workforce has also led to smaller, open and non-conventional layouts. It seems that hierarchy and tenure are no longer the key factors in design, replaced by the need for flexible floor spaces, noted Natasha Appel, architectural representative at Crossville. “Millennials are often more productive when not confined to traditional spaces,” she said. “They feel more comfortable in cafés or lounge areas, and mobile technology allows them to work anytime from anywhere. In addition, screen sizes and other office equipment is shrinking, thus requiring less space.”

Daylight has become more important as well. Perimeter offices are being replaced with open space seating, lounge and team meeting areas that allow as many people as possible to be close to window lines. “This is much easier to accommodate with flexible spaces than standard offices of the past,” Appel said.



Costar headquarters in Washington, D.C. — a LEED-CI Platinum project designed by Perkins+Will — focuses on the corporate brand and culture.

Costar headquarters in Washington, D.C. — a LEED-CI Platinum project designed by Perkins+Will — focuses on the corporate brand and culture.

Clients are also becoming more conscious about material selections in the workplace. Krenek has noted a move toward preserving natural materials like exposed concrete and columns, and reusing existing wood floors.

In fact, a growing number of companies like Google and Kaiser Permanente have put policies in place regarding the material content of finishes, furnishings and building materials used, establishing a red list for chemicals to avoid. Red list or worst-in-class materials are chemicals and elements known to pose serious risks to human health and the greater ecosystem. A Red List proper has been adopted by the International Living Future Institute and is used in the Declare program — a “nutrition-label” of sorts for products that provides a database to help streamline materials specification and the certification process. In other cases, companies have adopted material content standards like those outlined in LEED v4 or the Living Building Challenge (LBC).

Overall, a more comprehensive approach to green building has corporate clients looking beyond any one factor to achieve more sustainable results, noted John Stephens, vice president of marketing for Shaw Contract Group. “We are seeing that a single certification is not always enough. Certain projects have a primary objective of creating a healthy work environment, not just using recycled products or LED lights.”

The holistic approach to sustainable design has created demand for a more diverse mix of product certifications. For instance, Shaw Contract EcoWorx products carry Health Product Declarations (HPDs) and are LBC compliant, registered in the Declare database to be free of any Red List chemicals.

The Mohawk Group uses the Red List as a framework for dialogue about human and environmental health in product design and selection. “With the implementation of LEED v4, it is more important than ever for manufacturers to provide customers with transparent product ingredients information and the potential health impacts of the ingredients themselves,” said Rochelle Routman, vice president of sustainability, Mohawk Flooring. The mill now offers more than 500 Red List-free products.



The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has incorporated Declare, HPDs and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) into LEED v4, taking the platform for sustainable design to a new level. While energy and efficiency are still at its core, the latest version of LEED has turned a more focused lens to the impact materials have on both the environment and human health.

“Clients and their design teams are engaging in efforts to support long-term design solutions, building in future space flexibility and material durability,” said Heidi Vassalotti, strategic accounts director at Crossville. “They are assessing finish selections with minimal carbon footprints and health impacts from chemicals.”

Transparency increasingly matters to corporate clients as they strive to make informed, healthy decisions about the selection of building products. “Many modern products are complex; these certifications and programs have increased transparency,” said Chris Lambert, a leader of Cannon Design’s workplace strategy team in Chicago. “This helps clients and the A&D industry begin to understand the impact of products on not only employee health, but also the environment from manufacture through disposal.”

Floor covering is an important component in a healthy office environment, noted Carol Little, founder and CEO of Corporate Design Group in Roseville, Calif. “There are a host of products available today that fit those requirements ranging from hard surfaces like [LVT] to carpet tiles with a variety of backings.”

It’s a combination of materials, design and corporate culture that make today and tomorrow’s sought-after “healthy” workplaces a success. As Little concluded, “Well-designed offices that embrace sustainable practices create environments that provide for productivity and retain employees.”


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