Words by Peter Sobchak
Peter Sobchak visits the bright, airy Toronto studio of international design behemoth HOK, one of the most environmentally conscious workspaces in North America
For those who have been asleep at the wheel, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard has been around for about a decade. The Commercial Interiors benchmark (LEED-CI), however, is relatively new, having been launched in November 2004. Yet LEED-CI has already become the recognised standard in North America for high-performance green interiors that are healthy, productive places to work, less costly to operate and maintain, and demonstrate environmental stewardship. To be awarded a LEED rating is like being given a design halo.
International powerhouse design firm HOK (Helmuth, Obata + Kassabaum) is no sloucher in this field. The Canadian arm of the company, with 200 employees across offices in Toronto, Ottawa and Calgary, already has a number of LEED-accredited projects on the go, including the Peter Lougheed Centre for the Calgary Health Region (2008), the Jean Canfield Government of Canada Building (2007) in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and the expansion to the St Andrews Biological Station (2011) in New Brunswick. Laudable as these achievements are, it knew it had to kick it up a notch in order to be considered a leader.
“As a design firm striving to integrate sustainable design principles into all our projects, for every building type, geographic region and budget level, we recognised that our commitment had to begin in our own offices,” said Richard Williams, HOK vice president and practice leader for architecture and sustainability. Or as Gordon Stratford, senior vice president and director of design, puts it, “you’d better walk the talk.”
And walk the talk it did. For its efforts in its new office, HOK was awarded a LEED-CI Gold certification in January 2006, at the time one of only two projects in Canada to receive such a distinction, and the only one east of the Rocky Mountains.
Building a green office – by using renewable resources, minimising waste, and being energy and water efficient, among many other things – is much like a chess game, where each move affects and informs the next. In this case, the opening move was finding a building that would help HOK to achieve its lofty goal.
The base attributes of the fifth floor of a building in Toronto’s bourgeoning King Street West neighbourhood provided a great platform from which to launch this epic journey. This area has the type of industrial bones that appeal to nouveau-hipsters, who have moved in, cleaned up and slapped a veneer of chic galleries, trendy bars and so-hip-it-hurts boutiques on it.
The 1,900sq m floor plate was largely empty, so not much demolition was necessary, and it was large enough to allow them to have all their people on one floor. In addition, the space’s structure, including concrete floors, open ceilings, and exposed columns, were in great shape – which HOK finished using an epoxy sealer with ultra low volatile organic compound content (VOCs are a major contributor to air pollution) and a water-based acrylic top coat with zero VOCs, from Niagara Protective Coating. But a major selling point was the expansive facade of north-facing windows, which allowed fantastic light penetration deep into the floor plate. Moreover, the landlord agreed to install operable windows.
During the construction phase, HOK and its trades were fastidiously monitoring all materials and processes in order to maximise potential recycling and reuse. As a result, 8,600kg or 85 per cent of construction waste, including gypsum board, scrap copper, cardboard, plastic, steel studs, track and trim etc were recycled or re-purposed. “It became almost a competition between the trades to see who could recycle or find new uses for the most material,” says Stratford.
The building materials themselves were also carefully considered: 20 per cent of the total value of construction materials were reused existing materials and 30 per cent of the construction materials contain recycled content – for example Homasote tack boards. The gypsum board alone had over 80 per cent recycled content, and the carpet tile, from Interface Flooring, had 20 per cent post-consumer and 43 per cent post-industrial recycled content. In addition, a big effort was made to use materials that were locally produced (45 per cent of the total), in order to cut down on the amount of energy required to ship them.
The LEED certification system operates like a checklist, with points given for environmentally conscious design decisions (36 points are needed to achieve a Gold rating). A good proportion of these points are given to the use of light, a major consumer of power in any building. Thanks to that north-facing bank of windows, 90 per cent of employees in regularly occupied spaces have direct lines of sight to perimeter glazing and the Toronto skyline beyond. All non-emergency lighting is on occupancy sensors, and lighting in all offices and meeting rooms have manual on/off switches. In addition, connected lighting power density is below the ASHRAE/IESNA standard of 90.1-1999 (an American consensus standard that sets minimum requirements to promote the principles of effective, energy-conserving design for buildings).
Many points in the LEED system are also given for something that more and more studies are proving conclusively: that a healthy indoor environment – a major factor of which is indoor air quality – contributes to worker productivity. Construction products and furnishings were chosen for their low VOC content, including all paints, adhesives, sealants and carpet, and composite wood and agrifibre products contain no added urea-formaldehyde resins. During the construction and later move, an “indoor air quality management plan” was implemented to protect on-site materials from moisture damage and mould growth, and to protect the ventilation system from construction dust and debris. Variable-air-volume heat pumps allowed workers to control the temperature of their area with local thermostats, and they even separated and sealed the print and copy areas – which always reek of chemicals – from the rest of the office and installed independent exhaust and ventilation systems with negative pressure differential that ensure the chemicals do not leak out into the greater office environment when someone opens the print room door.
Of course, in many ways an office lives or dies on its furniture, and even here HOK wanted to be as responsible as possible. It first tried to identify what and how much material it could salvage from the original space, which included millwork, demountable doors and office systems such as the Altos Wall by Teknion. As much furniture was brought over from its previous space as possible, among others Herman Miller Aeron chairs and systems furniture, various Steelcase chairs, Knoll Propeller Tables and Tuff-Edge meeting tables. New furniture was chosen for how well it fitted into what Stratford calls their “loose fit long life” ethos of modularity, flexibility and environmental consciousness. Among the chosen new pieces are Knoll’s Reff office systems, the Life chair, the Saarinen Womb chair and ottoman, and the Bertoia Diamond lounge chair, which can be reconfigured at will, based on the needs of project groups, and are all GreenGuard certified for low emissions.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the office is a hotchpotch of styles. In fact, a clean look of bright, clear lines and a palette dominated by white with spots of red unifies the space. A sharp reception area anchored by a custom white leather ottoman – by HOK designers Angela Rempel and Daniela Barbon – and a pavilion-style welcome desk behind exemplify this aesthetic.
It can be argued, and HOK certainly does, that all these green measures stem from core values of sustainability that are embedded within the office culture. The office also got LEED points for providing bicycle storage and changing rooms, and for choosing a location easily reachable by public transport – decisions that reflect the fact that a high proportion of staff walk, cycle or take public transport to work. The enthusiasm of the staff for sustainable design led HOK to be able to exceed its goal of having 40 per cent of its designers become LEED-accredited in 2006.
HOK showed that an office can be extremely energy conscious and environmentally sensitive, while at the same time appealing and comfortable for the employees without sacrificing a high level of modern design savvy. Plus, let’s face it, green is good for net income as well. “In fact, return on investment in terms of energy savings and reduction of employee absenteeism is significant in the long term,” says Williams.
> The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system was designed by the US Green Building Council in 1998 to encourage and facilitate the development of more sustainable buildings. Although other such rating systems exist, LEED is quickly becoming the most respected industry standard in North America
> Buildings can qualify for four levels of certification: Certified (26 points), Silver (33 points), Gold (39 points) and Platinum (52 points or more)
> Various subdivisions within LEED include Commercial Interiors (CI), New Construction, Existing Buildings, Core & Shell Development, Homes and Neighbourhood Development (the latter two are in the pilot stage, to be released this year)
> Each checklist is roughly broken into the following categories; Sustainable Sites (14 possible points toward certification), Water Efficiency (5), Energy and Atmosphere (17), Materials and Resources (13), Indoor Environmental Quality (15), Innovation and Design Process (4, plus 1 for having a LEED-accredited professional on the design team)