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Architects Go Green at the Office

By J. Alex Tarquinio (The New York Times) - January 31, 2007

A Ferrari salesman wouldn’t drive a 1985 Yugo to work. And you wouldn’t expect the cable guy to install rabbit ears in his own home.

So perhaps it is not surprising that Cook & Fox Architects just might have the “greenest” office in New York. After all, this is the firm that designed the much-discussed Bank of America building, an office tower being built in Midtown Manhattan that is likely to be one of the city’s most advanced in terms of its environmental features.

But Cook & Fox’s own office is no slouch either. The 12,000-square-foot space, which the firm rents on the top floor of an eight-story building in the Chelsea neighborhood, is the only office in New York with a platinum rating from the United States Green Building Council, a nonprofit group based in Washington. The council developed a set of building guidelines known as LEED — for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — to encourage building owners to conserve energy and water, among other things.

Its program focusing on commercial interiors — rather than entire buildings — is comparatively new. Of 112 offices that have been certified across the country so far, only six have platinum status, which is the highest rating.

Robert F. Fox Jr. said that when he and his partner first entered the space two years ago and saw the soaring 14-foot ceilings and the huge plate-glass windows, they immediately recognized the potential. “We believe in creating the right kind of environment,” Mr. Fox said.

To do that, they took a page from the 1902 building’s past. They purchased an old postcard on eBay for $10.23 that showed what their space at 641 Avenue of the Americas, at 20th Street, looked like in the early 20th century, when it was the dining room for the Simpson Crawford department store. The drawing inspired the architects to change their lighting scheme.

Indeed, one of the first things visitors notice when they walk into Cook & Fox and also, for that matter, the Green Building Council, which has one of the other platinum offices, is how bright and spacious they feel. Both offices were designed with open architecture and low partitions, so almost all of the desks have window views.

All of that natural light makes it possible to pack plenty of greenery inside the offices. At the Green Building Council, rows of plants separate the partitions. Instead of gravel, the planting soil is covered with — of all things — ground-up automobile tires. At Cook & Fox, every employee was given a $10 allowance to buy a plant for his or her desk.

And the firm installed a green roof, where birds land in summer, on a section of the seventh floor.

These spaces do not have a new-office odor. Cook & Fox filters out 85 percent of the particulate matter, so the air is much healthier than what the employees would breathe walking down Broadway. The paint, carpet and office furniture are all made from materials that do not emit strong chemical odors.

In addition, the bathrooms have water-saving fixtures and energy-saving hand dryers. The firm has also begun a program to compost coffee grounds and other food waste.

Of course, many of these choices could have been made without going through the certification process. Richard A. Cook, the other half of the architectural partnership, said he thought designers and builders benefited from the program because they otherwise might omit steps. He said his firm encourages its clients to apply for LEED certification, “so it was one of those times when you have to walk the walk.”

That is a common thread among most companies that apply to be part of the LEED program for commercial interiors. The Green Building Council estimates that 85 percent of the offices approved so far are in the real estate industry in some way, including architects, interior designers and real estate brokers. These companies can reap an obvious marketing advantage from having their offices stamped with the LEED seal of approval.

But Linda Sorrento, the director of the LEED for Commercial Interiors program, said that in the last year she had seen more interest from companies outside of the industry, like banks and retailers. “They are interested in demonstrating their commitment to the environment,” she said.

The early adopters have not hesitated to use their offices as billboards. The Cook & Fox office has small wall-mounted installations here and there, explaining concepts like “dynamic lighting” — which uses changing natural light throughout the day. The Green Building Council has even more signs in its 11,000-square-foot office in Washington, off Dupont Circle.

Executives at CB Richard Ellis plan to create a self-guided iPod tour that will highlight the environmental aspects of a new 65,000-square-foot office in Washington, where the firm has signed a 12-year lease. It hopes the interior will be rated gold, the second highest rating, after it moves in next year.

Sally R. Wilson, a commercial broker at CB Richard Ellis, who is also the real estate firm’s global director for environmental strategy, said this was part of a plan to reduce the energy use drastically in the company’s offices around the world by 2010.

Some small independent offices might balk at the cost of the program. The Green Building Council charges a flat registration fee of $450 for members and $600 for nonmembers. The additional cost of certification depends on the size of the building; the average cost, $2,500, would cover an office of roughly 70,000 square feet.

But Ms. Wilson said small offices could benefit from employing at least some of the program’s recommendations, like filtering the air and providing a bicycle rack.

By following all of the recommendations, she said, “you might save 30 percent on energy.” But, she added, “energy might only be 1 percent of your costs.”

Yet energy bills are not the extent of the saving, Ms. Wilson said. “If you gain 1 percent in productivity — and employees and benefits are 80 percent of your costs — that’s a much bigger return on your investment.”