There's More Than One Way to Create a Green Interior

Whether the Effort is Large or Small, Facility Executives have an Array of Options for Greening Interior Space

By Lacey Muszynski, Assistant Editor  

The motto, “Be prepared,” goes well beyond camping and canoeing. Facility executives are always preparing for unexpected events, whether blackouts, security breaches, employee churn, vandalism or false alarms. But it’s just as worthwhile to be ready to take full advantage of opportunities — like the chance to design a space according to the principles of sustainability.

A directive from upper management that an organization intends to go green may come as a surprise to the facility executive. That’s why, as with any other unexpected situation, it’s important to be prepared. “Don’t wait for the project to appear,” says Rico Cedro, director of sustainable design for K&S, an architecture firm. “Do your research. Rather than scramble to have your ducks in a row, be knowledgeable about green before a green project appears on the horizon.”

Greening an interior space, whether it’s a renovation or new construction, doesn’t need to intimidate the facilities team. Even if the decision to go green occurs mid-stream in a project, there are still steps that can be taken at any point in the process to further an organization’s green goals. Knowing what some of those steps are in advance will make the greening process smoother for everyone involved.

Taking Inventory

Before taking on the first green project, facility executives should take stock of any green initiatives the organization has already implemented. Often, organizations may be greener than anyone realizes.

One example of a sustainable trend is the democratically arranged office floorplan. Company culture often drives this layout, even though it offers green benefits to employees. Positioning workstations and common areas along the perimeter of a building — as opposed to the hierarchical arrangement of private offices lining the windows — affords natural light and views to a larger number of employees. The greater amount of natural light penetrating the space can also result in energy savings when an appropriate lighting controls system is installed to take advantage of the daylight.

Equipment in the space, ranging from restroom fixtures to HVAC units, may already be efficient. “Typically you put in the most energy and resource efficient systems within the allotted price range,” says Gretchen Leigh, senior associate with Perkins and Will.

Recycling is another sustainable strategy that most organizations already do. Recycling has become so important to many employees in their personal lives that if a recycling program for waste paper, bottles and cans, and printer cartridges isn’t in place in the office, they’ll demand that one be implemented. Other programs that employees may request include ridesharing and work-from-home programs, both of which are convenient for employees and reduce the organization’s overall carbon footprint.

In some places, sustainability is being dictated by the local government, says Suzanne Carney, environmental advocate for corporate interiors with OWP/P. “Building codes are starting to incorporate some green strategies,” she says. For example, every commercial business in New York City is required by law to keep certain recyclable materials separate from other waste. Other municipalities may require proper removal and disposal of construction debris or set the maximum amount of power for lighting density, says Carney.

Baby Steps

“You don’t have to set aside a huge budget to start the greening process,” says Suzanne Carlson, principal, Swanke Hayden Connell Architects. There are many relatively easy and sometimes inexpensive steps that can be taken to make any interior greener.

If an organization is leasing space and is planning a move in conjunction with green goals — or is siting for new sustainable construction — location should be a major consideration, says Cedro. “You can gain sustainability at zero cost by working off the characteristics of where you’re located,” he says. Look for spaces that have ample natural daylight, HVAC systems that support good IAQ, and water saving restroom fixtures, to name a few important facets of a green interior space.

If LEED certification is one of the organization’s goals, consider searching for space in a LEED for Core and Shell-certified building. While there are not many out there, a building that is LEED-CS-certified will employ the most sustainable building envelope features.

To take advantage of daylighting and exterior views, consider lowering the workstation furniture wall height to no more than 42 inches, says Leigh. Panels higher than that can block daylight from penetrating a space fully, increasing the need for overhead or task lighting. When lowering panel heights, however, keep the acoustics of the space in mind. Acoustics are often the No. 1 source of complaints in an open office environment, and lower panel heights may require other steps to be taken in the space to keep speech privacy levels at an appropriate level, such as acoustic ceiling tiles or soundmasking systems.

Consider how a product or material will affect the IAQ of a space before making purchasing decisions. Products like paints, sealants and adhesives all can be purchased with low or no VOCs for little to no price premium. Materials like flooring, especially carpet, can have a high percentage of recycled content, without increasing cost or compromising design.

Lighting retrofits can offer green benefits at a variety of investment levels. “In terms of power consumption and electricity use in general, lighting is one of the biggest users,” says Mark Hirons, principal and director of corporate interiors for OWP/P. Facility executives should evaluate the facility’s lighting, and any incandescents should be switched to more efficient compact fluorescents. For a little more money, occupancy and daylight sensors should be considered to reduce energy consumption when no one is in a room or when overhead lighting is not necessary. “Sixty percent of office occupants will never turn the lights on if daylighting sensors turn them off,” says Hirons. That indicates that even without all overhead lights on, there is an ample amount of daylighting and task lighting for occupants to complete their tasks. Turning the lights on may simply be a habit, whether they really need them or not.

Organizations should also examine their maintenance and cleaning programs. Properly maintaining and if necessary, repairing, the HVAC system will help keep up good IAQ. Changing HVAC filters is an important and relatively easy way to ensure good IAQ, but it is often overlooked or put off.

Green cleaning products and programs are relatively inexpensive ways to safeguard IAQ as well. Keeping VOCs and harmful chemicals out of a space should be a top priority, especially if time, effort and money has already been spent in making it green and healthy.

Sky’s the Limit

If going green on a new construction project is a top priority, there are many ways to employ sustainable features.

Facility executives have the advantage of specifying the HVAC and mechanical systems. “A very efficient HVAC system is a more serious investment,” says Carlson. “It needs to be done early on in the process.” Keeping up with a good maintenance schedule is still essential when an HVAC system is in place, no matter the budget.

Significant water conservation can be achieved in restrooms. Low-flow sensor-operated faucets with automatic shutoff, ultra-low flow or waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets can all save water. Even if it’s not in the budget to completely replace fixtures in a renovation project, low-flow valves can be installed and used with the existing toilets, says Leigh.

If possible, all materials and products in a sustainable space should be locally sourced. “Trying to source your materials within 500 miles of the site is going to reduce transportation costs for you as well as reduce the emissions of the transportation it takes to get the materials to you,” says Carney.

Facility executives should also research the environmental responsibility of manufacturers. For example, wood products should come from sustainably harvested forests, says Carney. That doesn’t just apply to visible wood in the space, but also to substrates, plywood and composite materials that are not visible.

At any level of investment, it’s always important to choose materials that occupants will appreciate, says Cedro. “Pick materials that look good and fit with the culture of the organization,” he says. “If people don’t like things, they’re not going to take care of it.” That may lead to replacing materials and products long before their expected service lives run out.

Overcoming Obstacles

Facility executives may encounter obstacles on the path to sustainability, but being aware of the biggest roadblocks ahead of time can help smooth the way. Having a plan in place to deal with obstacles and pitfalls is invaluable. Often the biggest perceived obstacle to going green is budget.

The best way to avoid problems with those who write the checks is to involve as many people as possible in the design and decision team. Having everyone at the table from the very beginning helps everyone understand where the money is going. Any conflicts between those upholding the budget and those upholding the tenets of sustainability can be worked out before materials are purchased or construction has started.

Meetings between designers, facility executives, owners and even occupants serve to educate all involved. Green strategies, such as recycling and ridesharing, can be discussed, along with purchasing decisions. These decisions can be informed by productivity studies, life-cycle cost comparisons and overall benefit to the green goals of the organization.

On Board With Green

Involving everyone from the top down helps achieve another goal, buy-in from all involved. “You can’t really work towards a sustainable environment if all participants aren’t buying into it,” says Carney. Facility executives often have to convince those at the top about implementing a green project. That may mean demonstrating that the costly HVAC retrofit will save money in the long run, or it may mean explaining to occupants why using the recycling bins helps further green goals. Either way, educating participants about the benefits of a project will increase their buy-in.

Another obstacle facility executives can prepare for is a lack of support from leadership. Again, brainstorming and educational meetings at the beginning of the process can help. Leadership needs to understand that green design may cost somewhat more, but will better serve the organization and the environment. Green design also may take slightly longer than normal. “They need to allow their team to spend the time to do a due diligence green look at the space,” says Cedro.

Once everyone from the organization is onboard with sustainable strategies, it’s important to be sure the facilities team is ready to make the green goals a reality, says Cedro. Do they have the commitment and expertise? Are they able to provide the kinds of services required to make it happen? Have they done green work like this before? Are they willing to work in a more collaborative fashion?

The green design process may require people to work outside their comfort zones, says Cedro. That’s why educating and preparing the facilities team for the process is important. “The new way of working and thinking may cause some anxiety,” says Cedro. “Education can help dispel some of that anxiety and give a greater assurance of success. It creates an atmosphere of mutual learning instead of individual success.”

Beware of Greenwashing

When choosing products and materials for a sustainable interior, watch out for greenwashing. Some manufacturers, hoping to jump on the green bandwagon, exaggerate their products’ sustainable attributes or even make some up all together. Be wary of any product that claims to be LEED certified, because there is no such thing, says Suzanne Carney, environmental advocate for corporate interiors, OWP/P. Buildings are LEED-certified, products are not.

Also, be cautious if a company is only focusing on one aspect of a product to the exclusion of all others. The green claim may be true, but the product as a whole or the manufacturing process may not be green at all.

To find out about green product certifications and a listing of manufacturers with green products, visit the Certified Green Products Directory.

— Lacey Muszynski

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  posted on 2/1/2008   Article Use Policy

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