We spend eight hours a day under the buzzing fluorescent lights of our offices, hunched in our cubicles, breathing in air that just circulated through a computer fan. The buildings in which we work can be bad for our morale, bad for our health and bad for our environment. Design and architecture professionals John Riordan and Kristen Becker have compiled 25 remarkable, sustainable workspaces in their book The Good Office: Green Design on the Cutting Edge. The book explores the beautiful and innovative design practices utilized in these spaces and provides a glimpse of what it might be like to work in some of the good/better/best green offices in the world. I spoke with the authors about the book and the importance of green design.
How did you two come together to create The Good Office?
JR: I’ve been writing these books for two years now, and when this one became available, I contacted Kristen.
KB: John and I worked together in a firm in Seattle many years ago, and we’ve maintained a friendship and a dialogue about design for a long time now. I’m personally connected to sustainable design -- my mother has an environmental illness. It’s something I’ve been interested in since high school when my mother was diagnosed with Sick Building Syndrome. I’ve personally been really interested in natural building and have been very connected to the sustainable community for a long time, so when the opportunity came with John to work on this book, I was very excited.
You’re both LEED accredited professionals. Explain a little about what LEED does and how it works.
KB: It offers credibility; it’s a way of setting the building aside as being special or unique in the field, a way for people to understand, across the board, the different levels of sustainability of a project.
JR: I see more as a way of codifying a lot of the ideas that are out there and giving professionals and laypeople alike a touchstone for defining and being able to execute those ideas.
KB: It’s a benchmark, too. If someone was to say, “Oh, my project is green,” it’s a place to go where you can compare apples to apples. You can actually say, “Yes, I adhere to certain guidelines.”
JR: And I unfortunately see professionals nowadays throwing around the “green” term a little too loosely, saying, “Well, we have natural ventilation — the windows open.” Now with the LEED system, there has to be a test.
KB: It isn’t just natural building, but it has to be a multiple-layered understanding of how a building comes together, and how that affects our environment overall.
How did you track down these green buildings? What was involved in getting these designs in your book?
KB: There were a lot of different avenues we went down. We looked at projects that had won various sustainable awards nationally and internationally. We also looked at building types — new construction, adaptive reuse. We wanted to provide an overview of different ways and methodologies that you can integrate sustainable design into an office. We weren’t exclusively looking at LEED projects or certified projects; we wanted to dig a little deeper to find projects that were — as the title of our book says — “on the cutting edge.” We were looking at ways that designers and engineers had found new ways of integrating interesting sustainable ideas that were more unconventional.
Were there other green locations that didn’t make the cut?
KB: I think generally, all of the projects we really wanted in the book ended up getting in the book. There are a lot of really amazing projects out there, and this book is just an overview.
JR: Once we finished the book, there was like a second wave of accredited projects and other green projects that came out. Within a month of us sending it to press, we could have done a whole other one. It’s very encouraging.
The buildings and rooms in the book are all recognizable as workspaces, but they’re also all quite beautiful. This being, at the heart, a design book, how big a role did aesthetics play in the selection of locations?
JR: It played a huge role.
JR: Part of the selection was not only meeting our green criteria, but also our aesthetic sensibilities and what we felt was cutting-edge design as well.
KB: The main purpose of this book is to show that your standard office design has not been that aesthetic historically, and people are getting sick with these cheap office materials. And so the move to have a green office is, in part, to have a more healthful environment for the employees, so there’s more light and low- or zero-off-gassing materials. Things like that are important, and, as a byproduct, you actually get a more beautiful space. One of the purposes of the book was to kind of showcase that being green can be amazingly modern. I think all of the spaces are really aesthetically interesting and different and hopefully people will get excited about going green.
A lot of the green innovations are very simple. For instance, all of the buildings utilize natural light very well, or like the Kresge Foundation Headquarters uses these beautiful retaining walls made out of demolition waste —essentially just rocks encased in wire. What are your favorite innovations in green building?
JR: The project that I keep going back to is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and just how integrated that complete building was. It really made an archetype for what was to come afterwards [it’s the first space featured in the book]. It’s just a wonderful building.
KB: I got excited about some of the inventions that were a little bit unconventional. One in particular that I really loved was in the Carnegie Institution for Science, where they utilize this “night sky” technique, which is a very interesting way of spraying the roof, which provides cooling for the building.
Alright, I’ve got to wrap up the interview. Anything else you want to add?
KB: Our waking hours are spent primarily in our office spaces. I think that it’s really important to look at your office space and be cognizant of the fact that absenteeism and feeling dreary and not focused can be connected to the actual physical environment that you’re in. Hopefully this book is able to reach individuals that may not have that on their radar.
JR: I also think that the green aspect is there, but it’s becoming more integrated into everyday design. This isn’t something that will necessarily be special anymore; it’ll just be given. And part of what the book is written to illustrate is that these spaces are green and they address workplace health issues in so many ways, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with the fact that they’re different. They look very much like a well-designed workplace. There’s just the underlying fact that they’re better in so many other ways.
MNN homepage photo: Harper Design International