January 1, 2009
The conference room in NBBJ’s new Seattle headquarters, though aggressively unadorned, is nevertheless beautiful. It is a spare, comfortable space; some of it is painted white, but most is bare concrete and glass, with huge ten-foot-high windows. I am talking with the team behind the project: NBBJ’s Alan Young and Brent Rogers, design principals of the offices and the building, called Alley24, housing them, and Scott Wyatt, the Seattle office’s managing partner; and Lori Mason Curran, research manager for Vulcan, the Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s real-estate-investment company and Alley24’s co-owner.
Our talk has turned to the meaning of LEED certification at a time when its once exotic and costly pursuit in Seattle commercial construction has become positively mainstream and affordable. My interlocutors are proud of what they see as their aggressive pushing of the LEED envelope, and the room itself seems intent on reinforcing their argument: whenever we sit motionless for ten minutes or so, the lights go out and someone has to stand up and wave an arm to get them on again.
When Rogers and Young started their design work six years ago, NBBJ had set LEED Silver as its goal, and they ended up achieving “a strong Gold” for the interiors. Wyatt points out that the construction industry progressed over that time. “It’s become easier to get higher certifications from a cost standpoint because we’re learning how to do it more effectively,” he says. “For a building that was started five years ago, achieving Silver was pretty progressive, but today it would be as easy to reach as Gold.”
Wyatt has a point. Writing about LEED buildings over the past several years, I’ve watched green practices become so widespread in Seattle that I’ve begun to wonder exactly what the certification means anymore. For NBBJ, the project presented a unique opportunity to design and build its own office space, the building containing it, and the surrounding neighborhood. For both companies, the construction of Alley24 was equally an experiment, a way to create a functional and comfortable work space, and a statement of their values. After a long struggle in the mid-1990s to revitalize Seattle’s moribund South Lake Union neighborhood (in partnership with the city), Vulcan gradually bought up 60 acres and set about turning the area from an aging light-industrial zone into a mixed-use neighborhood; with Alley24, it hoped to make a dramatic declaration of its grander vision.
What Curran calls a “building” actually looks like three separate structures: a six-story retail/office structure on the eastern half of the block and a pair of six-story apartments on the western half. One of the design team’s most important decisions was to open a north-south alley for pedestrians and vehicles, and add an intersecting pedestrian path running east-west. The pedestrian alley redivided a two-building structure on the western half of the block that had been combined into one in the 1940s. Restoring the original design ex-posed a beautiful brick facade graced with arch windows—perhaps the most arresting feature of Alley24. “We did a lot of fussing around with how to weave a new tower on top of an old building,” Rogers says of the team’s preservation efforts, “and we ended up with something really cool: steel windows, wood windows, arch windows, rectangular windows, different spacing of structures.”
They also ended up with a great view of that gorgeous facade across the street from their new digs. NBBJ occupies the first, second, and third floors of the new office building, and most of the firm looks down on the restored brick. Above it sits a 700-square-foot roof garden, accessible by a catwalk that spans the alley between the two halves of Alley24. (Rogers and Young call the garden one of the firm’s “conference rooms.”)
When you first enter the offices from the street, you come upon what NBBJ describes as its “giant steps”—a three-story atrium with wooden stairs seemingly built for a family of Brobdingnagians. “This is kind of an inside-outside space,” Young says. “One of our goals was to create a sense of connection between all our studios that was also our means of moving through the space. So we made a huge investment, taking floor area away from three floors and putting in these giant steps where we can easily put 350 people, standing room, all the way up to the third floor. We have a whole slew of meeting rooms that surround this space and either open into it or look into it. And glass is everywhere—all our conference rooms have glass faces to borrow the light through the space.”
Harvesting sunlight was a core principle, and it comes across in conversation with the designers as part of an adverse reaction to the firm’s previous space. Young practically shudders when he describes the old NBBJ as “seven 12,000-square-foot floor plates—fiefdoms, basically,” and Wyatt seems no less horrified at the memory of its windows, which were tinted to fight heat gain: “Those windows cut eighty percent of the light out! Now we have clear glass, and more of it. To go from heavily tinted glass to clear glass overnight is absolutely stunning.”
Indeed, the look and feel of NBBJ’s offices are spectacularly different from the firm’s dim, brooding former headquarters. Today the architects occupy 85,000 square feet over three floors. The bulk of that space is on two floors that are divided into four expansive “studios,” each seating between 50 and 60 people, with a cluster of common areas in the center. “Every studio has the exact same orientation for mailboxes, coffee services, copy services, and coats,” Young says. “Each floor is the same way. We have eight of these studio spaces on two floors. Two coffee rooms, four coatrooms, four copy rooms, eight studios, and two bathrooms.” Young, who apparently suffered from terrible loneliness in NBBJ’s previous space, repeatedly extols the new floor plan because “it forces you to see people, talk to people from other parts of the practice that you wouldn’t normally see.”
Windows stretch from floor to ceiling, and because of the underfloor climate-control and electrical systems, the ceilings are ten-and-a-half-feet high—fully two feet higher than in standard buildings with drop ceilings, greatly increasing the amount of sunlight in the workplace. Once inside, daylight encounters virtually no obstacles—part of the design strategy involved using a wide, shallow beam design that allowed for column-free studios. Instead of cubicle walls, the architects work at long, configurable tables dotted with individual U-shaped workstations.
In addition to light, the windows are designed to provide natural climate control. Forty percent of them are operable, which allows NBBJ to eschew air-conditioning. Small square lights set into the walls at widely spaced intervals signal whether windows should be open or closed: an amber light suggests closing them all, and a green light advises that—as Rogers puts it—“it would be a good time to open some windows.”
I visited on a November day when outdoor temperatures spiked to a highly unseasonable 60º F, and for the first time in months the lights switched from amber to green. The employees in the studio I was passing through burst into applause, and several rushed over to open windows. Not your standard day at the office.
On a cloudless day, sunlight shining directly through clear glass can drastically overheat an office building, so NBBJ installed metallic awnings above the operable windows. Those that don’t open are equipped with light sensors controlling exterior blinds stored in bins above them. “They tilt and turn and shade the windows so the building doesn’t overheat, increasing the energy load,” Rogers explains. “Sun is probably the biggest source of overheating—office buildings are always trying to get cool.”
There is a definite LEED look to many new buildings: bare concrete, operable windows, atriums designed to promote a chimney effect (cool air enters at floor level while warm air is exhausted at the ceiling), and so on. Alley24 in general, and NBBJ’s offices in particular, is replete with these sorts of features. But how much difference do they really make? Are there measurable long-term environmental benefits gained from green buildings?
According to Allan Montpellier, senior vice president and managing principal in the Seattle office of the engineering firm WSP Flack + Kurtz, early indications are encouraging. “We were charged with managing integration between the air-conditioning and the envelope,” he says. He describes the system “as a halfway point between a fully air-conditioned office and a fully naturally ventilated one.” NBBJ, he says, is considering “taking things a step further by installing ceiling fans, to see if they can maintain comfort at higher temperatures, on the theory that air moving over your body gives you a perceived building temperature at four degrees less than it really is.”
Even in its current state, Montpellier believes that NBBJ is getting solid energy-saving results. Citing data from the Federal Energy Information Administration’s Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey, he says that the building uses 49 percent less power than comparable Seattle office buildings. The survey employs a complicated formula based on consumption of kilowatts and BTUs. Converting that combined use into “KBTUs” and dividing that number by a building’s square footage, you arrive at the KBTUs per square foot per year. “A typical Seattle office building comes in with a KBTU figure in the low nineties,” Montpellier says. “We’re at forty-six or forty-seven, so it’s pretty significant.”
This may strike you as unduly modest, as it did to me, but while we might compare Alley24 with a traditional, hermetically sealed office building, the NBBJ team sees its original vision. John Savo, NBBJ’s project manager for Alley24, says that the design initially called for a building that was almost 100 percent naturally ventilated, but Vulcan found that potential tenants were “afraid to take that risk.” So NBBJ dialed back the design, installing air-conditioning that they could opt to use. “In the end, we got a Prius—a hybrid building,” Savo says. But then he points out, with considerable pride, that he’d been right all along. “Six months after moving in, even the most hesitant tenants switched over to natural ventilation.”
Operable windows and copious daylighting reduce energy consumption by almost half.
Seventy-five percent of Alley24’s building materials were recycled during construction.
The designers used minimal carpeting, no varnishes, and low-VOC materials.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
The original design called for nearly 100 percent natural ventilation.
Additional light wells (the initial plan included two more) would have further reduced the need for electric lights.
And a quibble: Seattle’s temperate climate makes most of these good choices relatively easy to accomplish.
Most of the offfice is naturally ventilated.
The 2008 IIDA/Metropolis Smart Environments Award Winners: