An Integrated Effort

By teaming its architecture and interiors divisions from the outset, SOM raises the bar on green building.

Suitland, Maryland

Client: U.S. General Services Administration
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

For decades Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) has been at the forefront of innovative corporate interiors. So when the U.S. Census Bureau outgrew its 65-year-old building (it wanted to consolidate half of its 12,000 employees), it turned to SOM to provide a solution that would apply the latest corporate-workplace thinking to a government agency while producing one of the most sustainable offices in the country.

Typical of the firm’s approach, the architecture and interiors divisions worked together closely early on to develop a scheme that split the mass of the building into two 42-foot-wide wings, which ensured that every workstation received ample daylight. Metropolis editorial director Paul Makovsky recently spoke with SOM partner Stephen Apking about the $331 million LEED Silver project, lessons from the past, and the evolution of the green corporate interior.

Paul Makovsky: What were the big moves with this project that made it sustainable?
Stephen Apking: Obviously, when you’re able to comprehend the range of issues and have them completely integrated in terms of the architecture and interiors, you’re already a step ahead. From the very beginning we had the whole team at SOM looking at the full range of issues: the massing of the building, how it would be located on the site. Working around an existing building as well as wetlands, the new building got long—about 900 feet—and became very deep, so we actually pulled the building apart and brought natural light into the center of it. We worked with the architects to create the whole filtering of the natural light around the perimeter, using a slatted-wood system on the exterior. This filtered light into the office environment, reducing the production of heat one would have to offset with air-conditioning. We also worked with another firm, Metropolitan Architects & Planners, to change the work model for the bureau, moving them from a mostly cellular environment to one that was almost entirely open. That created other possibilities for maximizing daylighting and matching the workplace model with issues of sustainability.

PM: How did that work? Did you bring people closer to the window?
SA: We put the open workstations adjacent to the glass, allowing natural light to come in over them instead of having offices along the perimeter. We also incorporated glass panels within the work­stations, and then the offices that we have are located within the center of the building. The old building they had occupied since the forties had become unhealthy because of mold and water issues, so they were committed to designing something that would be healthy and environmentally friendly.

PM: Because it is such a massive project, where do you start—with the building, the interiors, or the site plan?
SA: We were constantly looking at the building as a whole. We’d work on certain side issues of the base building and then test them for the interiors. Then we’d work on the interiors and see how they responded to the building. It is almost like designing a support system, where the architecture and the interiors and the products within the interiors are all part of a product. We’re finding that we can achieve the best results environmentally when we see them all as a single endeavor.

PM: How is this different from the way SOM traditionally designs interiors?
SA: In many ways it’s the same. The Weyerhaeuser corporate headquarters in Tacoma, Washington, completed in 1971, is a good example of architecture, landscape, and interiors working together. The building was done as long slabs that were all planted with green roofs, and it integrates well within the landscape. The overhangs were deep, so they acted as the brise-soleil, controlling the direct sunlight and glare into the offices. We also colla­borated with the client on the workplace of their future and went completely to an open environment, which was a big deal in the seventies, and we worked on a new open-landscape office system with Knoll. The client, along with SOM rep­resentatives, visited several locations in Europe that had been testing this approach.

PM: What are some other sustainable developments with SOM?
SA: We’ve also been called on to look at renovating modern buildings, often ones we designed. This allows us to see how we can learn from them and how we can upgrade them. Currently, we’re renovating and repurposing the Union Carbide Building, on Park Avenue, in New York, and the Inland Steel Building, in Chicago. We’re studying how we can install a new interior environment in those buildings that would be targeted at a LEED Platinum rating. With Inland Steel we’re looking at how we can, within an existing building, take advantage of some of the things that were already there and then layer in new ones that will make the building greener, such as a chilled-beam cooling system, which is both energy efficient and healthy, and is something we have seen a lot more of in Europe.

PM: Is there a difference between working here versus in Europe?
SA: Europeans are used to a broader range of temperatures that they see as comfortable; making sure that everyone has access to natural light and having operable windows is also important to them. They’re at the forefront of studying some of these ambient cooling systems. Doing work in Europe has been helpful in learning from them and trying to bring some of that thought, even if it isn’t translated directly, into the work we’re doing here. But, increasingly, many of our clients in the United States are becoming big advocates of sustainability, particularly the financial-services sector in New York. They do it because they believe it’s important that businesses represent themselves as good citizens. We have a number of projects where the clients are looking at doing interiors that are Gold and Platinum LEED.

PM: Who are the clients taking the lead in creating sustainable interiors?
SA: We’re investigating right now a unique spec­ulative office project where we’d design the whole building and interior systems as a product that would achieve a Platinum LEED rating. Our ­client is testing the marketplace for their acceptance of that whole system arrangement. People would move in, and the space would be fitted out for them. It would be like going to a car dealership and looking at a range of options. But the system itself, like buying a car, would be designed and integrated so you couldn’t pick it apart. It would be reusable, so when one tenant moved out and another moved in, it could be reconfigured but remain environmentally sustainable. We’re looking at rolling out some of these designs in the United States and in the Middle East, probably in a year and a half.

PM: Classic SOM projects such as Union Carbide were designed with the best possible materials at the time, with the idea that these spaces would last forever. Looking through a green lens, how has the corporate workplace evolved through the SOM interiors division?
SA: Today we’re much more concerned about the material and product choices. The LEED system has helped to codify that and given us a path to follow—a checklist in terms of these issues. At SOM we’re trying to look at the fundamentals of those buildings and see what in fact made them reusable and classic and deliver over a long time. How can we do that in an ever more thoughtful way? If you take lighting, for example, the average wattage per square foot is one; twenty years ago it was three. In order to light environments we still want 50 watts, 50 foot-candles, on the desk. Basically we have the same criteria we had then, so we have to find smarter ways of doing it. One can look at Union Carbide—with its gorgeous, lum­inous ceiling providing the perfect level of foot-candles on the desk with even illumination—and it was a completely flexible system. We want all of that today, but we can use one-third of the energy. It’s this puzzle of how to achieve all of that within the limitations of LEED standards.

PM: The use of technology in these interiors has changed over the decades, and the corporate workplace is more reliant on technology than ever before. How does green building address that?
SA: We’ve seen cycles of technology. During the eighties interiors had a lot of deep monitors that required low glare and contrast, which resulted in a flood of low-contrast light. Today’s flat screens don’t have the same criteria, so you can look at a different kind of scheme. When we were designing trading floors in the eighties, we were planning for up to thirty-five watts of power per square foot to support all this technology. Today we wouldn’t design a trading floor for any more than fifteen. So part of it is the technology itself and how efficiently it’s distributed. 

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