The Accidental Environmentalists

A chronic problem with employee retention led this pragmatic client to building green.

Pensa­cola, Florida

Client: Navy Federal Credit Union
Architect: ASD

When Ebb Ebbesen began work six and a half years ago on a call center for 250 telephone operators, he never imagined it would transform into a green corporate campus with 3,000 employees and more than half a million square feet of office space—all of it LEED rated. In fact, he had never even heard of LEED. “There was no sustainability road map at the time,” recalls Ebbesen, senior vice president of construction and process improvements at Navy Federal Credit Union, which is the largest member-owned credit union in the world, with more than $30 billion in assets. “But I knew what we were looking for: a building where employees are pleased to come to work in the morning and still smiling when they leave at night.”

This wasn’t just kindness but corporate necessity. At the time, Navy Federal’s turnover rate for telephone operators surpassed 60 percent annually. Ebbesen’s primary task for the new building was to turn that around. But he had no corporate checklist for environmental happiness—until he realized that LEED would be close enough. “Once we started going down through the point structure, it helped us make decisions that would continually reflect on this idea of ‘employee focus,’” Ebbesen explains. “We used the LEED template for discipline.” Today Navy Federal’s Heritage Oaks campus, in Pensa­cola, Florida, has a turnover rate of 17 percent and is expanding so fast that Ebbesen has his superiors eyeing the property next door.

When did this become the story of green? Architects and corporate facilities managers will often look across a table and—garnishing their declarations with an anecdote about a trip to the rain forests or something desperate their teenage daughter said—proclaim that green is the right thing to do, that green will pay for itself in energy savings, that green will serve as a highly visible symbol of their organization’s commitment to an optimistic future (and their shareholders too). All are undoubtedly valid motivations. But the confounding surprise of Navy Federal’s Heritage Oaks campus—designed by Atlanta’s ASD—is that they are saying none of those things while doing all of them.

In an attempt to improve the quality of the work environment, and with an absolute absence of ide­ology save a commitment to the work task at hand, Navy Federal stumbled onto sustainable architecture as a strategy and then—in a petri dish of their creation—implemented it with a rigor and scale difficult to find most anywhere. They drank the green Kool-Aid because it tasted good. They may appreciate the financial savings and planetary benefits, but their primary rationale couldn’t be simpler: green building is good building, and good building is good business.

“We’re not fooling around here,” Ebbesen says, swiveling in a 96 percent recyclable Herman Miller Mirra chair in a naturally lit conference room. “This is serious business. We can’t afford to be down for half an hour or half a day. It would hurt not just our volume of business, but it would hurt our members’ feelings that they can’t get in touch with us and can’t get the car loan they wanted at the moment.” Navy Federal receives an average of $63 million worth of loan applications every day, 45 percent of which come through this call center.

To join Navy Federal you have to be a current or former employee of the Navy (or its support organizations), which means it has the rare mandate of existing as a nonprofit in the service of its more than three million members. Its goal is not to im-press clients, investors, or visiting reporters, but to do things right—for the employees. “That’s the Navy Federal way,” says Jamie McDonald, senior man­ager of construction and facilities, and Ebbesen’s closest colleague.

On a crisp—at least for Florida—day this fall, hot dogs were grilling on a barbecue in honor of Member Appreciation Day, and the shades were pulled down the windowed east facade to block the morning light. When a cloud passed, the Lutron dimming ballasts clicked off a single bank of uplights to keep the illumination even. Almost all 300 employees work at Herman Miller Resolve workstations in the single 400-foot-long main room, which faces out toward a stand of live oaks.

“I came from an environment where all there was was fluorescent light,” says Jim O’Connor, a former telephone operator who is now a team leader. “We used to stick pieces of paper up there to keep it shaded down a little bit—just to do anything to alter the light. You don’t have to do that here. When the air is cleaner, when it’s lighter, when you can stand up and look out a window or look across the expanse of the call center—to exercise your eyes even!—it makes such a difference.” Pensacola has a lot of call centers, and, O’Connor says, he has to be careful in social situations not to make his friends envious of his work environment. His colleague Maggie Scarry, a longtime Navy Federal recruiter, says it makes her job easy, thanks to a long waiting list of applicants.

At the time Ebbesen began the project, despite a long-standing presence (and 1.2 million square feet of space) in the D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia, Navy Federal couldn’t staff its call center. “We had trouble finding and improving entry-level people; and if we could find them, they had to live so far out that by the time they got to work in the morning they were already tired and cranky,” he says. The silver-haired Ebbesen spent 24 years in the Navy, did a short stint as a management consultant, and is now coming up on his 25th year with the company. Wearing a Navy Federal fleece vest, he speaks softly with the humility that seems to pervade the entire organization. His job used to be “management engineering,” but in a shift indicative of the emerging view of architecture as a crucial aspect of productivity, it’s now “construction and process improvement.”

Heritage Oaks was Ebbesen’s first construction project—although it didn’t begin as Heritage Oaks. Working with Staubach, a real estate advisory firm, in 2001 he began a nationwide search for a site, looking for a ready workforce in a place with a low cost of living and the technology infrastructure necessary to support a call center’s substantial data needs. With its large military presence and less than stellar economy—making it primed for entry-level, white-collar call-center jobs—Pensacola has proved a better fit than anyone anticipated.

The original plan called for filling up the building with 300 employees over the course of two to three years; it took 14 months. Since then, another 500 operators have been working temporarily out of a former supermarket, awaiting the completion—last month—of building #2, which has 155,000 square feet of additional space. Building #3, with another 165,000 square feet, is a busy construction site next door, with work set for completion next fall. And building #4, with a boldly designed boomerang shape enclosing 265,000 square feet of space, is ready for ground-breaking.

On a recent visit to Pensacola from the Virginia headquarters, Navy Federal’s COO voiced one con­cern: make building #4 as big as it can be, because we’re going to need the space. All four buildings are (or will be) LEED-rated. All have been designed by ASD, each with a greater aesthetic ambition than the one before, so that lined up on the campus in a loose arc they read like the education of a design aficionado.

But Ebbesen and his colleagues insist that de-sign is beside the point—an attitude ASD’s president and CEO, Thom Williams, willingly embraces. Building #2 undoubtedly has some big moves, like a front wall aggressively fenestrated with little slit windows and a grand central atrium, but both features can also be read as straightforwardly func­tional. What surprised Williams more was Navy Federal’s willingness—even after deciding to pursue LEED—to depart from it if it wasn’t best for the employees. For example, the life of building #1 is defined by its east-facing windows, “but that was contrary to LEED,” Williams says. “The LEED consultant was adamant that they wanted us to turn the building, but we dug in our heels and said we can’t do that.”

For Ebbesen it was a no-brainer: live oaks and morning sun were meant to be seen, heat-gain be damned. “You’ve been asking for data,” Ebbesen says to me. “Well, we definitely have energy savings: we’ve had one study that said 25 percent and another that said 40 percent. We pay a lot of attention to the energy model because we want to be efficient, because that leads to less pollution. But that’s not where the savings are. The savings are all related to productivity.” Navy Federal’s wealth (they don’t exactly have trouble getting long-term financing) means that Ebbesen could swallow higher up-front costs if it means a longer life span—and indeed this building is designed for a 40-year cycle (generous for its type). But to be conservative he sticks to 30 years for the following calculation: over that time 92 percent of the ­organ-ization’s costs goes to employees, 6 percent go to maintenance and operation, and a mere 2  percent are represented by the initial construction investment. “When I show that on a slide,” Ebbesen says, “it’s kind of like, ‘Duh, now are you paying attention?’”

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