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4 Lessons from Designing the World's Greenest Building

Perkins+Will's Atlanta office is the highest-rated LEED building ever constructed. What did the design firm learn from the project?

When it comes to green building, the design firm Perkins+Will is doing pretty well. They have more LEED-accredited employees than any other design firm in the country. They’ve created a gutsy list of ethical, healthy building materials to guide design and construction decisions. And they've made their mark with inventive reuse and innovative projects.

These sustainability successes mean that when Perkins+Will designs its own offices, there’s a lot of pressure to get it right. In its new Atlanta office, the firm more than managed to live up to its values: Company leaders will announce today that the office is the highest-rated LEED building ever constructed. Paula Vaughan, who co-directs Perkins+Will's sustainable design initiative, talked to GOOD about the process of designing the building. Here are four lessons we took away.

Don’t count chits. While the team designing the building looked at LEED requirements, Vaughan says they weren’t aiming to top the LEED charts. Instead, they focused on created a space that reflected the firm’s values and improved the experience of people working there. “We really have to do what we say we do,” Vaughan says.

Stick to your principles. It wasn’t always simple. The original building on the site had a parking lot on the ground floor, and while the team knew a strong urban design would feature ground-level retail or another public space there, parking is a valuable commodity in car-centric Atlanta. The designers had to ask themselves: Do we really want to lose that parking? “We snapped out of it a minute later, though," says Vaughan. “Of course we wanted to lose the parking.” The building’s first floor now houses the Museum of Design Atlanta.

Sometimes you have to pave your own way. The firm also wanted to meet the Architecture 2030 challenge for new construction or major renovations, which requires using 60 percent less energy than the regional average for a particular type of building. But the Perkins+Will team struggled to find those sharp reductions, even after designing energy efficiency measures. Atlanta’s electricity grid depends heavily on coal-fired power plants, and that dirty electricity was driving the building’s consumption up, Vaughan says. The designers ended up installing a co-generation system: two small, gas-fired turbines on the building provide electricity, with the excess energy driving an absorption chiller that heats and chills water.

Consult everyone. The new building has employees working in shared spaces—long benches with work stations instead of cubicles, for instance. The design team came up with idea after interviewing their colleagues about how they worked. But changing the nature of their workspace spooked some employees. “When they started looking at the layout, they were worried about it,” Vaughan says. Because the designers showed colleagues the plans, they were able to win them over to the idea before they were shocked by the completed project. Ultimately, Vaughan said, “changing the way people work and making them more productive and happier” was one of the most valuable parts of the project.

Photo courtesy of Eduard Hueber/archphoto

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