Following Their LEED
U.S. Green Building Council president Rick Fedrizzi calls Rick Cook and Bob Fox “two of the greenest architects on earth.” So it’s no surprise that when they set out to create a new home for Cook + Fox Architects, their New York−based firm, the strategy was driven by two well-known maxims. The first, quoted frequently by Cook, belongs to microbiologist René Dubos: Think globally, act locally. The second Fox attributes to Ray Anderson, founder of the sustainable carpet company Interface: You can do well by doing good. Together they describe a workplace habitat that contributes to planet preservation and makes excellent financial sense; as both an advertisement for green architecture and for the benefits of cultivating a healthy and productive workforce, the firm demonstrates that sustainability is smart business.
The partners could hardly have done otherwise. As the architects of the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park in Manhattan, a 2.2-million-square-foot structure that will be the largest LEED Platinum office building in America, they were compelled to go after a comparable rating [still pending at press time] in the “commercial interior” category. “We have to walk the walk,” Cook says. “If we hadn’t tried for Platinum in our space, it would be hard for me in good conscience to press people to strive for the highest degree of environmental responsibility.”
His cause is helped by the ever-narrowing price differential between traditional and green construction. According to a 2003 report to California’s Sustainable Building Task Force, additional building costs came to only 6.5 percent in the LEED Platinum category, 1.8 percent to achieve a Gold rating, 2.1 percent for Silver, and a mere .66 percent for basic LEED certification. A report issued by the cost-planning firm Davis Langdon in 2004, which compared 45 LEED and 93 non-LEED structures, concluded that “many projects can achieve sustainable design within their initial budget, or with very small supplemental funding.”
Nonetheless, while clients are drawn to Cook + Fox by an interest in green design, “they’re not always sure what green means,” communications associate Jared Gilbert observes, so the office also serves as a showcase and teaching tool. That means using products that are not only eco-friendly but also easy on the eyes. “People are worried that green materials will look like last year’s bananas, and this office shows that’s just not true,” says real estate developer Dick Berry, the firm’s landlord. “It’s beautiful and modern, yet the materials are not off-gassing or from a rain forest.” Moreover, field-testing sustainable elements enables the firm to recommend them more credibly. “We understand what we’re asking our clients to do, and it makes us better able to sell it,” architect Mark Rusitzky says.
Additionally Cook + Fox’s well-ventilated nontoxic environment demonstrates the human-resource benefits of sustainable design, which can be profound: in 2000 William J. Fisk, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, put the potential annual fiscal savings and productivity gains to be reaped from healthier business environments in this country at “$6 to $14 billion from reduced respiratory disease, $2 to $4 billion from reduced allergies and asthma, $10 to $30 billion from reduced sick-building syndrome symptoms, and $20 to $160 billion from direct improvements in worker performance.” This remains an important part of the firm’s client pitch. “We tell corporations like Bank of America that if their workplace is healthy, it will be quantified financially as lower absenteeism, higher productivity, and greater commitment,” Cook notes.
Cook + Fox’s 12,000-square-foot office occupies the eighth floor of the former Simpson-Crawford-Simpson department store, a 1902 Beaux Arts structure that was part of the historic Ladies’ Mile shopping district, and satisfied Cook’s belief in historic preservation and Fox’s insistence upon close proximity to mass transit (despite having to pay 10 to 20 percent more rent for the privilege). The open plan, 14-foot ceilings, and 85-foot-long curved wall of windows offered an airy, light-filled space. “We could democratically distribute people across the office—every seat has some sort of environmental perk to it,” Gilbert says.
“The modern architect should be clear about what the historic resource is and speak a clear dialogue about the new work’s time, place, and purpose,” Cook says. And the office’s design balances the original coffered ceiling, moldings, and columns with an intervention that, in material terms, fairly exudes good health. This is especially true of the TimberStrand (made from chips of aspen and poplar) that frames Cook + Fox’s sliding glass doors and resembles a roughage-rich breakfast cereal, strongly figured strand-woven bamboo cabinetry, and desktops of PaperStone Certified, a 100 percent recycled paper product—all of which are low in volatile organic compounds. Nor does the firm’s sustainable palette stop at the Benjamin Moore Eco Spec wall paint: beneath the “green” Sheetrock lies insulation made from recycled blue jeans.
Less obvious but of equal impact are Cook + Fox’s light, air, and water systems. Automatic dimmers monitor daylight levels, adding or subtracting artificial illumination. The architects inserted a variable-frequency drive into the preexisting HVAC unit to increase user control. The bathrooms feature waterless urinals, dual-flush toilets, and sensor-operated faucets that lower water consumption by one-third.
The architects confirm that their own green installation proved no more expensive than the old-fashioned kind. “Did we use the cheapest materials on planet Earth?” Cook asks. “No, but we never would. We spent what we would have spent under any circumstances.” Nevertheless, he admits, “Walking the walk involved a few stumbles.” The FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) plywood—which in its traditional iteration can be gotten within hours—took three months to arrive, delaying the firm’s move-in date by weeks. Plus the Crestron daylight-dimming mechanism “increased our lighting costs by about twenty percent,” Cook says. It helped them meet the requirements for LEED certification—“otherwise the receptionist could just turn the lights on when the sun goes down”—but offers a five-year payback in energy savings.
Cook + Fox’s choices also produced some unusual financial benefits. For example, the use of modular carpet tiles minimizes replacement waste if a small area is damaged or stained. But the line selected—i2, from InterfaceFLOR—takes this a step further. “It’s like the random pattern of a forest floor,” architect Alice Hartley says. The fact that they are, in effect, impossible to match means an even greater waste reduction—“Ninety percent over ordinary office carpet,” Hartley says. And this sort of thing, according to Berry, can help sell a green program to the person most inclined to kill it: the office manager. “He’s the guy who says, ‘I don’t want to deal with this,’ ” Berry says. “Showing him there’s a practical value is half the battle.”
Thanks in large measure to the Bank of America Tower, Fedrizzi reports, “the financial community is somewhat fixated on green building right now.” Cook and Fox are hoping for a similar ripple effect from their own space—and not just in terms of business. “By setting an example with our office, we hope it will make a difference,” Fox says. “Not in a way that gets us more work, but so other people will say, ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool—let’s try that.’”
Tools for Investment
Perhaps the greatest payoff for Cook + Fox is the spirit fostered by its in-house sustainability efforts, which include buying enough green power to offset the staff’s personal electric bills, using fuel-efficient car services, encouraging the office housekeeper to test and select the most effective nontoxic cleaners, and even underwriting air-purifying plants for individuals’ desks. And then there’s the 3,600-square-foot green roof. As the installation is situated not above the office but on the tar-paper expanse outside the curving window wall, the firm receives no real energy-saving benefit. But because the roof helps diminish the “heat island” effect by lowering rooftop temperatures by as much as 75 degrees, encourages biodiversity, and mitigates storm-water runoff by retaining rainfall, it expresses the genuineness of the firm’s green commitment. What’s more, the fact that some 20 staff members volunteered to install the bags of sedum over a weekend, Gilbert says, “means that everyone in the office takes ownership of it.” That, Cook believes, is money in the bank. “Every business knows how destructive it is when people are unhappy,” he observes. “And how productive—and therefore profitable—it is when the staff is invested.”