The Green Urban Office

It was Night of the Living Designers. When the elevator doors opened, they were drawn like zombies toward the light, possessed by their desire for operable windows. Or at least that’s how Gordon Stratford, director of design at the Toronto office of the global powerhouse HOK, remembers the first day in the firm’s new space. Wave after wave of the 190 architects, planners, interior de-signers, and urban designers who work there skirted past the pavilion-like front desk, crossed the studio’s narrow floor plate, and immediately began opening and closing the windows—a modicum of control that became an occasion for quiet glee.

Those operable windows epitomize the relationship between sustainability and community manifested in this office renovation. Along with each work area’s individual thermostat, the windows demanded a change in both space-sharing habits and design practice. “We needed to cooperate to make sure the space works,” explains Nadia Orawski, an HOK designer and the office’s unofficial sustainability expert. But they also led to a symbolic change—their panoramic view of Toronto became the metaphor for a big-­picture view of the health of the planet. In the two years since HOK moved in, the windows have helped staffers recognize the importance of the firm’s own sustainability efforts as well as the environmental impact of their design work on the global and local communities. The results have been tangible: the new office has become a platform for education and community outreach.

Early this fall the signs were everywhere, quite literally. Posters throughout the space encouraged designers to become LEED-accredited professionals, with Kermit the Frog insisting, “It’s easy being green!” and a range of classes, from weekly study groups to two-day intensive workshops, offering to help prepare them for the LEED exam. (This being Canada, there was also a raffle for Toronto Maple Leafs hockey tickets.) With the campaign, HOK has exceeded its goal of having 40 percent of its designers LEED-accredited in 2006.

“The HOK mantra has always been ‘enriching people’s lives,’” explains Stratford, whose Toronto-based firm Urbana Architects became part of HOK in 1997. In the early 1990s the firm’s executive committee formally designated sustainable design as one of its core values, but the first major project was the commission for a 1.2-million-square-foot Environmental Protection Agency research center, awarded in 1993—right when a critical mass of American architects began focusing on sustainability. (The U.S. Green Building Council was formed the same year.) In 2000 HOK published its growing body of internal research as the HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design. The firm’s commitment became institutionalized. “Our goal was that every project we touched had to have a sustainable-design aspect to it,” Stratford says—beginning with their own offices.

HOK—and before that Urbana—had long occupied space in Toronto’s downtown core that would have been as suitable for a law firm as for a design studio. Yet with nearly 200 employees, requiring more than 20,000 square feet of space, a typical industrial loft building wasn’t going to work, especially if they wanted to be on one floor and incorporate sustainable features such as operable windows. “In our psyche we always wanted to try to do something different,” Stratford says. “We wanted to go for LEED Gold, and we knew that the mechanical systems were going to be really important, so we had to find a building that had the flexibility for us to do something with it—as well as a landlord who was willing to let us touch the envelope of the building.”

They found the site on King Street West, a transitional area caught between the edge of downtown and characteristic Toronto neighborhoods lined with leafy streets, brick bungalows, and small apartment buildings. Like many loft buildings, it had been home to a light manufacturing company (mainly for the garment industry), but it had been built in the early 1960s and its lobby had been gussied up in the mid-1990s—itself a sign of the city’s rapid shift from a manufacturing to a creative economy. That industrial heritage also meant that the building’s mechanical systems weren’t centralized but arranged floor by floor, making it easy for HOK to install its own high-efficiency systems and operable windows. The space they chose on the fifth floor was completely raw. “Oh, the engineers loved us,” Orawski says.

So did the staff. The location is at Toronto’s hipster heart, near both the boutique-lined stretches of the King West neighborhood and the clubs of the Entertainment District. “I hate to call it gentrification because it’s still got a nice edge to it,” Stratford, who lives in the suburbs, explains a bit sheepishly. Two streetcar lines intersect outside the door—worth a single LEED point, one of 36 toward a Gold rating for commercial interiors—and the regional commuter rail is within walking distance. A recent office survey shows that 82 percent of the employees who live in the city said they either take public transit, walk, or bicycle to work; 67 percent of employees living in the suburbs use public transit. Bike parking and showers are available in the building—earning another LEED point. As in many design firms, a sense of urbanity is embedded in HOK’s culture; with this space the firm was able to embody the feeling in its office. “We’re thinking about the community of people who work in our studio and how we can design a great space for them, but we’re also in a location that really feels like a part of the broader community we live in,” Stratford says.

The impulse has driven HOK’s outreach on sustainable design. The firm published a short booklet with a self-guided tour of the office’s sustainable features (worth another LEED point, for community education). Since the space opened at the beginning of 2005, professional, student, and media groups have come to survey its specially ventilated copier and pasteup rooms, to learn about low-VOC materials and the office’s aim of getting all of its energy from renewable sources—and of course to check out the operable windows. Some of the most impressive stats aren’t readily visible—like the 85 percent of construction waste, totaling more than 18,000 pounds, that was recycled or repurposed.

Yet HOK has found that its clients are the most important audience for the space—not because of aesthetics, but because of environmental principles. Rather than advertise their design savvy with the typical architect’s corporate cool—all Barcelona chairs and travertine—HOK throws its significant corporate heft behind the “triple bottom line”: how sustainability benefits business, society, and the planet. What the firm has found is that the conversation often stretches beyond architecture. “We’re talking with our clients about what it means to go green not just with their offices but with their whole organization,” says Orawski. One client recently asked for help in offsetting the carbon dioxide emissions of its energy usage to make its space “carbon neutral,” prompting Orawski to respond, “Oh boy, this is going to be fun!”

So while HOK’s task chairs may be slightly worn (they were recycled from its previous space), the firm’s sense of purpose meshes with that of its clients in an entirely new way. “I’ve been working in design for a long time,” Stratford says, “and sustainability has given us a commonality of language with our clients like never before.” It is not just a community of designers anymore, but neighbors on the same small planet.

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