Ken Wilson, founder of Envision Design, an award-winning Washington, D.C.-based firm, is currently completing the New York offices for the Environmental Defense (ED) organization. William McDonough and Randy Croxton designed previous ED spaces—long before the term green interior had entered the lexicon—so there is some symbolism at work here, a kind of generational passing of the torch.
Wilson began Envision in 1999, which in some ways represents a second wave of sustainable practice. Although he helped write the LEED guidelines for commercial interiors, serves on a slew of advisory boards, and has designed offices for Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, the National Audubon Society, and other leading organizations, Wilson has an utterly pragmatic approach to sustainability. He may share his colleagues’ moral concerns for the environment—and spec FSC-certified wood for all the right reasons—but he’s likely to sell the idea to clients using a less lofty argument: the sustainable options are better, smarter, and aesthetically pleasing. Metropolis executive editor Martin C. Pedersen talked to Wilson about keeping up with material innovation, his firm’s knowledge culture, and the obstacles to mainstream acceptance of sustainable design.
There’s been an explosion in sustainable products in the past five years. How does your firm keep track?
We have a librarian who handles all of our materials, keeps an eye out for new ones, and brings them to our attention. We’re also constantly reading magazines. We find a lot of new materials that way. Then if we think we might want to use one in a project, we dive a little deeper and try to make sure it’s really green.
Unfortunately there’s a limit to what we can do. If a manufacturer’s representative makes a claim, we can’t test those products. So I want to see those claims made in printed materials. Because I’d like to believe that if a company is going to commit something to writing, hopefully their attorneys aren’t going to let them make false claims. Now if it’s a big enough commitment to a particular material, seeing where and how the product is made is helpful. And that’s easier to do with things like carpeting or ceiling tile, but harder for the smaller unique kind of materials we might use.
It seems that energy efficiency goes a long way toward attaining a LEED rating. Does material specification play the same key role for LEED commercial interiors?
Materials are a part of it, but energy comes into play in doing an interiors project as well. You have the same credit groupings in LEED commercial interiors as you do in LEED for new construction. With most interior jobs you aren’t dealing with sustainable sites, but there are energy credits for lighting and mechanical systems. Also the shape of the building has a lot to do with how much access you’ll get to natural light and views, and you can’t always control that. Therefore, it’s important to get to the client as early as possible. If they’re out looking around at different buildings or sites, we need to be involved.
You’ve established a reputation for sustainable design. How has that evolved within the firm?
We’re probably one of the few firms in the country where every one of our professional staff is LEED accredited. We also have professional-development seminars in the office every other week, where we talk about issues—a lot are green issues. On Fridays we meet as a group and talk about current projects. This is an opportunity to compare notes and say, “Well, we’re working with this new material on this project.” It’s our way to spread knowledge and information throughout the firm. In terms of project work, we tend to continuously tweak our specifications from job to job.
What are some of the obstacles to widespread acceptance of sustainable design?
The biggest obstacle is awareness. I wish I could say that every client comes to us wanting a green project. The majority don’t walk in the door saying, “Give me a green project.” Maybe forty percent of them do. So it’s something we talk about from day one. But we don’t present it as “green design.” It’s not about spotted owls or tree hugging—it’s intelligent design. What’s not smart about designing a space that’s filled with natural light or free from chemicals or ergonomic? We used to say we did architecture interiors, graphics, and sustainable design. But we dropped the “sustainable design” because we didn’t want people thinking it was a little subgroup. Recently we did a spa that we’re hoping to get a LEED gold rating on, and we carried the sustainable theme all the way through to the paper, the inks, and all the graphics.
Has sustainable design reached the mainstream?
No. There are a lot of places in the country where it’s not even on the table. All you have to do is look at the USGBC map that indicates where the LEED-registered projects are. There are parts of the country where they aren’t doing anything. It currently tends to be pushed to the coasts. Unfortunately there isn’t a great awareness. Ask the average man on the street, “Do you care about the environment?” and he’s going to say yes. But there’s a preconception in the construction industry that it costs more.
Five years ago that preconception was probably true. Has that changed?
It’s not about spending more money; it’s about spending money differently. For instance, certain systems for recapturing heat are going to cost more, but there will be a payout over time. We always try to look at those with our clients. In an interiors project, if they’ve got a ten-year lease, we try to look at all the options for reducing energy costs over that period. Certain things will have a two-year payoff; others, seven or ten. But it takes an enlightened client to think that way. We’re in a country that has a first-cost mentality. That’s why Europe is ahead of us. Of course, there are things that do cost more right now. If you get FSC-certified wood, it will cost more, and the range of species is more limited. But it’s something we feel is important. The LEED rating system itself is a premium because there is a rigorous documentation process, which definitely costs more. But it’s hard to quantify. Almost everything we put into a project as a result of trying to achieve LEED credits also adds to its value. Some sustainable products are actually better. The wheat board we specify has greater pullout strength for screws than particleboard. It’s lighter, has less embodied energy, and performs better. So why wouldn’t I use it?
Although we’d like to believe otherwise, sustainable design is not common practice. What’s the next step?
It’s the developer community. They haven’t totally grasped it yet, but what they’re seizing onto now is thinking about what the value of their projects will be in ten years. They’re saying, If I construct a green building, it’s going to be worth a heck of a lot more in ten years than a nongreen building. That’s a new way of thinking. Developers are motivated by dollars and cents, and most of them—the good ones, anyway—are not afraid to invest money up front if they’re going to get a return on the other end.