When Atlanta-based carpet manufacturer Interface began thinking about building its first hometown showroom, one thing was clear: it had to be green. Much of the company’s identity is bound up in sustainability—from founder Ray Anderson’s eco-epiphany 13 years ago to the current target of erasing its environmental impact by 2020—and it saw the showroom as a way to demonstrate that commitment. So when the opportunity arose, Interface signed on as a pilot project for the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) new commercial-interiors certification program. “We decided from the beginning that we wanted to go for the most we could get,” says John Wells, president of Interface Americas.
The question was how to get there. Interface and TVS Interiors, the local firm it hired to design the space, achieved the first Platinum ever for the showroom, but they didn’t reach LEED’s highest level—44 out of a total 57 possible points—just by speccing a few green sealants or swapping out formaldehyde-soaked wood with FSC-certified veneers. There was plenty of that, of course, but the big push came in an intense predesign process that mapped out plans for everything from coffeemakers to carpooling.
The first step was finding the right site. Location is just as crucial to LEED—even for interiors—as it is to real estate, so TVS joined Interface in its search. The interior-design firm employs a LEED specialist, Carlie Bullock-Jones, to shepherd projects through certifica-tion, and she helped to find a building that would grease the path. After a storefront on high-profile Peachtree Street fell through, they settled on a space next to the Georgia Tech campus, in Midtown. Right away Interface could check off a slew of points: one for siting in a rapidly growing infill neighborhood; one for accessibility to MARTA, Atlanta’s public-transportation system; and another for adding car-pool spots in the preexisting garage. Other credits built into the site quickly became apparent. As a new construction, the building has an HVAC system that meets LEED’s prohibition of chlorofluorocarbons, chemical compounds that damage the ozone layer. And a gym on the lower level covers the needed showers and changing rooms for bicyclists and pedestrian commuters.
The clever siting had provided enough padding to insulate against setbacks. But with unfamiliar guidelines and an ambitious goal, the team needed to determine what points were possible under a limited budget—and to hedge its bets. Bullock-Jones gathered the project’s main players for a planning session, called an eco-charrette, where they methodically ran through the LEED checklist to assess the feasibility of each point and to develop a strategy to achieve enough of them for Platinum. Rather than reach for every credit, the team would focus on what Bullock-Jones calls the “low-hanging fruit.” That meant, for example, offsetting two years’ worth of the showroom’s energy use with wind credits, but not hiring a commissioning agent after the project was complete to recheck that the building systems were operating correctly; because the showroom is only 7,000 square feet, the possible gains were too modest to justify the cost. “We tried to go after almost every point,” she says, “but strategically there were some that we knew from the beginning we wouldn’t be able to do.”
One of the most important strategies—minimizing energy use—was accomplished largely by harnessing the daylight that floods the space through a wall of east-facing floor-to-ceiling windows. The showroom’s fluorescent lanterns, which use far less electricity than incandescents, automatically dim when sunlight suffices. Once the basics for energy savings were in place, Bullock-Jones looked to how the space would be used, a concern that LEED-CI weights more heavily than its other certification programs. “You can build the most energy-efficient building, but if the client plugs in ten coffeemakers and a hundred computers, then it’s all for naught sometimes,” she says. Wherever possible, TVS chose high-efficiency Energy Star appliances, and it convinced the landlord to submeter Interface’s bills rather than charge a flat monthly fee, so that it would be responsible for actual energy use.
But even with the best practices and a Platinum rating, the showroom’s footprint is too small to have much of an impact on the environment. Where the project could have a lasting effect is in passing along what was learned in building it. To meet the requirements of LEED-CI, TVS had to educate itself as well as other team members about novel products and processes. Bullock-Jones put together mock-ups of unfamiliar materials such as wheatboard (a rapidly renewable resource used in the cabinetry and flooring) so that subcontractors could become comfortable with them, and she emphasized their own health stake in following sustainable practices. She has also been able to bring her research to new projects, most recently a pair of showrooms for Kimball. She says, “I can tell the owner, ‘We feel confident. We’ve used this before. This is the path that we chose for this credit compliance, and I know the USGBC has already accepted that.’” And what could be more sustainable than recycling knowledge?