Smarter Business: Green Building

reception area

Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, Courtesy of Studio Gang Architects

The NRDC Midwest staff moved into their newly renovated office, located in Chicago's historic Civic Opera Building, in June 2013. The space meets rigorous sustainability goals, both achieving a LEED Platinum rating and qualifying as the first commercial office space in the world to gain recognition from the Living Building Challenge.

When it was time to expand, the design team of Nushu, LLC and Studio Gang Architects worked to make the expansion space meet or exceed these same high expectations as the preceding connected office. Under the guidance of Living Building Challenge consultant, Closed Loop Advisors, and LEED consultant, WMA Sustainability Solutions Group, and with general contracting services by Norcon Inc., the space meets aggressive environmental goals without compromising functionality or aesthetics. As a result of the integrated team approach, NRDC's Chicago office expansion aims to be certified under the new 3.0 version of Living Building Challenge. The project also follows LEED v4 for Commercial Interiors guidelines.

Through strategic research, design, and implementation, the Midwest office expansion upholds the identity of NRDC's original Midwest office as a progressive space that defines a new green standard for commercial rehabilitation projects.

Choosing the Location

The Chicago office is within walking distance to the CTA, Metra commuter trains, bus stops, the new Loop Link, and the Divvy bike share program. Secure bike storage is available for employees in a neighboring building's bike room, and the health club on the 15th floor of the Civic Opera building provides showering and changing facilities.

Accordingly, employees are more likely to bike to work or take advantage of public transportation than drive. These commuting decisions reduce local pollution, lessen the Chicago office's carbon footprint, and promote health and well-being.

Improving Tenant Health: Natural Light and Human Toxicity

hanging garden

With windows bordering all 4 exposures, openness and warmth are essential characteristics of the office space. A narrow floorplate allows natural light to penetrate deeply into the office and reduces the need for energy use. Additionally, all windows are accessible and operable, enabling occupants to monitor fresh air levels and control their climate naturally. The open floor plan allows for fair access to daylight and fresh air by occupants both at the peripheries and towards the center of the floor.

All materials, from drywall to minor applications of glue, were vetted for hazardous Red List chemicals. Omitting materials containing these chemicals ensures that both construction workers during renovation, and tenants during regular operations, are provided with a healthy workspace. In order to prevent the accumulation of contaminants caused by construction activities, the general contractor implemented measures such as pathway interruption, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning protection. Climbing gardens, hung from wall mounted rope fixtures and columns, were also installed in the expansion space, helping to naturally purify the air while contributing to the aesthetic appeal of the office. The plant species used (Philodendron cordatum and Philodendron brasil) are known to assist in purifying the air by removing large amounts of air toxins and VOCs.

Conserving Energy and Water

natural light

Several measures were taken in order to conserve energy and reduce carbon emissions. 90 percent or more of electronics in the office are Energy Star compliant, exceeding the government energy efficiency standards and reducing energy usage. All lighting systems use energy efficient bulbs that automatically adjust to the surrounding light conditions, providing a lighting density 50 percent beyond the efficiency standard established by building codes. Lights in the work areas turn on automatically dimmed at 50 percent and can be adjusted to users' comforts. In addition, smart plug sensors automatically power down computers, printers, docking stations, and other electronics at a designated time, saving up to 10% of energy usage.

To reduce water usage, low-flow faucets and dishwashers were installed. Additionally, NRDC successfully advocated for the installation of low-flow faucets, toilets, and urinals in common floor bathrooms, even though the restrooms are not included in NRDC's premises according to the lease.

NRDC recognizes that despite the operational measures taken to reduce environmental impact, there are emissions associated with facility construction. To offset the embodied carbon of construction, NRDC purchased a VCS Certified carbon credit that offsets the emissions associated with constructing both the original office and expansion renovations.


shared spaces

The Midwest office uses a smart technology energy system to monitor water and energy usage in real time. This information is collected and stored in an online database that provides in-depth reports of energy and water use over periods of time. By increasing the transparency of energy use decisions, the office is better equipped at correcting potential energy or water use inefficiencies, thereby realizing gains beyond those associated with efficient technology alone.

Using Recycled and Sustainable Materials

Recycling materials and reducing waste were high priorities throughout design and construction phases. Given that the project was an interior retrofit, the team searched mostly for new products with recycled material content or products salvageable from other sites, including areas of the original space that were affected by the expansion construction. For instance, the team was able to salvage and reuse a piece of Cambrian Granite as a countertop, effectively reducing landfill use, conserving resources, and providing materials cost savings.

wall and ceiling panels

In attempts to decrease the carbon footprint associated with materials shipping, a special focus was placed on local procurement. For example, the ceiling tiles were made from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified Midwest-sourced wood, ensuring that the wood was procured locally and that no toxic-binding agents were used in the process. In this way, over 50 percent of the construction budget came from within 600 miles of the project site. The team also made a major effort to minimize waste output throughout the construction phase. All construction waste was sorted and recyclables were separated out. The general contractor was able to divert metal and paper waste, resulting in a remarkable 98.4 percent of total project construction waste, from landfills.

NRDC's Green Offices
Overview | New York | Washington, DC | Chicago | Santa Monica | San Francisco | Beijing

last revised 1/6/2016

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