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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sept/Oct 2002 : From Safety to Sustainability

Feature Article

A Message in a Model
The National Wildlife Federation's new home proves that eco-friendly goals are achievable when common sense is combined with a dash of realism.

When your mission includes the protection of bald eagles, gray wolves and whole ecosystems, the last thing you want to be worrying about is an inefficient office building that doesn’t meet your functional needs and wastes precious dollars. Such was the impetus behind the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) four-year process to plan a new headquarters building—one that not only met its needs and desires, but also represented what it is and what it believes in. Since moving into the new facility in Reston, VA, last year, the overwhelming consensus among all involved is that NWF not only achieved, but surpassed, its goals.

“This is about more than building a great new home,” explains NWF’s president and CEO Mark Van Putten. “It’s meant to send a message about what the National Wildlife Federation stands for, and to provide a model of what any organization can achieve if it builds with the health of the environment in mind and a lot of common sense.” NWF began by deciding not to spend an inordinate amount of money building a green Taj Mahal that wouldn’t be able to be duplicated. Instead it opted to create a building with features that others could emulate and thus serve as a model. Staff members refer to their facility as “state-of-the-shelf,” meaning that the technologies used are innovative, yet readily available and affordable.

Van Putten and others in the organization credit their success to the thoughtfulness with which they approached the process of developing their goals, by involving focus groups, board members and staff and providing a public comment period following each presentation by the design team to give everyone time to react. This extremely inclusive process has evolved into a strong sense of pride and ownership. They credit the architectural firm of William McDonough + Partners with helping to clarify their vision, especially in the selection of their site and design team.

The building, although located inside a suburban office park, is situated on a previously undeveloped piece of land that backs up to a 130-acre conservation area within the 475-acre wooded Lake Fairfax Park. It is placed on the land in an unusual way. Typically, suburban office buildings sit in the middle of their property with parking all around. However, because this site abuts a county park, the architects placed the building as tight to the northern boundary as possible, thereby borrowing its view. NWF spent a full year carefully documenting the nature of the land before construction began. As a result of this meticulous survey of the trees, the building was re-sited several times in order to save as many of them as possible.

Additionally, NWF studied the resident wildlife, including a year-long bird count, in order to measure the impact on the site and to insure its restoration goal of making the site more productive for the wildlife after construction than it was before. It also researched a 100-year historical analysis of the property in order to learn what it had been as far back as land records went in order to get a sense of its history. Such careful planning has paid off. Pairs of binoculars can be found on the window ledges throughout the office spaces attesting to the variety of critters inhabiting the surrounding areas; a notebook is filling rapidly as the staff documents the birds, butterflies, mammals and reptiles they spot.

Great care was also given in the choice of Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (HOK) as the project architect. Impressed with their responsiveness, interdisciplinary capabilities and experience with both sustainability and budget-sensitive projects, the client couldn’t be happier with its selection. Principal Bill Hellmuth also speaks glowingly about NWF, despite the seemingly conflicting requirements imposed upon the HOK team to design a sustainable building within a very modest budget.

“The challenge here was an interesting one because NWF had several agendas going at the same time,” Hellmuth remembers. “One was clearly this sustainable agenda; however, equally clear was that they wanted the project to come in at $55-per-square-foot, first cost. Most buildings of this sort are typically $65-per-square-foot or more, so this presented quite a challenge. They are a fiscally conservative organization and believe that the building should not be about their glorification, but rather should reflect their mission. What was incredibly positive, though, is that they came to it with a very open mind about the process.”

Both parties—the client and the architect—heap great praise on their chosen course of action. HOK maintained a dialogue with the staff throughout, often presenting various options and giving everyone time to sort things out before weighing in with opinions.

Conscious of the fact that they had to design with simplicity, a long, skinny footprint was deliberately created, glazed on the north and south faces, with solid ends east and west. Happily, the best view of the wooded park was to the north and the architects knew they could deal with direct sunlight issues on the southern exposure in many different ways. Their first solution, a series of horizontal wooden slats, proved unsatisfactory and eventually evolved into a metal trellis, which, in addition to providing summer shade and admitting winter light, provides a vertical habitat for birds and butterflies. Native deciduous vines will be planted along the bottom that will eventually wind their way up to the top. This “green screen” afforded the architects one way of combining NWF’s goals with its desire to do something architecturally interesting, habitat friendly, sustainable and in keeping with the budget.

The building’s entrance, always a key element of the architectural solution, provided another. The design team felt it was important not to level the land, but rather work within its natural terrain. This decision led to the inclusion of a wildlife pond with a waterfall that will be a living aquatic habitat that visitors will cross via a bridge. The bridge’s concrete surface is imprinted with the “actual” paw prints of Ranger Rick, letting all who enter know that this is a special place where all critters are welcome! Other landscape design features include two bioretention ponds that will naturally cleanse the runoff from the roof and parking lots before it returns to the nearby streams. Out back there are demonstration areas for NWF’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat program. Designed to train others to become wildlife stewards, the habitat fulfills some of the organization’s primary missions: education and action to “keep the wild alive.”

The building itself is simple, yet each design feature is calculated to achieve certain goals set by NWF. Hellmuth recalls how, at the beginning, the client pictured a different building, one much less innovative in its plan and use of materials.

“I don’t believe they imagined a building with trellises, profile panels or split face block, but we stretched the limits in terms of appropriate materials, primarily because of budget considerations,” he says. “If they had had a larger budget, we might have been more conventional.”

For example, NWF initially wanted operable windows, but they proved to be too expensive. Instead, breakout balconies were placed throughout and equipped with data and electrical connections to enable workers to take their laptops outside. These also provide a great place to read or hold meetings—or for simply stepping out to hear a bird sing. A visit on a beautiful spring day confirmed their understandable popularity. In many other ways, the staff is encouraged to experience the outdoors and to be reminded on a constant basis what their mission is all about. For example, bikes are provided for employees to ride the trails in the adjacent park on their lunch hours.

Bringing the outside in was easily accomplished once the building footprint was set. The floor plan is extremely spacious and open with light coming in from both sides. The large majority of the Teknion work stations are within 25 feet of a window, providing all with the healthful benefits of daylighting and connectivity to nature, possible only because of the open floor plan.

Although the decision to abandon private offices was one of the more difficult problems to be reckoned with during the design process, there appears to be consensus that the open plan is working. Van Putten feels that this arrangement fosters a more collaborative environment, and he’s been pleasantly surprised by how quickly and positively all have adjusted to it. Once again, the process is credited with eliminating much of the uncertainty originally expressed by many members of the 150-person staff.

“We spent more than a year planning for this and then made a decision and didn’t look back,” Van Putten recalls. “Once we made the decision to go with open offices we designed the entire facility around how to maximize the benefits and deal with the disadvantages.” For example, huddle rooms are strategically placed throughout the work areas to provide private space.

The architects also aided the ease of communication by designing in ample conference rooms; a large, light-filled communicating stairway; refreshment centers; and the bathrooms and the balconies are all within the knuckle of the building. Hellmuth explains how clustering these function areas cause people to come to one central area repeatedly throughout the day.

“When things are dispersed, you can’t achieve the same kind of community feeling within a building. Organizationally, it’s very important in terms of knowing that others are around and that each staff member is part of a bigger whole than their own department.” Other benefits include fewer formal meetings, less e-mail and memos and more face-to-face ad hoc communication. Van Putten personally attests to greater interaction. His old office felt like a prison, he remembers; he now thrives on more frequent and spontaneous contact with his staff.

The interior finishing is simple and understated with many of the materials chosen because they are practical, durable and ecologically friendly. Rapidly renewable bamboo flooring was selected, as were carpet tiles with little or no off-gassing and that required less adhesives. Woods specified were grown in forests certified as sustainable, and indirect, reflective lighting is provided by energy efficient fixtures.

There are clues and reminders, some subtle and some unabashed, throughout the building of why it’s there. School buses pull up daily filled with local students ready to take advantage of the built-in educational opportunities, such as the Conservation Hall of Fame with portraits of past great leaders: Teddy Roosevelt, Morris Udall and Henry David Thoreau to name a few. Conference rooms carry the names of conservation heroes like Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold, and the huddle rooms are named for NWF’s state and territorial affiliates. Cutouts of wolf paw prints decorate the backs of the chairs in the cafeteria, and wire art by a staff wildlife biologist is cleverly placed. NWF also owns a premier collection of wildlife art that the building has been designed to showcase.

Van Putten emphasizes that buildings should communicate, and he feels certain that this one does, from its Distance Learning Center to its interactive consoles and backyard habitat program. There’s also an outdoor amphitheatre in the works and very visible solar panels located near the entrance used to heat hot water for the showers. The library, one of the most pleasant spaces in the building, is considerably smaller than in NWF’s previous building—a result of on-line research capabilities.

Both the architect and the client agree that they took a common sense approach to sustainability. There were things that they wanted to do, but could not. But they had an aggressive and thoughtful process and came out of it with no regrets.

“Don’t be discouraged if you can’t be 100 percent green,” Van Putten advises. “Take five steps even if you can’t take 10—and you’ll remind us all of where the future should go.”

Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum, Inc. (HOK)
Canal House
3223 Grace St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20007
(202) 339-8700

Bill Hellmuth
Sandy Mendler
Amy Coe
Manuel Sanchez
Ruth Kockler
Hyun Kim
Tatiana Haagensen
Duncan Kirk
John Folan
John Varholak
Steve Woodyatt
Anne Mazzola

Project Consultant

William McDonough + Partners
Charlottesville, VA

Structural Engineer
American Structural Engineers
Falls Church, VA

R.G. Vanderweil Engineers
Alexandria, VA

Civil Engineer
VIKA, Inc.
McLean, VA


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