Updated: May 6
This post, which is part of a series on how to reduce carbon in the built environment, was co-authored by Tim Johnson and Peter Alspach. The first post in the series served as an introduction, and the second focused on embodied carbon reduction.
The nature of work is changing in a myriad of ways, with more talent relocating to areas outside of cities and the seemingly permanent shift to hybrid schedules. As a result, corporations are rethinking their headquarters, designing them for a different set of uses and an evolving workforce. These same companies are also increasingly concerned with social responsibility, including their offices’ carbon footprint.
Recently, our firm was tasked with designing a net-zero building for a corporate client on the East Coast. While the adaptive reuse of part of the current headquarters served as a jumping-off point, the organization’s suburban location required an addition to the existing building as well as increased focus and diligence in managing elements such as embodied and transportation carbon—two main areas of concern in a net-zero energy facility. The client also specified that carbon neutrality be achieved through the construction and operation of the building itself rather than supplemental means such as the purchase of carbon offsets.
How can an organization reconcile the need to expand their presence with their obligation to decrease carbon emissions? Below, we explore strategies and solutions for companies to do so through the planning, design and construction of their buildings.
Innovate through Materials and Building Techniques
For our East Coast corporate client, the use of sustainable materials and building practices factored in greatly when planning and designing the addition to the existing headquarters. One environmentally friendly, cost effective and beautiful alternative to traditional building materials like concrete and steel is mass timber. Substituting wood instead of conventional building materials can reduce emissions by 69%, and using mass timber in half of expected new urban construction could provide as much as 9% of global emissions reduction needed to meet 2030 targets.
In addition to curbing greenhouse gas emissions, mass timber’s benefits extend to the building and construction process. It is well suited to offsite manufacturing and prefabrication—another highly sustainable building method that can reduce construction waste by 40% and carbon emissions by 35%—since much of the labor (cutting and assembly) is done in factories. It is estimated that because they are prefabricated, use of mass timber panels can bring significant cost savings for construction projects and reduce construction time by up to 25%.
Employ Alternative Energy Sources
While embodied carbon is of greater concern in the long run, operational carbon—a building’s everyday energy use—accounts for 28% of the built environment’s carbon footprint. Alternative energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal can significantly reduce a building’s reliance on fossil fuels. For example, the Thermal Energy Center at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, WA, employs a geothermal system comprised of hundreds of wells drilled 550 feet underground that serves as the heating and cooling source for the campus, eliminating fossil fuel usage.
Cities are also beginning to require the use of alternative energy sources in both new construction and adaptive reuse projects to meet their carbon reduction goals. For example, Boston’s BERDO 2.0 ordinance mandates that buildings of a certain size must report their carbon emissions to the city on an annual basis and pay a fee on any overages, and in the past 18 months Washington, DC, New York City, Denver, Seattle and St. Louis (among others) have all enacted building performance standards.
Microsoft’s Thermal Energy Center in Redmond, WA, taps clean energy deep underground for the organization’s new campus.
Curb Transportation Carbon with Amenities that Attract Talent and Benefit the Community
Transportation carbon is a concern when dealing with a suburban workforce that mostly commutes using cars. According to a Pew Research study from 2016, 21% of urban dwellers use public transit on a regular basis compared to only 6% of suburban residents. The movement toward hybrid work means fewer people commuting each day has positive implications for transportation carbon, especially when coupled with amenities that benefit the community and attract talent.
In addition, due to public and private investment making suburbs more dense, walkable, bike-friendly and less dependent on cars, as well as the competition to attract bright young talent who want to live and work in lively places, many companies are imbuing their suburban campuses with shops, restaurants, hotels, residences, affordable housing, community services and public parks. When going to work also includes a stop at the gym, a quick trip to the grocery store and a dinner out, the transportation carbon associated with making separate trips is reduced significantly—not to mention providing an experience that draws talent to the office.
Lastly, there is an increased trend in electric vehicle infrastructure required of commercial office projects. The electrification of the transportation sector is a key part of global carbon emissions reduction plans, and the build-out of the supporting infrastructure is vital to its success.
At Amazon’s HQ in Arlington, VA, the “helix”—a walkable ramp wrapping the building with trees and greenery planted to resemble a mountain hike—is open to the public on weekends, providing a green amenity for employees and the community alike.
Reuse, Renew, Reposition
According to JLL research, two-thirds of the national office inventory is more than 30 years old and likely to become obsolete, while 91% of net occupancy growth for the past decade is new and repositioned supply. An increased emphasis on energy reduction in buildings coupled with the fact that many aging commercial properties are transforming from assets to liabilities means that adaptive reuse, renewal and repositioning are viable strategies to help reduce the embodied carbon impact of the built environment, enhance a building’s value and decrease energy use and costs.
Implementing upgrades that increase sustainability and energy efficiency—such as replacing aging infrastructure, proactively adapting to regulatory changes and designing for resiliency—as part of a larger repositioning of the property creates a compelling product in the marketplace that appeals to both developers and tenants.
Balancing the energy savings of sustainable building practices and renewable energy sources with a building’s embodied, operational and transportation carbon footprint is a complicated equation. However, large corporations have an obligation to address carbon emissions due to their outsized role in driving global climate change. By making informed decisions about materials, building techniques, energy and transportation, organizations can significantly decrease the carbon footprint of their buildings while also setting an example for how to create sustainable, responsible buildings