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NRDC's New Chicago Office Advances Green Design

Anthony Guerrero

Posted December 13, 2013 in Green Enterprise

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A couple of days after our new Chicago office opened this summer, staff started commenting about how the office—designed by the internationally acclaimed Studio Gang Architects—smelled clean, like “trees and nature.”

This wasn’t the result of some air freshener.

In fact, the office, located in the historic Civic Opera Building in Chicago’s Loop, had none of that “new car” smell people have come to associate with new construction.

There’s a reason for that: NRDC and its project team planned things that way.


When we built out this office, we wanted to push the boundaries of what was possible. That’s something we’ve done in many of our construction projects, beginning with the trailblazing green design of our New York City headquarters back in 1989; and continuing with our Santa Monica office in 2004, one of the first buildings in the U.S. to achieve LEED Platinum certification. The recent retrofit of our New York office won the highest LEED Platinum rating for a Commercial Interior, under LEEDv2.  And our DC  and Beijing offices earned LEED Platinum and Gold certifications, respectively. 


With our Chicago office, we wanted to create a healthy work environment for our incredibly committed staff.  And we wanted to do more than that: to show architects, designers and commercial tenants how office interiors can be constructed without many of the toxic chemicals that are, unfortunately, so often part of modern construction materials. With the invaluable help of Studio Gang Architects, WMA Consulting Engineers and Closed Loop Advisors, we accomplished all that. Not only did we win LEED Platinum certification for commercial interiors from the US Green Building Council (USGBC); we became the first tenant improvement project in the world to merit the  Petal Certification from the world’s most advanced sustainable building certification program—the Living Building Challenge (LBC).


Building and maintaining a toxics-free work environment is part of an evolution in NRDC’s thinking about our own workspaces. Since our first build-out in 1989, we have avoided purchasing materials that contain commonly known toxics such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs, as they off-gas into the air, are the primary components of “new car smell” and the scent of fresh paint. These chemicals, found commonly in paints, lacquers, and other building materials and furnishings, can damage people’s lungs, kidneys and central nervous systems; some VOCs are known or suspected carcinogens. They also contribute to smog, which, in turn, can exacerbate and even cause asthma and other respiratory problems.


In this new build-out, we wanted to go even further. The Living Building Challenge (LBC) enabled NRDC to do this using LBC’s prescriptive "Materials Petal". LBC’s materials requirements are more rigorous than LEED’s; with a more comprehensive list of materials and chemicals — known as the “Red List”— that a construction project must avoid in order to comply for certification. Sourcing of materials under the LBC protocol also has specific imperatives regarding:

  • embodied carbon—the amount of carbon emitted in a material’s production and transportation;
  • responsible industry—sustainable resource extraction and fair labor practices;
  • appropriate sourcing—incorporating regional, sustainable products, practices and services; and,
  • conservation + reuse—striving to reduce or eliminate waste during design, construction, operations, and end-of-life. 

(You can learn more here about LBC’s “Petals” and “Imperatives” from our Chicago Project Manager Eileen Quigley.)

Importantly, LBC is trying to make Red List free materials sourcing easier, and to build the market for green buildings materials, through its Declare Products website, which lists the ingredients and other important information about an increasing number of building materials.


Completing the build-out was only part of our process; once the staff moved in, the office became an active work environment with ongoing decisions to be made.  Operations staff now maintain the space following the LBC materials list for all purchases, so that we can keep the building in adherence with the most stringent health standards.  For all future projects, NRDC aims to go Red List free, both in construction build-outs and in daily office operations.

To keep all our operations on the cutting edge of sustainability practice, we’re now also using other strategies that include:

  • real-time monitoring systems that allow us to determine inefficiencies in energy and water use;.
  • smart-plug sensors, which automatically power down computers, printers, docking stations, and other electronics when they’re not in use; and,
  • ultra-low flow washroom fixtures that have reduced water consumption by 35 percent from EPAct 1992 standards.

As the Director of Facilities and Administration at NRDC I am delighted that our Midwest office build-out was awarded LEED CI Platinum and Living Building Petal certification. When the project team decided to pursue the most aggressive sustainability measures possible, we knew the results would be impressive. What we didn’t realize, though, was that you’d be able to sense our achievement the moment you walked in the office door.

Click here to learn more about the Chicago Office.

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