Inside PNC's green machines: The 19th-floor 'laboratory' where offices and furnishings get dissected

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Gary Saulson might be the banking version of Q, the gadget man of James Bond fame.

The PNC executive has turned the 19th floor of one of the Pittsburgh bank's Downtown buildings, Two PNC Plaza, into a laboratory of sorts to craft the weaponry of the 21st century.

Only you won't find poison pens or exploding wristwatches but rather privacy screens made of paper, a countertop sample spun from milk cartons and walls that you can write on.

Rather than arming 007 for battle, Mr. Saulson's aim is to create a better workplace for PNC employees, while at the same time contributing to the environment -- and saving money -- through green building practices.


But to find out what works and what doesn't, you have to put it to the test, right? That's why this high-rise operation is part Home Depot, part Fun House.

In Mr. Saulson's office alone, there's a chair that looks like a saddle, several types of ceiling lighting and a sound-masking system that replicates running water.

On the 19th floor, it's not unusual to see a stack of carpet samples sitting on a countertop or glass lined up at a desk to be tested. You may stumble across the LED light shaped like a wand, eight types of tile installed in the ceiling, a bench with a built-in file cabinet or an office cubicle with blinds and windowpanes.

It's enough to make you wonder whether Mr. Saulson, PNC's director of corporate real estate, is something of a mad scientist.

"I don't know that I feel like a mad scientist. I think I feel like a prudent business person," he said.

There's certainly a lot of money involved.

He noted, for example, that the bank recently spent $400,000 replacing the lighting in a small portfolio of buildings -- a move that is expected to save an estimated $300,000 annually through reduced energy consumption.

PNC began testing office-related products in 1998 or 1999 during the construction of the bank's Firstside Center, which opened in 2000 and was at the time the nation's largest corporate green building.

Mr. Saulson estimates that since then he and his staff have eyeballed -- or tried to break, scratch or soil -- as many as 1,000 items, from countertops and carpet all the way down to the nameplates on desks.

In fact, the 19th floor of Two PNC Plaza now serves as the official testing ground for all the products PNC puts into its branches and buildings. They are evaluated based on recycled content, toxicity, where they're made, waste diversion, how they wear and other factors.

Those typically doing the testing are the dozens of employees who work on the 19th floor. They provide the feedback for what works and what doesn't. For them, Mr. Saulson said, "It's kind of fun. You never know what's going to show up."

Having workers serve as guinea pigs, so to speak, seems to make sense, since the overriding goal in testing products is employee comfort.

"We're doing these things because we think it provides a better work environment for our employees. From a financial perspective, we think it's financially responsible," Mr. Saulson said. "Then you've got the additional attributes, which deal with sustainability and which really set us apart in being an innovative company."

One of the products PNC is testing is a dispenser that both purifies and carbonates water, perhaps with an eye to using it in kitchenettes built into the design of new bank buildings.

"The idea is a lot of people are buying carbonated water now, so why not provide it without having to dispose of a bottle from the environmental perspective? And the cost is minimal," Mr. Saulson explained.

Then there's the "conference room of the future."

It features a white table that can be raised or lowered and even tilted on its side. Better yet, you can write on it without being scolded by your boss or your mother. There are also white movable walls. You can write on those, too.

Mr. Saulson sees practical benefits here. He said, for example, employees could sit at the table and map out a problem on its surface without using any paper and "leave no evidence behind."

PNC plans to put projectors wired for Power Point in all of its new conference rooms. In many meetings, he noted, people will get a hard copy of a PowerPoint presentation and then toss it afterward, creating waste.

"My feeling is if you have a projector in the room, people can come in with no paper. They can watch the Power Point, and then the person who gave it can email it to everyone; and the person who receives it then has the choice of filing it electronically, printing it or deleting it, so you're not wasting all that paper," he said.

The 19th floor of Two PNC Plaza also will serve as the testing ground for the planned $400 million, 40-story Tower at PNC Plaza, which the bank is billing as the world's greenest skyscraper. It will be built on Wood Street between Fifth and Forbes avenues.

Mr. Saulson said he and other PNC officials planned to meet with various manufacturers to determine what products should be available by 2015 when the office tower opens.

"We're going to test while they test so that in 2015 when the building opens, we have 2015 technology," he said.

Coordinating the eco-friendly features for the Tower at PNC Plaza will be Benson Gabler, manager of corporate sustainability.

"He is our real decision-maker with regard to whether something is environmentally friendly or not," Mr. Saulson said. "We find that more and more manufacturers have claims that really aren't substantiated by any kind of authentic research."

Mr. Gabler said one of his goals for the new Tower at PNC Plaza was to have a "zero waste facility."

He has been testing countertops, among other things. One white marble-like sample is made of milk cartons. Another, now in use at Andys Wine Bar in Three PNC Plaza, is composed of metal shop shavings. Yet another is made from sunflower seed husks.

In PNC's new branches, customers will find blue countertops made of 100 percent recycled paper. When bank officials first tested the material, it came in only a maple color.

PNC pressed the manufacturer to create some in blue, and "PNC Blue Canyon" was born.

Mr. Saulson is also thinking about issuing employees in the new building laptops instead of desktop computers to save energy.

The desktop computer, he said, is always consuming energy while the laptop can be charged, unplugged and operated on a battery. "You don't use energy again until you need to recharge it," he said.

Mr. Saulson added, "We're looking at all the technology that is going to go into this new building and how we put in technology that will be efficient for our employees but uses less energy."

Chances are that what makes the cut and what doesn't will be tested right on Two PNC's 19th floor.

"We're willing to take some risks when we buy products, but we're not willing to put in something we haven't had a chance to test or to touch and feel," he said. "We're not going to buy 800,000 square feet of some carpet that's never been tested."

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.


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