Architecture firms bring sustainability to clients, offices

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The classic image of an architect walking into a meeting with a cardboard tube containing blueprints tucked safely under his arm is going the way of the secretary using a steno pad to take dictation from the boss.

The move away from paper -- as well as meeting face-to-face to review project details -- is not only the result of digital technology that allows architects to draw buildings on computers.

A shift to Web-based project management sites that provide access for designers, contractors and clients is a growing trend among architects who want to reduce paper usage and cut down on meetings and travel expenses. In other words, they want to work as efficiently as the clients for whom they design green and sustainable buildings.

Consider The Design Alliance Architects, a Downtown firm whose projects include the Center for Sustainable Landscapes -- a high-profile education and administration building under development for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland.

Chris Minnerly, a principal with the firm, said Phipps is an ideal client to use as a sustainability model because, "They are so aggressive in their goals. Sustainable Landscapes is not just the name of the building; it's a way to be out there ... so we can say, what can we apply here in our office?"

At its offices in the Oliver Building, Design Alliance practices what principal Marty Powell described as some of the "basics" of sustainability, including aggressive recycling, using a dishwasher instead of disposable cups, energy efficient computers and "daylight harvesting" to provide more natural light for work spaces.

Among the most important sustainability issues for the firm, he said, is being located in the center of the city so that its approximate 35 employees can commute more easily from all directions.

Location was also a major sustainability issue when FortyEighty Architecture shopped for new office digs two years ago.

Jeffrey Davis, principal, said the 12-person firm, formerly on the South Side, moved Downtown to provide the staff more access to public transportation. Many even ride their bikes to the office on Smithfield Street.

FortyEighty designed the Fred M. Rogers Center at St. Vincent College, Latrobe, a learning and conference center that opened in 2008 and earned LEED gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Its other LEED-certified projects include a student union at Duquesne University, the WYEP-FM broadcast studios on the South Side and the Collaborative Innovation Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

When the firm designed its own office space, FortyEighty asked the building's landlord to share costs for more efficient heating and cooling systems and then made sure the architects' work area was flooded with natural light from windows that overlook the Monongahela River.

"The things we do for our clients we did for ourselves to make our office perform better and more efficiently," said Mr. Davis.

When the firm bought new office furniture, it looked for pieces made of recycled content, and it regularly returns samples of building and design materials so they are not thrown in the trash.

L.R. Kimball, an engineering and architecture firm based in Ebensburg, Cambria County, is taking sustainability beyond its office walls with practices such as adding hybrid vehicles to its corporate fleet.

"When gas was at $4 a gallon, we encouraged more carpooling among our staff going to the same meetings and noticed a very significant savings," said Christopher Haupt, senior vice president and principal at Kimball Architecture, Downtown.

The company's geotechnical and materials testing unit recycles the oil used in its drilling rigs into heating oil for its headquarters facility.

Inside its offices, Kimball follows sustainable practices including recycling, and when it recently rebranded its corporate logo, it decided to use up all the stationery and printed materials with the old logo prior to phasing in paper products with the new design.

Among Kimball's LEED-certified, sustainable designs are Medlar Field -- home to minor-league baseball's State College Spikes and Penn State's college baseball team -- and the renovation of Penn State's Recreation Hall.

Besides reducing paper and incorporating more energy efficiency in its offices, architects Burt Hill have launched some less-traditional initiatives to encourage sustainability among its staff. At its Boston office, for instance, employees can dump lunch scraps into a composting bin. In Washington, D.C., last summer, the firm challenged employees to find an alternative means of commuting at least once a week.

"If they drove, they could take the Metro. If they normally took the Metro, they could walk or ride a bike and a lot of them changed their commuting practices," said Gina Bocra, the firm's director of sustainable design.

As a pro bono project, the firm designed a rain garden on Mount Washington to test urban water runoff.

Burt Hill and Design Alliance are among the architecture firms attempting to meet a challenge by the American Institute of Architects that calls for firms by 2030 to adopt a set of sustainable standards for all projects. The AIA challenge includes making energy-efficiency a core strategy of the firm's design philosophy and engaging clients in the process.

"This is a big push for us," said Mr. Powell of Design Alliance. "We realize as architects we are big consumers of power and energy, and we have to make a commitment to reduce [our consumption] so the planet will last. We're taking it very seriously."

Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580. First Published March 16, 2010 4:00 AM


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