The Edge: Sustainable Thinking at Perkins+Will

March 10, 2015 7 min read

Suzanne DrakeNovedge: Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Suzanne Drake: My name is Suzanne Drake and I’m an interior designer at Perkins + Will.   I’m usually assigned to a few projects at the same time. Currently I am working on an employee center, as well as an office building with labs and employee amenities. Depending on the project, my role ranges from high level project management down to the nitty gritty of space planning and selecting interior finishes.

I’m also co-chair of our firm’s Transparency+Healthy Materials Task Force. In this role I am involved in education, advocacy, and developing internal processes and tools around reducing the toxicity inherent in many building products. It is both inward and outward facing. Internally, I provide support and information to keep our Designers and Architects up to speed on the latest in materials health; externally, I help, educate our clients and others in the industry about the issues surrounding material health; finally, I advocate in the public realm, representing Perkins+Will, to help shape laws and codes that impact the built environment.

Novedge: You have recently been part of the inaugural Perkins+Will Science fellowship Program. What was the program about?

Suzanne Drake:Even before Perkins+Will published the Precautionary List ,  we were asking manufacturers about chemical ingredients. But often when we received what we asked for (transparency!), we didn’t know what we were looking at. In design school, we didn’t learn about phthalates, brominated compounds, or organostannic compounds. This knowledge gap meant we didn’t know how to interpret the information so it could inform our decisions about what materials we should and should not use. The Fellowship program was set up to provide a mechanism for us to bring in the expertise that we needed – that’s why our first Fellow was a PhD in chemistry. Ultimately, the Fellowship program will evolve – the nature of it allows us to bring in whatever expertise may be needed at the time. However, we are still working on better understanding chemistry, so it is likely we’ll continue in the same vein for a while longer.

The entire industry is grappling with the same knowledge gap. HPD’s (Health Product Declarations) are helping to promote transparency on a much larger scale, and we are not the only Designers and Architects getting bombarded with information about materials that is challenging to reconcile.

Novedge: What were your findings?

Suzanne Drake: Michel Dedeo, our Science Fellow, helped us get our heads wrapped around flame retardants. The results have been published in a white paper, “Healthy Environments: Strategies for Avoiding Flame Retardants in the Built Environment.

This is a big topic, as chemical flame retardants show up both in our interior spaces as well as within the structure of buildings. Halogenated flame retardants are toxic, and they don’t do that much to stop fires. A treated seat cushion, for example, exposed directly to an open flame will take about 3 seconds longer to ignite than an untreated cushion. Why approach fire safety with a solution that causes health problems? Unfortunately, the use of these chemicals has become the default response to certain requirements of the building code because they are cheap, and it is what everyone is used to.

The topic is also timely, as California recently made some significant changes to regulations, and is currently looking at making additional changes that will impact building code. Because our state is so influential, many California-specific requirements historically have become de facto national standards.

Novedge: What is Perkins+Will’s practical response to these findings?

Suzanne Drake: Education: make the findings available, help disseminate the information across our firm and beyond, provide resources for project-specific questions. We also signed on to the Purchaser Pledge, created by the Center for Environmental Health, to demonstrate our commitment and provide another tool for making change internally. As anyone in a large corporate organization can understand, changing the way we do things takes a concentrated effort, and has to be coordinated both top down and bottom up.

Novedge:How do you create healthy environments? Could you give us some examples of green interiors you worked on?

Suzanne Drake: It is definitely a group effort! The most green, most innovative projects are the result of an enthusiastic client, committed to the goals of sustainability. However, we strive to make every project as clean and green as possible. The firmwide mandate is to approach every project with these minimum goals in mind: Architecture 2030, LEED® Gold, and Precautionary List reviewed. Obviously client engagement is needed to fully meet these aspirations; but as Designers and Architects we can bring our clients quite far along the green spectrum just by thinking about these benchmarks as we are developing our concepts. Perkins+Will officePerkins +Will San Francisco Office, photo credits Mariko Reed.

At Perkins+Will office in San Francisco we aspired to net zero energy and water, and we followed the Living Building Challenge’s materials Red List. We are still awaiting the installation of our solar panels, but we did an amazing job on the materials. The first rule of thumb was “light touch” – we decided that exposed structure and concrete floors was a look we liked, and worked well with the project’s deep daylighting and natural ventilation strategies. One place we made a conscientious decision to go with a material that contains a substance on the Precautionary List was with carpet. There is a limited area of carpet, and the product we selected contains PVC (Interface’s Net Effects), but the 100% recycled content has a bigger story that we felt reflected values that we appreciate. It also highlights the inherent complexity and challenges to be found in healthy material selection – there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution. Perkins+Will Dupont Lab DuPont lab. Photo credit Bret Janak.

This relatively small renovation at the DuPont lab in Palo Alto involved working laboratory space as well as a control center (large conference room) and public display space. Laboratories are typically very energy intensive, but, in this case, the client was interested in healthy materials in addition to increasing energy efficiency .We were able to transform the typically sterile-feeling (if not downright dreary) lab space and reflect the personalities of the users with a high-energy striped pattern of rubber flooring (a chemical improvement over the usual vinyl floor material). The rest of the space is pretty straightforward: carpet (DuPont’s own bio-based carpet fiber, Sorona), low VOC paint, acoustic ceiling panels, and thoughtful light fixtures. Perkins+Will Dupont LabDuPont lab. Photo credit Bret Janak.

The new seven-story office building for Genentech Hilltop A in South San Francisco is under construction. We recently verified that of 148 building materials reviewed, less than 20 items contained substances listed on the Precautionary List. Genentech has been a very active and enthusiastic partner in drilling down into the details of eliminating hazardous chemicals from their projects, and they have been instrumental in holding us to our commitment to deliver – which has directly resulted in improvements of our methodology and increased rigor in documentation.
Perkins+Will Genentech Hilltop A (2)Genentech Hilltop A, under construction . Photo credit Sarah Rege.

Perkins+Will Genentech Hilltop AGenentech Hilltop A, rendering of interior atrium. Image credit Perkins+Will.

Novedge: In 2013 you published a book called Eco Soul: Save the Planet and Yourself by Re Thinking Everyday Habits. Tell us about the book and the bad habits.

Suzanne Drake: The bookwas written with the intention of sharing what I had learned about the bigger impacts of our seemingly insignificant decisions. For example, what difference does it make if I select this carpet over that one for this 10,000 sf project? The bad habit I was trying to break for myself was ignoring the full life cycle of products. In the past, the typical product selection focused simply on the product and its use. As I learned about the larger impacts of “stuff” (see Annie Leonard’s “Story of Stuff” for a great short version), I realized it was willful ignorance to keep going down that path.

The book  focuses on our personal impacts, and associating personal values and beliefs with actions we can take to effect change. I believe that sustainability is simply holistic thinking, and that includes understanding yourself as a significant being in the world. What you do matters!

Novedge: What materials we should stay clear off (as Architects and as clients)?
Again, check the Precautionary List!



Novedge: Perkins + Will is officially one of the World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Architecture. What other practices make the firm a leader in the way in sustainability?

Suzanne Drake: I think what makes Perkins+Will a leader in sustainability is that it is not an add on or an afterthought, sustainability is one of our core values and the Sustainable Design Initiative (SDI) formalizes the commitment to make sustainable thinking an integral part of the firm’s projects and practices. Whether the project is a small tenant improvement, a new hospital, or an urban design plan, we incorporate sustainable features. We are committed to leading the design industry in sustainability and recently broadened our focus to encompass: Resilient Design and Adaptation, Regenerative Design and High Performance Buildings, Transparency and Materials Health, Benchmarking and Data Collection, and Sustainable Communities. As the strategic importance of sustainability grows, we are leading the next frontier– through research, tool development, design, and the services we deliver.

Novedge: Is Architecture going to be greener?

Suzanne Drake: Architecture is definitely going to be greener. The design industry has been at the forefront of the sustainability movement, and many firms including Perkins+Will have adopted the 2030 Challenge, which challenges designers to make all projects carbon neutral by 2030. We are already seeing results in the increase of buildings being completed to LEED® standards as well as other deep green standards including the Living Building Challenge. Our clients and many manufacturers are also investing in sustainability. For example, Google has adopted the Living Building Challenge’s Red List to ensure their employees are in spaces that feature only healthy building materials. Manufacturers of building products such as Interface flooring are using more recycled materials, and revealing chemical ingredients so we can all start making better informed decisions. Together, designers, manufacturers, and end users are teaming to make the spaces we occupy healthier for us and the planet.

If you want to follow Perkins + Will's lead and take advantage of their findings for your own practice follow them on Twitter and Facebook.  You can also get green advise from Suzanne herself via re:Thinkand utilize her nearly two decade of on-going green research to support your environmental lifestyle goals.  

And don't forget to follow Novedge on Twitterand Facebook as well for more software news and great and greeninterviews!



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