A Tale of Two Offices

Can office design be both green and beautiful? In recent schemes for its Toronto and Calgary studios, the Canadian architectural and engineering firm Cohos Evamy integratedesign says “Yes!” and shows how.

It helps to start with a good setting. One easy way for a company to proclaim an affinity for sustainability, of course, is to get an old factory, strip it back to the bricks and girders, and outfit the place in a spirit of ultramodern chic. But for Cohos Evamy’s Toronto operation, taking this tack wasn’t an option. The studio’s home base was to be a full floor of a dowdy, modern commercial tower at the busy intersection of Bloor and Yonge streets.

The renovation budget was small. So the firm put its 56 heads together to come up with solutions that would visibly express their corporate commitment to green, efficient design, while also creating the kind of no-nonsense context designers like to work in. “If we couldn’t make something exciting,” says partner Craig Applegarth, “then we weren’t very good architects.”

The result of this team effort is a handsome environment, designed to LEED-Gold standards, that sits brightly in its banal high-rise framework. In its plain craft and systems, the design says “We mean green business” from the get-go. The spare reception area, for example, is less a luxurious introduction to the company’s business than the serious little foyer of a workshop: visitors and clients are given a bench, not a comfy sofa, to sit on while they wait. Glass garage doors, which can be rolled up for large meetings -another touch of knocked-together simplicity -separate this foyer from the principal conference room.

This austere aesthetic is carried forward throughout the office. Blonde plywood sets the visual tone of the workspace. This material serves in tabletops (often lifted off the bare concrete floor by Ikea legs), in the custom-built workstations arrayed just inside the internal street that runs around the floor plate’s perimeter, and in the board-and-steel book cabinets.

The use of such plain stuff in simple systems creates an attractive sense of post-modern lightness and transience, like that of a campsite: one imagines that

a moving crew could come in one night and have the plywood desks, Herman Miller chairs, the whole kit and caboodle, folded down into a few crates and ready to ship on to a new location by sunup.

Looking more closely at the Toronto studio’s layout, the visitor discovers numerous small signs meant to alert staff and clients to less obvious green features of the design. We find, for example, that during the construction period, contractors were required to separate all waste material for specific recycling -a move that diverted over 60 per cent of the rubbish from landfill sites. Paints and finishes, and the small areas of carpeting, are low in VOCs, hence a contribution to better air quality. Almost all areas have access to the building’s glass curtainwall, and artificial lighting is sensor-controlled to ensure even illumination throughout the day.

The conservation of water has also been a large concern. According to company statistics, the studio’s washrooms are 48 per cent more efficient than those in standard offices, which saves 100,000 toilet flushes a year. Standard toilets use between 13 and 18 litres of water for each flush; these dual-flush toilets use only four or less.

Cohos Evamy’s worries about frittering away water extends to the firm’s larger Calgary studio. Low-flow faucets, waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets there save up to 60 per cent on water waste, Calgary architect and partner Janice Liebe estimates.

Liebe attributes her office’s bagging of LEED Silver certification to such rigorous downsizing of water usage, as well as the studio-wide mindfulness about the corporate and natural environment. Paints and finishes with urethane have been banished. The carpets are made from reused materials, and the office pursues a vigorous campaign of recycling everything from coffee grounds to computer components.

The Calgary project shares several of these environmental priorities with its Toronto counterpart. In terms of visual style, however, the difference between the studios is sharp. Situated in an old warehouse, the Calgary office resembles an elegant, vast residential loft. Warm wood trim and structures ease the starkness of white and glass walls, and a broad open-riser wooden staircase connects the office’s two levels. Light streams into the space through large industrial windows punched into the building’s brick cladding. In a concession to ordinariness the Toronto office did not make, the Calgary workstations for the office’s 170 employees are off-the-shelf commercial products, pushed up against windows that overlook the Stampede grounds and the downtown towers. In most other ways, however, the place is refined and thoughtful, and it declares the company’s efficient, ecologically responsible mandate.

Much has been done, for example, to provide for the well-being of employees. There is a much-used employee gym

shower room in the basement. And the partners have installed an acoustic system that generates so-called “pink noise,” which subtly separates one desk in the open plan from another. But lowering the racket level – always a problem in steel and concrete structures – is almost the only partition Cohos Evamy has imposed on its Calgary architects, designers and engineers. As they do in Toronto, bosses here occupy the same space as their employees. Unobstructed corridors in both places, and that sleek stair in Calgary, continually offer occasions for impromptu meetings and other encounters. Though the Calgary staff is gathered into several sub-studios, each representing a different professional skill, the open arrangement of furnishings and the ample spatial connectivity militate against the creation of social silos.

“The studio is meant to demonstrate our expertise, and to reflect who we are,” Janice Liebe says. “But it’s also a recruiting tool for young architects. It gives them the message that we’re a fun place to be, that we’re open and accessible, we’re very contemporary and forward-looking. We are not an inward-looking architectural firm. We’re part of the community. If the building can portray the best parts of our culture, then we’ve succeeded.” cI