Walking the walk

When the forces of good design align with the forces of change, the outcome can provide a new point of reference. Sustainability Studio is the brainchild of the Innovolve Group, a Toronto-based boutique green consultancy with bold ambitions and a roster of clients other young firms would envy. Housed in a new, five-storey commercial-condoplex on Richmond Street East, the Studio is a living example of what can be achieved when client and designer share a commitment to sustainability at the highest level.

Designed by Richard Williams and Brian Aman of HOK, the 2,700-square-foot office space is welcoming, comfortable and refined. Walking in, you immediately want to grab an electric-orange task chair, plug in your laptop, open a window and get down to work.

The Studio’s success as an incubator of green ideas owes a good deal to the mindful, collaborative design process undertaken by all parties. “You build on the synergies at the beginning, when things are still on paper,” says Williams, HOK’s vice-president of architecture and sustainable design integration. Not only does this approach cut costs, he says, it means a project can be scrutinized from its very inception to incorporate every possible green intervention.

As consultants for groups ranging from corporate giant Procter & Gamble to the non-profit World Wildlife Fund, the people at Innovolve already had deep experience with sustainability. But in developing new headquarters for their expanding operations, the extensive planning process with HOK was invaluable. “We were newbies and in many ways still are,” says Innovolve CEO Anthony Watanabe of the design challenges. “So we relied on their lens, on their counsel and on their sources.”

Suppliers were selected for their commitment to responsible manufacturing and, where possible, local sourcing. The workspaces are outfitted with InterfaceFLOR carpet tiles made in Belleville, Ont., reconfigurable Haworth modular walls, and high-performance lighting from Metalumen of Guelph, Ont. In the kitchen, EVO cabinetry from Toronto’s AyA Kitchens is made from 100-per-cent post-industrial recycled fibreboard. Dual-flush toilets, low-flow faucets and zero-VOC paints round out the bill, along with non-toxic sealants and adhesives.

Occupying the building’s entire second floor, the Studio is long and narrow, lined with operable floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. Despite the compressed footprint, says Watanabe, “We’ve been able to maximize the space through intelligent design and intelligent furniture solutions.” The four corners are reserved for two enclosed private offices, a common boardroom and a communal kitchen. Open-concept workstations line the south-facing wall, all with views to the old Town of York, where some of Toronto’s oldest buildings coexist with some of its newest.

While individual and fixed spaces have been arrayed on the periphery, the heart of the space has been left open for impromptu huddle sessions and organized group work. Sustainability Studio embraces an innovative co-tenancy model, offering workspace and shared amenities to like-minded organizations. At present, Innovolve’s co-tenants include Internat Energy Solutions, the Greater Toronto chapter of the Canada Green Building Council, Sustainable Buildings Canada and Fleet Challenge Ontario. Innovolve itself has five staffers and two interns working out of the space.

Watanabe points to this as one of the project’s most successful features: “The mix of private and collaborative has worked out really well. Collaboration is ripe. It’s happening in many permutations.” Innovolve is currently working on various projects with all of its co-tenants. Since opening its doors in May, Sustainability Studio has hosted the launch of the Green Building Festival, a breakfast seminar for an accounting firm, a “sustainability jam” with 40 sustainability practitioners, an Ontario College of Art and Design class, and a Sherwin-Williams training session. The jam, in particular, was pivotal. “There was tons of enthusiasm,” says Watanabe. “It’s exactly the kind of thing we want to do in the Studio.”

There is a sense of authenticity about Sustainability Studio and a sense of satisfaction. Through thoughtful collaboration and by aiming high, an affordable, sophisticated, urban green office was born. As HOK’s Williams puts it, “We keep our goal far enough ahead that it always exceeds our grasp.” It’s a philosophy that has been applied to this project at every stage, from site selection to ongoing operations. The proof is in the occupancy. Looking out on a warm summer afternoon, Innovolve’s Watanabe contentedly mulls over daylight harvesting in his new digs. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever turned the lights on,” he says. CI