Our Journey to Platinum & How it Has Helped Shape Who We Are

It seemed like a simple enough question, and it had a simple enough answer. Nearly two years ago, I first met Doug Wignall, President of HDR’s Architecture group, shortly after I was hired as the managing principal of our firm’s D.C. architecture studio. In fact, I had just listened to him talk with our staff in the shell of what would become our new home in the Clarendon neighbourhood of Arlington, Virginia. Doug had emphasised the importance of engagement in the greater Washington, D.C. community, and about how the new office should serve as a catalyst for the expansion, evolution and elevation of D.C.’s architecture practice.

Afterward, as Doug and I were walking around the space, I asked,

“A LEED platinum certification would speak volumes to your aspirations for this practice. What do you think?”

He didn’t hesitate:

“Indeed it would. If you can keep the cost in line with our budget you should go for it.”

And so the journey to create a new home and to reshape one office’s architectural culture began with an answer to a question that evolved into a challenge of capabilities, commitment and ideals.

Why LEED Platinum?

In 2000, the U.S. Green Building Council released the Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program, which quickly became the industry’s standard rating system for environmentally sound buildings. LEED has four levels of certification: certified, silver, gold and platinum. If successful, our office would be the first to achieve LEED Platinum certification of the more than 225 offices that comprise HDR, and the seventh LEED Platinum interiors project in Virginia.

HDR is first and foremost a design-focused organisation. Increasingly, energy management, sustainability and indoor health are core design considerations for our clients. As design leaders, we have an obligation to set sustainable practice standards in our communities. The LEED credential would establish the office as a living lab for environmental design — and the practice as a leader in sustainability.

If the design of the new office was going to serve as a catalyst for change, specifically what would make that change happen? The office design has many wonderful attributes. Its location in the up-and-coming Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington is ideal, with easy access to shopping, restaurants and multiple mass transit options, including Metro, D.C.’s subway system. The space itself is rich with collaboration opportunities, both formal and informal. It is visually exciting and filled with amenities for staff and visitors alike. Combined, these attributes support the transformation that we were — and are continuing to — strive for.

But the commitment to create and live in a highly sustainable environment is something more. It has required each of us in the office to change our behaviours in specific ways — changes that speak to design, to our own and our colleagues’ well-being and to our commitment to environmental stewardship. Sustain a change of behaviour, and over time, you see a shift in the organisational culture; shift the culture and you have evolved the organisation. We set an audacious goal that aligned with how we envisioned ourselves, and it has set us on that path. Catalyst applied, outcome realised.

Getting to Platinum

Michaella Wittmann, HDR’s Director of Sustainability, recently stated that LEED certification is not for every office. Considerations such as cost, length of lease, office size and the base building’s existing conditions must be measured before embarking on any LEED effort.

However, in addition to these considerations, reaching Platinum requires an uncompromising commitment to the goal on the part of both the organisation’s leadership and the project delivery team.

Projects are shaped not only by their goals, but also by their constraints. Throughout the process, leadership was asked to choose between options that could impede or support the project’s sustainable goals. Frankly, there were times when other ambitions were compromised to support these objectives. Without a staunch commitment, the outcome of our efforts would have been at risk.

Nothing was more important than having partners who understood and were committed to the goal. Every member of the project team, including the architects, interior designers, engineers, builders and building owners and operators, were aligned with the established sustainable objectives, and they understood their part in achieving them. A minimum of 80 points is required to earn a Platinum designation. Therefore, each team member had control of enough points to negate the best efforts of all of the other members. Crossing the finish line with the required credits in tow is challenging on the best of days and exhausting on most others, but the project team maintained their individual and team focus on the goal.

The Outcome

In early January 2017, just a few weeks short of our first anniversary, we received notice that our project is certified under the LEED for Interiors v2009 with 86 points — six points over the Platinum threshold. It took nearly two years of planning, design, construction and evaluation. It was a challenging experience to say the least, but also one of the most rewarding. Everyone on the project team came away learning more than they ever imagined — and it wasn’t just about sustainable design. They learned a great deal about how the places we make through our designs can shape the culture of the organisation living there.

By going through the LEED certification process for our own office, we gained a unique perspective on the client experience: What it really means to commit limited resources to achieve goals that are critical to ongoing success. By most accounts, we were good stewards of the company’s resources. We utilised HDR’s wealth of expertise to study acoustics, lighting and energy. We renegotiated our lease to benefit from the energy savings that our investments would create. We tested and retested our environmental systems to assure that what was planned actually became manifested in the space. And we have engaged in a perpetual dialogue with our staff since the very beginning about what it takes to operate in a sustainable way.

It has been one year since the new office opened, and we’re seeing some promising results:

  • Both retention and recruiting are on the rise.
  • Client engagement is robust and expanding, offering new opportunities for us to support their respective missions.
  • The office has become a destination for client meetings, company events and community gatherings. As more people see where and how we live, their interest in HDR grows.
  • We continue to learn how to work in a sustainable way, and we are seeing those same concepts maturing in our project designs in the process.

And we’re getting better at practicing as truly integrated teams. We are more engaged with each other and, thus, are more engaged with our community. We are learning to dig deeper into the broader aspects of our clients’ objectives, and to better align our efforts with their organisational strategies. In short, the lessons we have learned through our own journey are helping us expand, evolve and elevate our practice, and in turn become better partners to those we serve.