Retrofitting Your Office


In 15 years in the field of architecture, I have been confronted almost daily with issues of sustainability in design. But, I also have taken on an additional role at the firms I’ve worked at—doing what I can to encourage my firms’ leadership to make our offices as “green” as possible. So, with a small apology to those of you who spend time in an actual courtroom, I present a strategy for putting your office on trial to determine whether it is guilty of not being sustainable enough!

Opening Statement

The critical need for energy and resource efficiency in today’s world is well documented and need not be repeated here. What can be done in our own environment to contribute to the solution? The best strategy to retrofit your office to be more energy and resource efficient is analogous to the strategy architects use in designing sustainability into our buildings. This ‘bottom up’ approach means: first, make the building itself as energy efficient as possible (through rigorous design of the walls, windows and roof), and second, look at improving building systems. Only after doing all you can in those areas, consider adding efficiency through renewable sources such as solar power. Our case, members of the jury, will be organized around this same principle.

Building the Case

Any good building starts with a solid foundation—the same holds in retrofitting your office.

Whether a firm owns its space or are tenants and will need to be advocates in encouraging their landlords to take action, these core principles give a firm the most environmental bang for the buck. An energy audit of the office space should be the first step. These are performed by local utilities or outside consultants and identify areas of energy loss or inefficiency in an office environment. Some of their recommendations might include replacement of incandescent or compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) with LEDs, which are up to 18% more efficient than CFLs (which in turn are 75% more efficient than incandescent) and have up to 4 times the life of a CFL (and 30 times the life of incandescent). LED retrofit bulbs that fit in standard sockets are readily available.

Another area of savings an audit could identify is the reduction of plug loads (aka ‘vampire loads’) in the space. Many people do not realize that appliances, even when turned off, draw a small amount of current that, when multiplied by all the equipment in an office, can turn out to be up to 10% of your energy bill. These losses can be greatly reduced through the use of power strips. Other areas in the office environment that are easily correctable include: the use of programmable thermostats, proper window coverings for reducing solar gain (which can be made programmable), and the use of Energy-Star rated appliances.

Other changes that would be considered the prerequisites to an overall strategy relate more to the culture of an office. The legal field has been one of the slower professional fields to adopt a more democratic approach to achieving better natural daylighting. The idea is that cubicles or workstations with low divider panels are located along the window wall, while private offices (with mostly glass fronts) are located inboard. This allows more natural daylight to reach deeper into the floor layout of an office, potentially lowering the levels of artificial illumination needed. To make this happen, firm leadership needs to be willing to give up long-held traditional views of the private office with a view as a perk of seniority. Another behavioral change is simply turning off lights when not in use—occupancy sensors can assist here, especially ones that sense heat instead of just motion, so that the last employee of the day isn’t left in the dark when sitting at his or her desk. Other ideas include scheduling janitorial services to work during daylight hours, when some lights will be on anyway, and getting buy-in from staff to be willing to throw on sweaters to allow the thermostat in winter to be kept just a few degrees colder, or using space heaters for those few employees who tend toward being cold, rather than having to keep the whole office warmer for everyone.

Working the Evidence

On top of these basic strategies, firms can layer on the next strategies of sustainability, which deal more with day-to-day office behaviors.

These can be thought of as analogous to the mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” which truly is meant to be tackled in that order and not as an either/or proposition.

Consider Exhibit A: “Reduce.” The most important thing is to reduce what is consumed to start with. In an office, this can range anywhere from making double-sided printing the default setting on all computers, to the numerous ways to become a more ‘paperless’ office (see “Going Paperless” on page 12), to encouraging employees to travel less (telecommuting, limiting business trips, having a company car or taking advantage of one of the many car-share programs available, or having an office bicycle for quick trips in the downtown core). One architecture firm I know offers the RTD Eco-pass to its employees, but then also allows its employees to expense a generous amount on personal parking—this is NOT the way to encourage better driving behavior! Another reduction method is to require that any outside vendors—whether for office lunches or office supplies—provide their product in bulk (sandwiches on a reusable platter, for example, instead of in plastic boxes) or with significantly less packaging.

Exhibit B: “Reuse.” This is a little more difficult to achieve, but it can be done with simple things such as using the back side of old papers for non-essential writing, to donating used office furniture or other products to organizations that can resell or donate them.

Exhibit C: “Recycle.” This is the final tactic in this cycle, and it is self-explanatory: every office should have a comprehensive recycling program that includes not only the basics, such as office paper, aluminum, cardboard and plastic, but also things that are less obvious, such as printer cartridges and composting. A good recycling program includes working it on the other end as well by using office paper and other goods with the highest possible recycled content.

Closing Argument

The final layer of a sustainable strategy for retrofitting your office involves all of those little things that challenge conventional thinking in even the smallest ways. Rather than encouraging the waste associated with paper towels at the break room, use cloth towels, and set up a schedule where employees take turns bringing them home at the end of the week and washing them. Hand out pay stubs personally, so that they don’t need to be put in an envelope that will just get thrown away. Make sure that cleaning products used in the office don’t contain harsh chemicals that damage the environment. If you do have to go on a business trip, consider buying carbon credits to offset the emissions. Not all of these strategies will work for every firm, but what is important to keep in mind is that in most cases there is always something more that can be done, and many times they are fairly simple things to implement.

With that, members of the jury, we rest our case. We now leave the question up to you: is your office as sustainable as it could be?


By Bret Kudlicki, a Senior Project Manager with MOA Architecture in Denver. He is in his 15th year in architecture. Bret is proud to ride his bike to work every day, recycle everything in sight, and pay his $20 utility bills thanks to the photovoltaic panels on his roof!

Editor’s Note: This article is not meant to be an exhaustive look at sustainable strategies for the office. Other resources can be found here: Sustainable Stow ‘Greening Your Office’ Checklist: /sustainablestow.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/SustainableStowGreenOfficeCheckList.pdf, Tree Hugger: treehugger.com, Green Business Network: greenbusinessnetwork.org.