Story at a glance:
- Perkins Eastman achieved a 33% reduction in embodied carbon in its new LEED Gold-certified Pittsburgh studio.
- The Perkins Eastman design team was working on their new office design when Covid-19 changed how we work.
- The architects shifted away from a traditional strategy toward a more hybrid approach, treating the office as resource hub and collaboration center.
When we kicked off the design of our new Perkins Eastman Pittsburgh studio with an employee workshop in February 2020, we challenged our staff to consider their vision for how our new space could embrace sustainability and employee wellness and help guide the future of architecture. At the time, we didn’t imagine how prescient this exercise would become. A few weeks later, just as we were preparing to present our draft floor plans to the executive committee on March 16, our office closed along with millions of others as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in the US. In less than a month’s time, our vision and expectations shifted, forcing us to reconsider how an architecture and design studio should function in an ongoing and eventually post-pandemic world.
Work From Anywhere
As 2020 progressed, designing the Perkins Eastman Pittsburgh studio while balancing my laptop on the sofa in my living room (with mouse functioning just fine on the seat cushion) gave me a different perspective on the purpose of the office. Many of my colleagues shared an appreciation for the opportunity to move freely around their homes based on the task at hand—a morning call at the dining room table, an afternoon document review session at a desk in a spare bedroom. Direct access to the outdoors and daylight was also noted and valued.
As rolls of drawings gathered dust in our shuttered office downtown, video conferences provided a lens into the variety of work settings our staff had customized to suit their needs. In planning for our new workspace, we recognized that “work from anywhere” would remain important even as the pandemic subsided, and we made the decision to revise our original approach.
Shifting away from a traditional, assigned one-desk-per-person strategy, the ethos for our studio evolved toward a more hybrid approach—treating the office as resource hub and collaboration center—a healthy and light-filled place for connection, mentorship, and the creative process.
Location is Everything
With connectivity and employee wellness at the forefront of our minds, selecting a central and walkable location for Perkins Eastman Pittsburgh’s new home was integral. The 25th floor of 525 William Penn Place, a mid-century office tower in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, offered the best balance of access to public transportation, walkability, and green space. Our choice to remain downtown even as many companies rethought their need for a physical address reflects our values as architects and urbanists, stressing the importance of vibrant city centers in the post-Covid world.
The building also provided good bones for a sustainable fit-out: the 25th floor offered optimal lease spans and unobstructed access to daylight. As a bonus, the City of Pittsburgh’s 2018 energy benchmarking report identified 525 William Penn Place as one of the city’s five most energy-efficient office buildings.
A Smaller Footprint
Perkins Eastman’s new LEED Gold–certified studio, guided by research and feedback gathered through roundtables and staff surveys during the spring and summer of 2020, celebrates the collaborative nature of architectural design work while recognizing a future where staff will also work outside of the studio for some portion of the week.
With this new focus, we recognized that we required less overall square footage dedicated to full-time, in-office work. Our team reduced the footprint of our pre-COVID office plan by 17% based on a three-part approach:
- Introducing a flexible work-from-anywhere policy giving our staff the freedom to work outside of the office up to eight days a month.
- Adopting a “free address” seating model for all of our team members.
- Redefining a work point to better reflect the variety of seating choices our employees came to appreciate while working from home.
The floor plan for the studio reflects this focus on flexibility, adaptability, and employee wellness. Though we reduced the number of traditional assigned desks by more than half, this reduction in traditional workstation area did not translate into a 1:1 reduction in total area. Through considered design, we were instead able to incorporate a variety of free-address seating postures: counter seating, hightop tables, couches, booths, and workshop tables. The first-come, first-serve seats are anchored along large perimeter windows that offer views of Pittsburgh’s skyline and topography of rivers, hills, and valleys.
By democratizing access to the perimeter and minimizing construction along the window walls, quality views were preserved for 80% of the total office footprint. Our revised floor plans included a greater allocation of space to support the experiences that can’t be recreated while working from home: community building, showcasing the vibrant and messy design process, and flexible amenities.
With the understanding that just as the world continues to evolve through and beyond the pandemic, so does the practice of architecture—and on a micro-scale, our firm’s practice over the term of our multi-year lease—we tested a range of potential future layouts, limiting wall and ceiling construction to allow for smart modifications over time.
Exposed ceilings with flexible pull-down power and perimeter wire molds are provided for more than 50% of the floor area to allow reconfiguration of the space and easier changes in technology. A corner of the office known as the “annex” was left unmodified, minimally furnished with movable tables. Throughout the next year, we will determine what type of work postures and arrangements make the most sense for this space based on real-time employee feedback.
More with Less
While sustainable design was holistically considered for the project, we chose to focus extra attention on material selection. This began with a challenge to consider sustainability through the lens of reduction. Meticulous editors, we eliminated unnecessary bulkheads, trim, flooring, and wall base from the project. The existing concrete-encased columns were left exposed, the original concrete floors were polished, and new wall and ceiling finishes were evaluated based foremost on their performative qualities.
Convincing a client to build sustainably isn’t always easy; the benefits can sometimes seem remote or burdened with the barrier of a higher initial cost. However, a strategy to build less is better justified when each element eliminated from the project has multiple benefits: eliminating barriers, opening sweeping views of downtown, reducing construction costs and schedule, minimizing waste, and lowering the project’s embodied carbon.
Architects often consider embodied carbon on new construction projects where structural materials have an outsized impact on the equation. However, a recent study by the Carbon Leadership Forum identified the large cumulative impact of embodied carbon generated from a typical five- to 15-year interior fit-out and renovation cycle. With this in mind, our team took a deep dive into the impact our reductionist approach had on our studio fit-out’s carbon footprint.
Drawing from the robust portfolio of workplace projects we’ve completed in recent years, we selected two comparable interior fit-out projects to benchmark. Pulling material quantities from each project’s Revit model, we used Tally, a software plugin that estimates embodied carbon for construction materials, and compared our Pittsburgh studio against two projects of similar size and focus. We found that the rigor of our reductionist approach had paid off; our Pittsburgh studio has an embodied carbon footprint that is nearly 35% less than the benchmark projects.
Our deep dive into sustainable material selection didn’t end with the embodied carbon analysis. As signatories of AIA’s Architecture & Design Materials Pledge, Perkins Eastman has vowed to prioritize the use of materials that support and foster life throughout their life cycle, seek to eliminate the use of hazardous substances, and evaluate emissions of products. For our new Pittsburgh studio, selecting materials that lived up to this pledge became a guiding principle and challenged our team to thoroughly research each product. Over a dozen Red List–free products were specified, and all finishes were selected based on compliance with LEED v4 VOC content and emissions requirements, availability of Environmental Product Declarations, and meeting material ingredient reporting criteria.
The team also engaged with local makers and artists on several of the materials and furnishings to support the local economy and increase the visibility of Pittsburgh’s artisan community. Urban Tree, Limelight Tile, Standard & Custom, and Hugh Elliot Neon products are featured, among others.
Similar to the strategy of building less, the strategy to prioritize quality over quantity has numerous other benefits that are easy to quantify: reducing attic stock, providing fewer opportunities for supply chain problems, and giving clients confidence that each material was carefully specified to meet a project’s particular goals.
Eye on the Future
On a sunny Tuesday shortly after Thanksgiving, our office was a flurry of activity: mobile whiteboards were wheeled into our large meeting room for a strategic planning workshop, a design team gathered around a table in the Hub redlining a set of floor plans, and several staff members plugged their laptops into work counters overlooking the city.
Seven months after our grand opening in June 2021, the PE Pittsburgh staff has embraced the design of the new flexible workplace. As a living laboratory for the future of workplace, we will continue to learn from the process through a post-occupancy evaluation and follow-up survey in the coming months. While specific elements of the studio are tailored to the work we do as architects and designers, at least three overarching facets of our process may be applied to every workplace: re-evaluating space needs based on a work-from-anywhere future; stripping away superfluous design elements that reduce flexibility and contribute to embodied carbon; and researching materials that offer the best balance of performance, health, and beauty.
During this time when many companies question the role of the office and how to balance keeping employees engaged and healthy, we look forward to integrating designs built on these sustainable and employee-engaging tenets into other projects to bring this vision of resilient, collaborative, and low-carbon workplaces to the fore.