Gensler’s Natalie Engels on Designing Sustainable Spaces

For Earth month, we’re profiling people who have used great design to solve the problem of waste in our environment. We’re asking a variety of designers how they minimize environmental impact through new thinking, new products, and new designs.

300 million people use Gensler spaces every day. As an architecture and interior design firm, they have a huge impact on people’s lives and on environmental health, and they take that responsibility extremely seriously. After designing 855 million square feet of LEED buildings, Gensler has helped its clients save enough water to supply a city of nearly 450,000 people for an entire year. Their sustainable design work also saves enough energy to keep over 4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year. With a 15-year impact this is equal to permanently removing 18 coal power plants from the electricity grid in the United States.

Natalie Engels, design principal at Gensler, is well known for her sustainable workplace designs at leading tech companies. While Natalie started out as a hospitality designer in Nashville, Tennessee, and truly enjoyed bringing people great moments, she always wanted to be able to influence people in a bigger way. She moved to California as the tech sector started growing again after the dot-com bust and found that workplaces weren’t adapting to the huge shift and growth in technology. “It excited me to study how different people work, why they are working that way, and if their space can help solve some of the work issues they face,” says Natalie. “That has really driven me to where I am now.”

Making Sustainability a Best Practice

For Natalie, caring about how people work is connected to who they are. She’s found that especially at tech companies, employees are younger and ready to have a purpose and do their part to make a difference. “Millennials have really brought a passion for sustainability to the forefront,” says Natalie.

Over the past few years, Natalie worked with Adobe to update the interior workspaces at its San Jose headquarters: A new look with sustainable wood and locally sourced furnishings, LED lights on sensors to use less energy, and a more open and creative feel to provide alternative workspaces and foster community. But that’s only what you see. The part you don’t see is just as impressive, with LEED Platinum-certified mechanical and plumbing systems. Both are designed and built to prioritize sustainability — from minimizing energy consumption and waste output to maximizing employee wellness.

When designing workspaces, Natalie has several best practices for increasing awareness of sustainability and to help make it easy for people to participate in a sustainable lifestyle where they work. Here are some areas she always considers:

Recycling — The easiest, least expensive effort in sustainable workplaces is recycling and composting. Start there by making it easy for employees to sort their garbage and then keep asking, “How can we make this even better?”

Lighting — The right lighting has a huge impact. If you’re designing space from the ground up, use natural light to your advantage. LED lights require much less electricity and adding sensors to automatically turn lights on and off as people need them minimizes how often they are used.

Higher standards — Make all your plans with better-than-standard specs. It makes it easier to agree to those standards when they are presented as the baseline. You can always make adjustments later, but you’ll rarely adjust up as you go.

Local suppliers — The more you can buy that’s made where you are, the better. Think about materials, furniture, and accessories. You are not only supporting your community, but also, you’re not shipping items across the country or across an ocean.

Wellness — When you walk into a new home or step into a new car, it’s actually not a good thing that you can smell it. The “new” scent is from chemicals — volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in the indoor air in certain products in the space. Reduce VOCs in furniture, carpet, even ceiling tiles, so chemicals aren’t leaching out into the environment.

In addition to thinking about the physical wellness of people in your space, start to consider the psychological needs people have too. Can you create alternative work spaces, community spaces to foster interaction with others, and private stress-free spaces to decompress?

Transportation —Space for parking is a standard need, but think about ways you can encourage more sustainable modes of transportation through your design. What is the building’s proximity to public transportation and how will employees access it? Can you create pick-off and drop-off spaces for shuttles? How can you give priority parking to economy cars, electric cars, and carpoolers?

Looking Ahead to What’s Next

Following best practices and constantly moving forward with new ideas for sustainable design will help us own our impact on the environment. Advances in technology can give us more options for sustainable living, but also can create new obstacles — therefore it’s important to continue the conversation at every step.

“Younger generations — especially digital natives — are very open to talking about sustainability,” says Natalie. “This up-and-coming generation has grown up with high awareness because they’ve always had constant access to facts. Honesty is a defining factor for them.”

With a rising generation that values honesty, we are eager to see how they will redefine work and space in more sustainable ways because of their ethical awareness of what is good for others and what is good for the environment. Natalie also believes we’ll soon be able to think beyond what we are seeing as our physical environment for even more choices about where and how we work and how to make it even more compatible with how the Earth works.

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