Top Of The Charts
"Green" is the greatest hit in new office design—check out Envision's headquarters for the Recording Industry Association of America in Washington, D.C.
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 11/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Back in the days when department stores anchored downtown shopping districts, Woodward & Lothrop was an icon in Washington, D.C. The chain is long gone, but its block-size flagship, a landmark still known as the Woodies building, has been reborn as a mixed-use hipster magnet. There's West Elm and H&M at street level while, up on the 10th floor, some of the coolest new acts in music can be found rocking the roof off. These private concerts are all in a day's work at the Recording Industry Association of America, a kind of indie club for music-biz suits.
Designed by Envision, the headquarters reflects current thinking about sustainable office design, as companies up the ante of coolness to attract the best employees. A sustainable office that doubles as a party space says, "We're serious and fun." Envision principal Ken Wilson notes, "Having an office with good body language is important. If you say, 'We are an open and collaborative organization,' and your space is dark with closed-door offices, that's not a match. The younger workforce is more values-focused and more interested in a work-life balance. The office of the future needs to reflect that."
R-I-Double-A's headquarters does, starting in reception. At one end stands a grand piano, which actually gets played by visiting musicians. At the other end, a circular seating area turns an awkward corner into a hip, intimate living room complete with a curved red banquette, chubby multicolored ottomans, and a couple of white Tulip tables. Right in the center of reception, the desk's white Zodiaq counter converts into a bar as soon as a mobile file cabinet gets wheeled out of sight.
The space is dominated by a spellbinding black-and-white photomural, a close-up of a singer belting out a song. You stare at the face, trying to place it. Open mouth, perfect teeth, magnified pores, eyes pressed closed behind blond bangs. Male? Female? Rocker? Crooner?
The ambiguity is intentional. As Wilson says, RIAA is "all about the music." Specifically, that's recorded music, which explains why the microphone in the photo covers half the singer's face.
At 25,000 square feet, the office occupies the smaller of two steel-framed levels added to the top of the Woodies building, wedding-cake style. The result is an irregular floor plate. "It's a kooky space, but that provided opportunities for interesting resolutions for the leftovers," Wilson says. Glass perimeter walls, set back at odd angles, create triangular terraces and 360-degree views. The Capitol dome is visible from a corner conference room—proximity to Capitol Hill is crucial, given the organization's mission to foster a business and legal climate that supports and promotes members' creative and financial vitality.
RIAA chairman and CEO Mitch Bainwol adds, "The design of our office is a metaphor for the recording industry in transition." Case in point: One of those pesky leftover nooks has been fitted with computers on which visitors can legally download music, while across the office is the Surfer Room, a purple box where RIAA's anti-piracy group is said to trawl the Internet all day, looking for illegal downloads.
The quirky perimeter turned out to be a boon for one of the association's main requirements, an acoustically enhanced performance space. (Parallel walls reverberate too much.) Glass angles along one side of a large conference room that quickly transforms into a nightclub-y performance space for 100 people when white curtains are drawn across—and washed with color by energy-efficient LEDs. To dampen sound further, Envision installed perforated tiles with acoustical backing overhead and a layer of cork beneath the Cradle to Cradle–certified recycled carpet underfoot.
Performers tend to be up-and-comers: Colbie Caillat, Army of Me, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Catching big-time acts is also part of the job, so it helps that the new location is walking distance to the Verizon Center. The Woodies building has no underground or surface parking; most employees commute by Metro or bus.
RIAA didn't request a green space initially, but that changed as Envision presented studies showing that sustainable design yields such benefits as higher productivity and lower absenteeism. At the same time, the music industry as a whole was taking a stance against wasteful CD packaging, and RIAA realized it could use its own headquarters to make a positive statement.
Choosing an existing building meant no site disturbance and no additional contribution to storm-water runoff and heat-island effect. To reduce resource use, there are no floor coverings or suspended ceilings in circulation areas. Ceiling tile above workstations is made from 40 percent recycled content. For ceilings in perimeter offices, it's 77 percent. Carpet in the offices and conference rooms contains a minimum of 25 percent recycled material and was installed with zero-VOC adhesive. Elsewhere, the concrete floor was simply sealed with zero-VOC epoxy.
While maximizing efficiency, Envision found several ways to minimize cost. Custom workstations of particleboard—manufactured with 100 percent pre-consumer recycled wood fiber—have very little hardware. The designers reused and/or reupholstered mid-century tables and chairs from RIAA's previous office and hung T8 linear fixtures at odd angles. "They're the cheapest ones around," Wilson says proudly. He adds that their random pattern not only looks high-concept but also saves the headache of measuring out even spacing for downlights.
Largely, the interior relies on natural light, which penetrates to center workstations and office pods encircled by walls of translucent colored resin. That's thanks to the glass practically everywhere. There is a dark side, however. The eye's inclination to focus on distant points "wrecks the intuitive ability to see where the glass goes," senior associate David Kay explains. On the first day here, an employee ran into a glass surface and ended up in the emergency room, prompting Envision to add subtle but effective decals. After all, this isn't the Hard Knock Café.