Putting the "Green" in Green Door
A nonprofit in Washington, D.C., embodies the eco-friendly, cost-conscious vision of Envision Design
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 6/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
A warehouse was not the image Judith Johnson had in mind. As executive director of Green Door, a nonprofit that prepares people with severe mental illness to work and live independently, she felt that this former 1950's roofing-supply facility in northwest Washington, D.C., was too ugly and remote. And, let's face it, the "warehousing" connotation wasn't good for business. But after being rejected by several NIMBY landlords, she reconsidered.
The next step was to hire Envision Design, the firm that had recently completed the headquarters for Greenpeace—the CFO of which had founded Green Door in 1976. With a modest budget of $2.5 million, founding principal Kendall Wilson transformed Green Door's dark one-story brick building into an environment that's eco-friendly, cheerful, and filled with natural light.
"Our building shows how we value people," says Johnson, who's also proved an innovative curator: Inexpensive ethnic tapestries, rubber doormats, and Japanese nylon kites hang with minimalist precision on the brightly painted walls, adding to the decidedly noninstitutional feel.
The building also demonstrates a commitment to the environment. Besides zero-VOC paint, low-VOC adhesives, salvaged and refurbished file cabinets, formaldehyde-free plywood, and doors made from maple certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, Wilson focused on a high recycled content for carpeting, ceramic tile, gypsum-board, translucent plastic panels, tackboard fabric, and perforated-aluminum mini-blinds. The team also incorporated such rapidly renewable materials as linoleum for floors. In lieu of PVC products, rubber seals the joints between walls and floor, and frosted window film is made from polyester.
In "recycling" the warehouse itself, Envision took advantage of the onetime loading dock to create a canopied entrance and a lively daylit lobby. A café run by members—as people enrolled in the skills-training program are called—offers refreshments to those waiting for appointments. Guests are free to wander the area, and it's not uncommon to see them making a loop: down the handicapped-accessible ramp, past an interior carp pond and fountain, then up a few steps back to the café. "If you have a mental illness," Johnson points out, "you might need to walk around or be off by yourself as opposed to sitting in a row of chairs." (Even if those chairs are clusters of Verner Panton classics in white polypropylene.)
At 22,000 square feet, Green Door accommodates up to 1,200 members, who receive a variety of services from doctors, nurses, counselors, and case managers. To make sure that work areas have access to natural light, Wilson increased perimeter windows by 300 percent, and many of them are operable, so everyone benefits from fresh air, too. Above the central work room, the canted scrims of a stretched-polyester ceiling system diffuse sunshine from four new skylights.
In other energy-saving strategies, Envision insulated the roof with rigid extruded polystyrene and installed a low-use mechanical system, the extra cost of which should be recouped after seven years of reduced energy bills.
Thoughtful design hasn't been the only source of savings, however. Since moving to this transitional neighborhood, Green Door has spent virtually nothing on outreach—the application rate has soared as word spreads among the target population. As one member told executive director Johnson, "To do all this, you must care about us a lot."
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