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The first thing you notice when you walk off the elevators is the extraordinary wood flooring. You know that something different is supposed to be going on here — something “green.” Nixon Peabody is one of the first law firm offices in the country applying for environmental certification from the U.S. Green Building Council under its program for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, but you’re not yet really sure what the certification means. So you focus on the first thing that catches your eye in the firm’s new San Francisco office, something that might give you some clue as to what sustainable building is all about. As it turns out, you’re right to have noticed the wood floors. They’re made of Forest Stewardship Council-certified orchard wood. The wood for the floors in each of the elevator banks and in the reception area is from old California walnut orchards that have finished their mission of bearing fruit. You may have noticed that the lighting in the stairwell is soft and soothing, but what you didn’t realize is that the overall lighting design in the elevator foyer and throughout the office uses low-wattage and high-efficiency bulbs. You proceed from the elevator well to the main reception area, hoping to finally get the green message. But rather than an interior you suspected would somehow look either earthy or futuristic, what immediately catches your eye is the 150-foot stretch of panoramic views of San Francisco landmarks and sweeping vistas of the San Francisco Bay. The walls in the reception area and adjacent conference rooms are made of clear glass, allowing natural light from outside to flow through the reception and conference areas. One thing that does cross your mind is that you wouldn’t have to turn on many lights during the day around here. You see that the biggest lesson Nixon Peabody learned in deciding to “green” (yes — it’s also now a verb) its new San Francisco office is that the line between good design and sustainable design doesn’t have to stand out like a green thumb. The more we researched and consulted with the design team at Gensler Architects, the more we were drawn to the conclusion that we didn’t just want to direct them to come up with a certifiably green space. Rather, we concluded that we had to first determine our own basic design goals as a firm and an office, and then begin to explore how to achieve those in the most sustainable way reasonably possible. With that in mind, we established our goals as using clean and safe building materials and natural light to enhance the work environment and create a pleasant space with access to daylight and views, using appropriate and environmentally friendly materials and design practices, and tying these elements together through innovative architectural design. Once our goals were established, we had our in-house team, our Gensler advisers, and everyone else who would play a part in developing our new space sit down and together create a strategy for accomplishing these goals. No decisions would be made piecemeal or in a way that later foreclosed important environmental decisions. Oh, one more thing — our financial manager said we had to stick as close as possible to the budget we had been given before we made the decision to go green. Back to the drawing board? Not really. Let’s get one thing straight: Don’t let the naysayers tell you that they support green development in general, but it’s just too cost-prohibitive. Does it cost more? It depends. What “shade of green” do you want to achieve? What are your top priorities? And most importantly, how much creative thinking are you and your team willing to do to come up with innovative, environmentally sound ways to design, develop, and manage your office in a way that still achieves your basic goals for the office? In going through this process we (like developers of any real estate project) did a lot of cost-benefit analysis and made some tough decisions. Our current estimate of going green will result in an expenditure in the neighborhood of 1.5 percent more than what we would have paid for a similar nongreen office build-out (and, of course, the cost will be offset by energy and water savings, which will appear immediately and increase over time). But that number was not derived with a formula. It was driven by constantly weighing our environmental priorities against our budget realities, exploring many options, and making some tough choices. Here are some of the things we ended up doing: Every law firm wants a beautiful reception area — it’s often the first impression you make on clients and would-be clients. In addition to maximizing the visual and natural lighting advantage of floor-to-ceiling windows in our reception and conference room area, we installed display countertops adjacent to the reception desk that are made of Icestone, a beautiful composite material consisting of recycled glass and mother-of-pearl shells. The carpeting used throughout the office has received a Green Label Plus certification, a sustainable standard in the carpet industry. (Standard carpeting often uses toxic glues and adhesive backings and is often made from nonrenewable resources.) The speckled countertops on the coffee bars are made with a material consisting of recycled plastic bottles, and the floors are Marmoleum, an environmentally friendly, rapidly renewable product made from linseed oil. The entire office space is painted with paint that is not derived from volatile organic compounds. The new furniture includes round “tree trunk” coffee tables made from fallen trees and chairs made of natural, formaldehyde-free materials and high recycled content. As importantly, more than 60 percent of our furniture was reused from our previous office, so no new natural resources were used for those items. And we managed to recycle 75 percent of all materials from the demolition of the previous office. Other key elements of our new green office include dual-flush toilets and low-flow faucets. Because our local utility doesn’t provide for the direct purchase of renewable power, we are investing (through buying renewable energy certificates) in green power enterprises to subsidize their production of renewable energy equivalent to 100 percent of the amount of our expected electric usage. One of the biggest lessons we learned? Green development isn’t just about the flooring, furniture, windows, water conservation measures, or paint. One of the best green decisions you can make is in site selection. We chose one that is in an optimal location for our employees to take public transportation — subway, train, bus, bicycle, and ferry are all viable commuting options to our San Francisco office. And even the length of your lease has an impact. We chose a long-term, 12-year lease, minimizing future building material use. WHAT’S SO GREEN? How did it turn out? The best compliment I’ve received is from a client (well-versed in real estate development and finance), who concluded, “I can’t really tell what’s green about it, but it’s a spectacular office.” But why did we take on the mission in the first place? One of Nixon Peabody’s strong practices is in the field of government-assisted development. We guide clients through the complex world of using government incentives to develop socially oriented development projects, such as those providing affordable housing, community revitalization, and historic preservation. The government agencies providing assistance for these projects have placed a growing emphasis on adding sustainable development requirements to the mix. So we got a head start in the field by figuring out for, and with, our clients exactly what this means and how to accomplish it. We already were experts in real estate development, but we had to learn much more about sustainable development and resource conservation. This unearthed some disturbing facts about the general effect of buildings on the environment. Some studies have concluded that the development and operation of buildings accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s energy consumption, 40 percent of landfill waste, and between 40 percent and 50 percent of ozone-depleting carbon production. Those are staggering numbers. How could we justify the fact that the projects we were facilitating were producing this type of negative effect? That question was critical in my decision to focus as much energy as possible on environmental stewardship — on both a personal and professional level. In addition to joining forces with Enterprise Green Communities to establish the first national conference on incorporating sustainable development into affordable housing and community development projects, I launched a speaking campaign to educate the affordable housing and community development industries and encourage them to undertake sustainable projects. TAKE A LOOK But I also asked my Nixon Peabody colleagues to take a hard look at what we could do as a firm. The response has been tremendous on many levels. Creating our green office was an important (and highly visible) step. But it is far from the only one. We have several practice groups with environmental and energy conservation emphases, including real estate, affordable housing and community development, energy/environment, intellectual property, private equity (clean technology), renewable energy tax credits, project finance, and energy regulation. When we started a dialogue about our individual green client issues and capabilities, we found that many of us in the various groups had similar personal and professional concerns — and a similar desire to commit to make sustainability an important part of our practice. So we created a firmwide “green team” and began meeting weekly and working together on projects and client development. As other groups (such as corporate finance) have discovered that their industries are also focusing on green measures, they have joined the team as well. Not only has the endeavor brought together attorneys (and professional staff) from all of these groups, but it’s also taught us all a lot about cross-staffing and cross-marketing — both of which are a lot easier when you really have a common goal. We are also using our strong training infrastructure to lead national workshops on green-related topics. Our individual offices, including our office here in Washington, D.C., are also beginning to develop and implement green operational plans, such as paper reduction efforts, green office maintenance programs, and stepped-up recycling programs. It can be slow going, particularly because part of the process has involved developing programs from the ground up, but it’s starting to take shape. As is often the case, the same things that we were wrestling with were also on the minds of many of our clients. And by going through the process ourselves, we aligned ourselves with our clients, demonstrated our commitment to the environment, and strengthened our skills to better serve our clients. One of the most important aspects of our green office is that it serves as a model and showcase for clients and other businesses to see that sustainable development can be done on a practical, cost-effective basis and that green design can be beautiful design.
Jeffrey S. Lesk is a partner in Nixon Peabody’s D.C. office. He specializes in government-assisted real estate development and finance and is the co-chairman of Green Homes and Sustainable Communities 2007: The Annual National Symposium on Green Affordable Housing and Community Development, July 19-20 in San Francisco.

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