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The True Inconveniences of Designing Al Gore’s Office

For a high-profile environmentalist such as Gore, politics sometimes interfere with making the right decision.

It must suck being Al Gore. All he has to do is flip on the lights at
home, and every global-warming denialist this side of the equator picks up a
pitchfork
. Never mind that he
has done more for the environment
in the 21st century than, oh,
anyone else.

So you can imagine the ridiculous lengths he has to go to to prove
his eco bona fides, whether it’s what
he piles onto his plate
or how he designs his offices. As to the
latter, take a look at the New York headquarters of his boutique green
investing firm, Generation
Investment Management
. A lot of effort went into making the place seem
unimpeachably green — so much that, weirdly, it’s actually less green
than it could be.

The 5,000-square-foot space is on the 48th floor of One Bryant Park,
the world’s first LEED Platinum skyscraper. The Gen I.M. office itself
recently earned — wait for it! — LEED Platinum certification.

It’s obviously pretty plain. (This is about as sexy as things get in
finance, anyway.) But the architect, Kendall Wilson of Envision Design, who
has gone eco-chic for a crush of earnest environmental clients
(Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense Fund, the U.S. Green Building
Council), had to do everything short of rescuing a polar bear to meet
the Goreacle’s exacting standards. This project was an exercise in
steeling Gore against the critics.

Some of its basic stuff: More than 90 percent of the wood is Forest
Stewardship-certified. There are occupancy-sensor lights thrown up
everywhere. And check out the Greenguard-certified furniture. Those are
Haworth X99 chairs below.

Some of it was more involved. Consider Wilson’s search for flooring:
“We found reclaimed wood flooring that came from upstate New York,” he
says. “But then, when we were doing the research, we found that it was
being shipped to China to be finished, then back to the United States.
So then we looked at cork flooring from Portugal. That’s the only place
it comes from. Then we realized the cork is shipped to New Zealand to be
processed and manufactured, then it comes to the United
States.”

He settled on some rubber material made partly out of recycled car
tires for the pantry (origin: Lancaster, Pennsylvania; distance
traveled: 130 miles), and custom Lees carpet with lots of recycled stuff
packed into it for the main spaces (origin: Glasgow, Virginia; distance
traveled: 361 miles). Here’s the carpet:

The problem with all this critic-proofing is that it skews the
ethical stakes. Wilson proposed fitting out the walls in synthetic
gypsum, which comes from a byproduct of coal-burning power plants. It’s
standard fare in green building these days, a low-impact alternative to
real gypsum wallboard–a natural, non-renewable resource. But Gore’s
project manager, Gen I.M mucky muck Peter S. Knight, wasn’t having it.
“He said, ‘Look,’” Wilson recalls, “‘we can’t have anything to do with
coal-burning anything.’” The message, of course, is that “coal-burning
anything” has political implications Gore had better avoid, lest his
personal choices turn into fodder for yet another smear campaign. Lord
knows he’s had enough of that
. So Wilson agreed to use the real
thing (with trace amounts of recycled content). Not especially green.

This is the pain of being Al Gore. The prophet of environmental
apocalypse is forever on the defensive–to such a degree that he ends
up having to undermine himself, ever so slightly, just for the sake of
appearances.

Talk about inconvenient.

[Images courtesy Envision
Design
]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.

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