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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.

The True Inconveniences of Designing Al Gore's Office

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]

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