Step into Glumac’s 6,000-square-foot office space in Shanghai, China, and you probably won’t notice anything out of the ordinary; it just looks like a modern office that gets a lot of light. But the engineering firm’s office, the first to apply for Living Building Challenge project certification in Asia, is almost certainly the most sustainable office space on the continent.
The Living Building Challenge is like LEED’s green building standards on steroids. In order to get certification, a building project has to be net zero energy, net zero water, and carbon neutral, among other things. Only a handful of projects around the world, including Seattle’s Bullitt Center, have made the cut.
“It took the Bullitt Center a year to collect materials [for the project], and we had a month. We had such a condensed schedule, everything just moved faster in the market here,” says Abby DeWolfe, architect and sustainable design leader with Gensler Shanghai, the architecture firm behind the Glumac office. Gensler’s first challenge: sourcing local materials that met all of the Living Building Challenge’s stringent requirements for healthy building materials.
“You basically have to talk to every single manufacturer for every single material and have them supply all the documentation to show every component in their project. Because most manufacturers don’t want to tell you what it’s their product, it’s a lot of just hounding people for information, really,” says DeWolfe. In the end, Gensler found out that they couldn’t use basic materials they had hoped to incorporate into the project. As per Challenge rules, heavy materials need to be sourced near the project site–and there’s no stone quarry near Shanghai. That meant stone was out. Gensler opted to make countertops in the space out of a Corian-like material instead.
Originally, the firm hoped to use wood framing on glass walls to match the look and feel of the larger campus, but wood is sparse in China. Gensler was able to find eucalyptus, but it fell out of the radius that would make it acceptable as a local material.
Another challenge: Glumac doesn’t own the building where it resides. The company office is on the top of the military-owned building, which is leased to a developer. “The work done on it was fairly shoddy,” says DeWolfe. When Gensler stripped back the insulation, the company discovered that there were holes everywhere. A new product from Dow Corning–a kind of vacuum-packed insulation that’s only an inch thick–did the trick. Without good insulation, it would have been difficult to meet the Living Building Challenge’s goal of using net-zero energy.
The office also contains composting toilets, which were a hard sell with the landlord. But according to DeWolfe, the composting toilets (which did have to be shipped in because they weren’t locally available) look exactly like regular toilets. A unit in a corridor closet next to the toilets heats all of the waste, making the compost more compact. The unit only needs to be emptied every six months.
Glumac’s rainwater collection system actually collects enough water and energy (from the rooftop photovoltaic panels) to supply the whole building, but the landlord isn’t interested. In fact, it took quite a bit of convincing just to let Glumac use the empty tank sitting in the building’s basement to collect rainwater, which is used as the engineering firm’s water supply. Every little step took convincing.
One of the space’s more unique features comes from local green materials consultant GIGA, which provided Glumac with an indoor air monitoring system that allows employees to see the toxicity of indoor air on their cell phones, based on monitoring of oxygen levels, VOC levels, humidity, and particulate matter measurements. Fortunately for workers, Glumac has five air purification systems and a planted green wall to weed out the often-unbearable pollution outside the building. “It’s live-tracking, so the minute you get in you know what you’re dealing with. It’s a great way to reduce employee turnover,” says DeWolfe.
All of these features come at a cost. The Glumac office was more expensive to build than a regular office, but because it’s open for tours, the firm did get quite a few products donated or given as a discount because of companies that wanted to break into the local market.
“China is just a different market. There are so many environmental concerns here that they need to be worried about, and going to work shouldn’t be one of them,” says DeWolfe.