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Unilever transformed its old office park into an ultra-sustainable HQ

The building comes with a unique arrangement: If its energy savings–from things like smart cooling and heating systems–don’t live up to the promises, the developer will cover the bills.

If you sit down to work at Unilever’s U.S. headquarters and you’re too cold or hot–or you’re working on a laptop and the lights above you are too bright–you can pull out an app on your phone and tweak the room’s settings. Throughout the building, 15,000 sensors also measure temperature, light, carbon dioxide, humidity, and who’s present in a room, helping the building adjust over time to become more efficient. On a Friday afternoon in the summer, when many of the building’s 1,600 employees are working remotely and the building sensors report low occupancy, the company can choose to shut down whole floors or buildings.

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The technology is one part of a new total renovation of the consumer product giant’s New Jersey office park, which was originally constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, designed to help the company reach its goal to be carbon positive in operations by 2030–and help attract a younger workforce. In the renovation, four buildings were connected into one 325,000 square foot space. Along with several other changes, including swapping out old windows and lights and installing solar panels on the roof, the company now expects to cut the office’s carbon footprint in half. OVG, a Dutch developer behind the retrofit, guaranteed that goal through what they call a “green lease” or an eco agreement.

[Photo: Garrett Rowland/courtesy OVG Real Estate/Unilever]

When OVG first proposed some of the changes to the building, the company hesitated. “The CFO said to me, ‘That’s all nice, I’ve heard this story before, but nobody will give me the guarantee–they’ll come up with all kinds of projections and models, but nobody wants to give me the guarantee that those energy costs really will go down. Then I said, ‘It’s very simple, I will give you that guarantee,” says Coen van Oostrom, CEO of OVG. The company collaborated with the architecture firm Perkins and Will and real estate companies Cushman and Wakefield and Normandy on the project.

In a contract that will last 10 years, OVG promises that the headquarters’ energy consumption will drop at least 40%, which corresponds to a 50% cut in carbon emissions. Water use will drop 50%. As long as Unilever uses the building in a way outlined in the contract, if energy or water use is higher than expected, OVG will cover the cost.

A bank loan helped fund some of the cost of the renovation, something that van Oostrom says is becoming more common. “What we are seeing at the moment in the Netherlands is that the banks have become so used to this approach that they are completely willing to take the whole investment on their account, as long as there is a real estate company that is willing to guarantee that the technical measures are going to be implemented such that it really works,” he says.

[Photo: Garrett Rowland/courtesy OVG Real Estate/Unilever]

In the past, the office’s heating system would struggle to heat poorly insulated spaces on cold mornings, and then, when it got too hot, the cooling system would kick in, wasting energy. Now, double-glazed windows insulate the office. Sensors measure everything, and can begin to predict, for example, how the building should run on a typical Monday or Tuesday.

“A couple of these fairly cheap sensors are a huge difference in how buildings are being managed today compared to how it was two or three years ago,” says van Oostrom. MapIQ, another startup, makes the app that employees can use to adjust the lights and heat in any room. A startup called Nuuka provides a dashboard that the company can use to analyze the data from the building’s 15,000 sensors.

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The headquarters has transformed in other ways. New low-flow plumbing will cut water use in half. Shuttles are expected to take 40% of employee cars off of roads. A new atrium connects four formerly separate buildings and provides a place for employees to work casually; employees can also opt-in to be visible via the building’s smart technology, making it easier for coworkers to find each other. The cafeteria serves healthier food (though an office ice cream shop also serves free ice cream from the company’s brands, like Ben & Jerry’s). There are rooms for doing yoga and de-stressing. The building is expected to be certified both as a healthy workplace, by the International Well Building Institute, and to receive the highest LEED sustainability rating.

The building uses some of the techniques that OVG first used in a smart office building in Amsterdam called The Edge, and that it now hopes to replicate in 1,000 other office buildings. (The Unilever building doesn’t fully meet the criteria of an “Edge” building, but another will launch in Amsterdam this fall.)

By using an eco agreement model that removes financial risk, OVG believes that many more will be willing to modernize. The dropping cost of technology like sensors has also made it cheaper to make buildings more efficient. “What I think is the bigger picture here is there’s thousands and thousands of buildings like the one with Unilever in New Jersey,” says van Oostrom. “There are so many owners in the United States that don’t have anything against sustainability but are not moving because they are afraid it will cost them money . . . We are at the start of a revolution where a lot of buildings are going to be made, with the help of technology, a lot more sustainable.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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