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Sustainable Design for Commercial Interiors: Engaging the Millennial Generation

© Spagnolo Gisness & Associates / Robert Benson Photography
By Charles Hopkins, LEED AP BD+C
September 29, 2016

According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials have “surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation,” (April, 2016) constituting over 75 million people between the ages of 18 and 35 by 2015. It is no secret that this generation has demonstrated interest in social and environmental sustainability. Like it or not, new construction and development is certainly part of this theme, and in many cases the younger half of the Millennial generation has been learning about it on a regular basis. As a Millennial living in Boston and working within the architectural and engineering industry, I have watched the city’s commercial building landscape evolve considerably over the past decade. It’s evident that most stakeholders have bought in to sustainability as a best practice – apparent in the myriad of LEED plaques and institution of Article 37. The question now is how to engage and attract building occupants, of which a large segment are Millennials, through improved design practices and an emphasis on sustainability.

Let’s use a commercial office as an example. The organization and design of the workplace is the first trait occupants and visitors experience. Spaces that are open and offering plenty of sunlight correlate to an improvement in overall occupant productivity and morale. The workforce has realized that a workplace – a near home-away-from-home – should be designed to promote occupants’ well-being. Daylight in particular has been a popular aspect of Boston Seaport buildings – notice the large glass facades? Increased access to daylight leads to improved health, mood and performance. However an increase in the percentage of glazing represents significant challenges: glare through southern exposures, overheating, and equipment layout must be considered carefully. Control devices like automatic shades or optimized exterior shading can help mitigate these concerns…but add cost to a developer. Strategically placed glazing and shading can also harness free solar energy to offset heating and cooling energy needs during peak conditions. Access to views, increased daylight, and collaborative workplaces are but a few of the design options that have been ushered in, partially in consequence to the growing portion of Millennials in the workplace.

Building owners and managers have also begun to understand the important role that technology plays in the lives of Millennials. Platforms such as “green dashboards” allow occupants to understand a building’s sustainable performance in real-time. We have seen our clients begin to adopt green dashboards on a regular basis, offering a peek into the little-seen operations of the places where occupants spend upwards of 40-50 hours a week. Dashboards are displayed via monitors, or tie into existing intranet platforms to share data in real-time and ultimately help create a culture of sustainability. How much water did we use last week? How much electricity? How do these compare to other facilities? By merely offering a glance into the inner workings of their day-to-day workplace can inject a sense of social and environmental responsibility for occupants, knowing that their organization is taking strides to better understand their impact on the environment.

Adding energy and water sub-metering to project design fosters even more energy awareness, which builds transparency and allows occupants to understand where resources are being consumed and identify opportunities for improvement. Building operators can utilize energy and water information to calibrate and adjust everything from lighting, plug loads, space cooling, space heating, fans and domestic hot water service all by metering the energy use of these components. Controls offer a similar credit. Millennials – if anything – love choice and customization. For spaces that have invested in individual controls (lighting, thermostats) drilling down use to an almost person-by-person basis helps understand trends and needs of the occupants.

There are many ways to make a space “green” (although Millennials will probably use a more nuanced term, such as “smart” and “resource conscience”). These are but a few options that may have more weight with how the younger workforce may perceive their professional setting. Other options that may offer an immediate effect on how a workplace is seen are the quality of furniture systems (recycled material?), renewable energy production or purchase (can an on-site PV array be tied in?), or water reclamation systems (water re-use?). The point is, while offering a competitive salary, benefits and positive work-life balance are undoubtedly high-priority items for any employee, let’s not forget that our living and working areas play an important role in how occupants remain engaged on a social, professional and sustainable level.