Imaginary workplaces in Mad Men and The Office are structured for climbing hierarchies: rat-racing from the soul-draining staff floor to a perimeter office, where sunlight is an upper-management prerogative. But there’s a more interesting story brewing in spaces designed for real-world firms: a growing awareness that sustainability (including more daylight for all) isn’t just admirable, it’s good business.

While greener interiors can change a company’s culture, they aren’t about stewardship alone. “That certainly helps,” says James S. Camp, AIA, LEED AP, managing director of Gensler in Baltimore, but a sustainable office is “an environment that is allowing the employees to be more productive [and] healthy.” LEED certification, the U.S. General Services Administration, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have helped legitimize a growing green-office movement, Camp reports. Private-sector clients have also done their share, favoring spaces that integrate function, efficiency, and sustainability. The Gensler-designed Armstrong World Industries headquarters in Lancaster, Pa., was a LEED pilot project in 1999, and new Gensler offices for several financial institutions have earned LEED-CI Gold.

Tighter, brighter, quieter

Camp and others see many clients and designers embracing open interiors, flexible in floor plans and details. Though organizations’ needs vary, the Mad Men paradigm is giving way to fewer territorial spaces. Certain business categories appear “able to adapt very well to a fairly small workplace,” says Ken Wilson, FAIA, LEED AP, principal at Washington, D.C.’s Envision Design. “An architecture firm cannot function with everyone in a private office,” he notes, “because there’s so much collaboration going on.”

The typical 150-square-foot office is shrinking to 120 square feet, Wilson reports, and outer executive corridors are no longer de rigueur. Camp adds that companies are eliminating spatial hierarchies (in terms of personnel and positions as they relate to a floor plan), so when staff sizes fluctuate “they’re moving people and boxes, not having to move walls.” Some firms use glass partitions, as in Gensler’s own LEED Gold Baltimore office. Others replace full-height structures with LEED CI–standard, 42-inch-high partitions. Still others follow European-style floor plans by placing everyone near daylight. Slaterpaull Architects recently acquired downtown Denver’s Engine House No. 5 for headquarters and gave staff prime spots near outsized windows. “This is one of the first ones I’ve seen,” says president and CFO Jamie Pedler, AIA, “where all of the principals are towards the inside.”

Wilson observes that “In retrofitting buildings, the best low-hanging fruit is in lighting.” Envision’s design for the U.S. Green Building Council headquarters in Washington, D.C., strives to halve the lighting load, using perimeter carpeting “that essentially acts like a light shelf” as well as task lights, daylight-sensing dimmers, and vacancy sensors. “The new code is one watt per square foot, and we were trying to achieve half a watt a square foot for our fully connected lighting load,” Wilson says. “We did that, but the actual usage is about a quarter of a watt per square foot.” A decade ago, when code called for three watts per square foot, Envision’s Greenpeace USA headquarters in Washington, D.C., achieved 1.3, considered “amazing” at the time. “So codes are helping to drive this change,” Wilson says. Camp cites Encelium’s nonproprietary software for flexible lighting management.

Technology fosters spatial frugality, Wilson adds. With email replacing calls, workspaces grow quieter, letting interiors emphasize benching and team areas over isolation. Noise reduction in open plans stimulates innovations such as Slaterpaull’s “acoustic cloud” tiles suspended above workstations to dampen reverberation. Overall area ratios, Wilson estimates, are dropping from 250 square feet per person to 200—and sometimes as low as 100. The adoption of nonhierarchical spaces will accelerate, Camp expects, as baby boomer leadership passes to tech-friendly Gen Xers and millennials.

Investments in more than the building

Informal facilities such as Portland’s Burnside Rocket by Francis Dardis, AIA, (now a principal at Stack Architecture) represent the antithesis of the ’50s model. This four-story LEED Platinum building’s two commercial floors host a winemaker in one open space while 12 businesses share the other. “It’s a pretty good business model in Portland,” Dardis says, “renting a desk for $350 a month versus $1,200.” High-thermal-mass concrete construction and water-based geothermal systems create exceptional energy performance. Even if the upfront costs slow a project’s transition to profitability, the long-range benefits are substantial.

Small spaces conserve costly Class A real estate in business districts, but unused spaces squander those gains. “Hot desking,” in which frequent travelers—often senior personnel—have portable carts rather than personal offices, maximizes spatial value in sectors such as technology and accounting, where firms “have people who are spending the majority of their time in their client’s space,” Camp notes.

A green office dramatically affects every company’s greatest asset: its workers. Effects on productivity indicators such as turnover and absenteeism, Wilson calculates, suggest that investments in daylight, air, and other intangibles bring returns that dwarf real estate or buildout expenses. Envision shows clients a scenario where a retrofit saves over $1.3 million annually (or $30 per square foot), which is enough to amortize a 40,000-square-foot building within a decade by giving each employee one fewer sick day a year and a 5 percent productivity increase. Building-level and office-level upgrades reinforce each other, says Daniele Aquino Horton, LEED AP, sustainability manager for the Thomas Properties Group in Los Angeles. For a tenant moving into City National Plaza in L.A., where a multisystem renovation earned LEED-EB: Operations & Maintenance Gold last year, “all the things we’ve done would get them to the LEED-certified level right off the bat,” she says. “Then what they’d do beyond that would get them to higher ratings.”?