Is Your Office Future Proof?

By Matt Baker

“The greenest building is the one that’s already built.” So goes a common mantra in sustainable construction. When a building is ill-suited for today’s way of life, you don’t tear it down, you alter it. This is how vintage structures can maintain their charm while staying relevant in an age that demands more comfort, safety and sustainability. But sometimes this isn’t enough. Preserving the past is one form of sustainability, but so is anticipating the future.

magazine“The fact is, when you lock yourself into a conventional construction method, you’re limiting your ability to be agile later,” said Jim Fields, a Project Manager and Technology Representative with DIRTT. The Calgary-based company, which is an acronym for “Doing It Right This Time,” designs interiors with the an eye toward future expansion or reconfiguration.

The company focuses on a holistic solution, everything from raised floors to ceiling systems, as well as the walls and everything else in between. This includes products that DIRTT manufactures itself, but also those of partner organizations such as Armstrong and USG.

The magnetic, back-painted glass in the Sterling Partners elevator lobby is designed to fit perfectly with the pre-determined building details such as elevator openings and call lights.

The magnetic, back-painted glass in the Sterling Partners elevator lobby is designed to fit perfectly with the pre-determined building details such as elevator openings and call lights.

According to the IRS, which maintains actuarial tables for calculating depreciation costs for items that a business can use for tax write-offs, the average lifespan of office furniture is seven years. So every seven years, on average, walls are torn down, carpet is uprooted, cubicles are dismantled and many other disruptive changes occur. These new spaces mean not only the use of more raw materials, but the disposal of the old to landfills.

The key to longevity in a space’s furnishing isn’t forecasting how that space will be used, it’s using materials that allow for flexibility later. “If you’re forward-thinking enough, you’re looking at your space as something that will change and grow over time,” said Jessie Craigie, a biologist on the DIRTT Sustainability Team. Once they help a client design a space, that information is kept on record; should they want to downsize, expand or just reconfigure their space, DIRTT staff can point out the components that they already have on-site that will work where they are, or moved if necessary.

One example of built-in flexibility is Armstrong’s FlexZone ceiling system. It looks and installs like any other suspended ceiling grid with one important distinction: the entire grid is energized with 12 volts of DC current, allowing for plug-and-play lighting. Luminaires can be installed wherever the tenant wishes and when they eventually reconfigure the space, whether that is moving work stations or installing a new partition, the light fixtures can simply be unclipped and moved. Building in this plasticity results in lower overall costs and waste, as fewer materials are required when the space is reconfigured.

Details such as mitered corner glass with corner barn doors (one glass and one solid wood) give a more expansive feel to the space and allow light from the perimeter to enter into the entire space.

Details such as mitered corner glass with corner barn doors (one glass and one solid wood) give a more expansive feel to the space and allow light from the perimeter to enter into the entire space.

Another way to reduce waste is prefabrication. DIRTT specializes in custom prefab, which seems like a contradiction. The company’s wall panels come in modules ranging from six inches to five feet wide, but in increments of 1/16th of an inch. These aren’t laminated cabinets from a catalogue, made to fit with pieces of in-fill. Every finished component in

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a build-out is designed specifically for that space.

The imperative of future proofing a commercial interior to live on as the business changes is evident in the conference room. Finishes with magnetic, back-painted glass can act as a marker wall while other wall tiles can serve as tackboards. All of the finish work, even the framed art, is installed without any screws penetrating the face of the tiles. All of these items can move at any time.

The imperative of future proofing a commercial interior to live on as the business changes is evident in the conference room. Finishes with magnetic, back-painted glass can act as a marker wall while other wall tiles can serve as tackboards. All of the finish work, even the framed art, is installed without any screws penetrating the face of the tiles. All of these items can move at any time.

The key to this is DIRTT’s proprietary software, which they have dubbed ICE. “We work closely with architecture and design community, because they are the ones driving the design of the space,” said Fields. ICE allows the company to overlay their design onto the architectural drawings and CAD files. It also provides the client with a 3D walkthrough that will show them exactly what the environment will look and feel like. The client can go through and make changes on the fly, which in turn creates real-time elevation and plan views, as well as material and price sheets.

Sterling Partners is a private equity firm that recently moved its regional headquarters from Northbrook to offices in Chicago at 401 N. Michigan Avenue. Long before the firm began working on designs for their new space, they looked into human behaviors and the effects of working styles on the business and employees’ lifestyles. They determined that they wanted a space that provided natural light and that promoted standing, walking and dynamic physical movement as a means of impacting their quality of work. With this in mind, and needing a space that can be adaptive to this mindset today and over time, they consulted with DIRTT.

A great example of the ICE software being put to use is in the elevator lobby. Magnetic, back-painted glass is designed to fit perfectly within the environment. The ceiling height is fixed, as are call lights, elevator openings and other elements. These pre-determined building details provided the parameters that the software designed around.

In keeping with the desire for maximum daylight harvesting and to give an expansive feel to the space, glass wall partitions were used, finished off with mitered glass corners and sliding barn doors of glass and solid wood.

The conference room sports more magnetic, back-painted glass tiles, designed to function as marker surfaces. All of the tiles and millwork in the room are installed without any penetrating fasteners for a clean finish. To help future-proof the space, all of these items can be moved at any time.

Sustainability, according to Craigie, starts at home. “It’s a vein that runs throughout our program. It’s in our offices and in our factories.” Wind and solar power generation run the facilities where DIRTT products are manufactured.

All finishes on

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the products, from veneer glue to paint and clear coats, are water-based to prevent off-gassing. This provides a better air quality environment for the workers in the factory and for the client at the end of the line. DIRTT offers FSC-certified wood in its wall panels, which are insulated with 80% recycled denim.

Green building still carries a stigma of being more expensive—whether from the actual product or the extra labor to install a specialty product—preventing some from even considering sustainable products on their jobs. “We are already putting this in at the base price point,” said Fields. “There is no upcharge for going green. This is what you’re getting, this is standard.”

DIRTT has also built sustainability into its shipping process. The traditional method of shipping something like wall panels is to separate them with pieces of 2×4 lumber, which leads to wasted space on the trucks and added weight. The company created little disks, affectionately called “cookies,” made from recycled plastic. The cookies keep the wall panels from damaging each other during shipment. On the job site, the plastic disks are placed into the “cookie box,” a package pre-labeled with shipping information so it can be sent right back to the factory.

DIRTT opened a Green Learning Center in Chicago earlier this summer. This showroom displays many of the custom prefab options they have developed for the healthcare, education, office and other sectors. The healthcare industry is a growing market, but also an ideal place to put DIRTT’s efforts into practice. It is an industry with near-constant technology upgrades. But by future-proofing hospitals and other care facilities, there is little worry of creating gypsum dust or shutting down critical electrical and mechanical systems during a renovation.

But whatever the industry, anyone designing a commercial interior should consider the ramifications of how that space will be used in the future. “There are clients that come in they say they want to plan forward, but then they get talked into building for today and not for tomorrow,” said Fields. “The clients that are truly interested in thinking ahead have no problem spending money to preplan for the future.”

Photos courtesy DIRTT; National Archives and Records Administration

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One Response to “Is Your Office Future Proof?”
  1. Tim Frick says:

    Great article. Nice to see a fellow Chicago B Corp get some great coverage!

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