U.S. Green Building Council Headquarters

LEED and Then Some

The USGBC finds its voice in a new space that tells the story of its trajectory from ideals to international influence.

In April 2009, the U.S. Green Building Council launched LEED Version 3, its next-generation environmental rating system for buildings. The strength of the new system, says USGBC, is its leveraging of new building technologies and its “consensus-based, transparent, ongoing development cycle.”

When it came to designing its own new headquarters, located in the recycled shell of a 1975 office building at 2101 L Street in Washington, D.C., USGBC walked the talk. After opening in March 2009, the 75,000-sq.-ft. office became the first space to achieve a LEED Platinum rating under the new system.

The design of the USGBC’s new, larger home exhibits more than its successful growth and the highest level of LEED standards put into practice. “They also wanted to refine their message and be known not just for LEED, but as a knowledge center for sustainability,” says Ken Wilson, principal of project architect Envision Design (Washington, D.C.). Intended as a “learning lab,” the new space is the focus of public tours that highlight USGBC’s philosophy and worldwide impact to thousands of visitors each year.

Wilson, whose team has designed sustainable interiors for several other environmental nonprofits, identified locations for integrating the USGBC brand into the design of the space. Recognizing that these locations would provide important “moments” for communicating their message, the USGBC called on the expertise of Shaw Jelveh Design (Baltimore/New York). Shaw Jelveh was already well versed in the USGBC’s branding strategy, having designed graphics, trade show booths, advertising, interactive design, and video animations for the nonprofit since 2004.

“I helped define what the designs needed to achieve in terms of their messages and character,” says Andre Poremski, USGBC’s design manager. “Shaw Jelveh worked iteratively with our team to refine the suite of visuals, and we're all very happy with the outcome.”

Unmistakable first impression

From the lobby, USGBC’s serious commitment to sustainability and transparency is on full view. An unmistakable first impression comes in the form of a two-story identity wall that features the USGBC’s oak-leaf logo carved into panels of 200- to 300-year-old gumwood salvaged from the Tennessee River.

Prior to Shaw Jelveh Design joining the team, Envision designed this central identity incorporating USGBC’s signature three oak leaves. True to the nature of LEED standards of sustainability and transparency, the environmentally preferable methods demonstrated with this aspect of the project alone set the bar high. The gumwood panels are third-party certified by Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) as being 100% submerged lumber and containing no chemicals, adhesives, or additives of any kind. Waterborne Pre-Cat Lacquer 375 by Fuhr Industrial was used as a clear finish on the paneling. This water-based finish surpasses South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) requirements for volatile organic compounds.

Material matters

Envision Design did all of the LEED documentation for the graphic products, working closely with the materials consultant, Mega Media Concepts (Sparta, N.J.), to identify graphic materials that had the best environmental qualities for Shaw Jelveh to use. The environmentally preferable alternatives did not cost more than conventional materials, says Shaw.

For applications that would traditionally call for cut vinyl (PVC-based) lettering on glass, for example, Mega Media provided a clear film it calls “Eco Film,” made of polyester and applied with a water-based adhesive. (Mega Media does not manufacture the film and would not provide the product name.)

“Vinyl cut lettering is less expensive and much more readily installed,” says Marybeth Shaw, principal of Shaw Jelveh. “It was quite a challenge working with the film.” But the choice underscores the project’s commitment to sustainability.

Other graphic elements employed what Mega Media calls “Eco-Wallpaper” made from post-consumer recycled paper content and printed with latex-based, VOC-free inks as well as Eco-Celtic Cloth (by Dazian Fabrics) made from 100% recycled polyester. (Mega Media does not manufacture the wallpaper and would not provide the specific product name.)

When Envision wanted to add interest to glass conference room doors, the team designed large-scale frosted renderings of the USGBC oak leaf. Envision specified PS2 by Llumar Window Film, a polyester product manufactured in Martinsville, Va. (224 miles away). The film is an environmentally preferable alternative to PVC-based vinyl and satisfied LEED's stipulation for materials sourced within a 500-mile radius.

Small steps, big impact

“The theme that guides the graphics is the idea that many small things add up to something very powerful,” says Shaw. Visitors to the space discover the nuances of this theme as they tour a path punctuated by six major “graphic pauses.” The signage program also earned a LEED point for Green Education in the Innovation in Design category.

The first pause is a “Thank You” to donors who are recognized on a 4- by 4-ft. laminated glass panel projected at eight points off an oak veneer backdrop in the office lobby. Text was digitally printed on the clear polyester “Eco-Film” supplied by Mega Media and applied to the back of the glass using water-based, VOC-free adhesive.

The second pause is the “Performance Wall” across from the waiting area. The centerpiece of the space is a large monitor displaying an interactive “Performance Dashboard” that provides detailed feedback on energy use. Through an interface also designed by Shaw Jelveh, visitors can explore much of the building’s performance through real-time data on plug load, lighting, occupancy, HVAC, emissions, lighting, and LEED.

Shaw Jelveh created a dramatic backdrop for the dashboard by lining the wall recess with colorful text listing LEED-certified projects and locations to date. The text was printed using latex-based inks on “Eco-Wallpaper” made from 20% post-consumer recycled paper fiber content. Mega Media says the manufacturer will reclaim the materials at the end of their use, making them into mats.

The “Progress Wall” is similar, featuring a second digital monitor that displays current membership statistics and a running tally of LEED-registered projects. Wallpaper text behind it lists “the many small steps taken throughout human history that have contributed to an environmental sensibility and green building practices“ says Shaw. 

To illustrate the increasing scale and global scope of the LEED program, Shaw Jelveh made use of three walls encompassing the office’s copy room. A huge world map identifies green building councils, student groups, and USGBC offices with color-coded oak leaf pushpins. The map is one of several graphics digitally printed with latex-based inks on Eco-Celtic fabric by Dazian Fabrics, applied to Novawall, a product made with 35% recycled content. According to Mega Media, the fabric is made from 100% recycled polyester (post-industrial waste and post-consumer bottles), and each yard conserves approximately 44,000 BTUs of energy. Mega Media offers 100% recyclability by repurposing this material into bags at the end of its use.

Mysteries and beauties

Another graphic moment cuts to the heart of USGBC’s ideals and philosophy. A long wall in the office’s Research and Education area prominently features an oak tree and a quote by Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 book Silent Spring (often credited for first creating widespread environmental awareness). The oak tree is formed from USGBC employees’ favorite quotes relating to the green movement and volunteerism.

To emphasize key words in the Carson quote, Shaw Jelveh designed two painted-aluminum planters with laser-cut lettering. The use of live plants responds to the USGBC’s interest in “biophilia,” an idea first introduced by naturalist Edward O. Wilson, who suggested our innate affinity with nature. Shaw’s team sought a deeper understanding of the split between nature and culture, and how to resolve this dichotomy. Starting with the cave drawings in Lascaux, France, the team researched the human history of representing nature. Shaw describes “a very distinct brainstorm” that resulted in the planters bearing the words "mysteries" and "beauties" from the Carson quote.

Telling the stories of these “mysteries and beauties” was one of the opportunities the USGBC did not want to miss, says Poremski. “An important opportunity often missed in green buildings is their role as learning labs,” he notes. “Telling the story brings context that we think enhances the meaning and beauty of what was created.”

Shaw Jelveh’s storytelling visually represents USGBC’s trajectory from a set of ideals to international influence. By presenting itself as a test case, with the hood open, the space allows visitors to learn from and be inspired by example.


[Sidebar:] Due Diligence

Envision Design has created LEED-certified interiors for several leading environmental non-profits, as well as many other corporate clients. When asked about Envision's approach to incorporating environmentally preferable materials and processes, Principal Ken Wilson says his team asks lots of questions about the products they use.  

“What is it made of?
How is it made?  
Where is it made?  
How is it transported?  
How is it installed?  
How long will it last?  
How is it maintained?
Can it be recycled?
How are environmental claims verified?”

"Designers just need to think more about what they’re doing and take more responsibility for what they’re creating,” continues Wilson. “We can no longer consider things that are harmful to the environment to be good design, no matter how much we like them."  

--By Naomi Pearson, segdDESIGN No. 27, 2009

Editor's note: Naomi Pearson is a designer, illustrator, and consultant living in Brooklyn, NY, and working for the Wildlife Conservation Society's Exhibit and Graphic Arts Department in the Center for Global Conservation at the Bronx Zoo. She is a member of the SEGD Sustainability Forum.



Location:  Washington, D.C.

Client:  U.S. Green Building Council

Architecture and Interiors:  Envision Design

Envision Team:  Ken Wilson, FAIA, IIDA, LEED AP (principal in charge); Rod Letonja, AIA, LEED AP (project director); Summer Minchew, IIDA, LEED AP (project designer, job captain); Katie Lombardi, LEED AP, Ashley Compton, LEED AP, Assoc. IIDA (project designers); Sean Dorsy, LEED AP (junior architect); Daniel Norman, LEED AP, AIGA (project designer, environmental graphics job captain for Knowledge Exchange/Learning Pathway)

Environmental Graphic Design:  Shaw Jelveh Design

Design Team:  Marybeth Shaw (principal, designer, art director); Majid Jelveh (consulting principal); Leah Prehn (designer and project coordinator); Nick Chow (designer); Jonnie Hallman (interface designer and programmer); Colin Ford, Jennifer Mussari, Andy Mangold (design and illustration interns)

Fabricators/Suppliers:  Mega Media Concepts (materials consultant, graphics installation), Direct Path (digital wall fabric installation), Green Plaques LLC (custom planter), Columbia Woodworking (identity wall fabrication), Timeless Timber (identity wall wood supplier), Kensington Glass Arts (conference room doors), Webb Signs (reception desk logo)

Consultants:  CB Richard Ellis (project management), James G. Davis Construction Corp. (general contractor), SK&A Structural Engineers (structural), Audio Video Systems (A/V), Acoustical Design Collaborative (acoustical), GHT Ltd. (MEP), Clanton & Associates (lighting)

Photos:  Eric Laignel (except as noted)

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