Walking the Walk to Reduce Eco-Footprint
As an owner, Interface focuses on increased sustainability for its facilities
For more than 10 years, Atlanta-based modular carpet manufacturer Interface Inc. has attempted to lessen the impact that manufacturing its flooring product has on the environment, largely by recycling more carpet and utilizing a decreased amount of virgin petroleum-based materials in its manufacturing process.
And as a facility owner, the company is equally focused on reducing its own environmental footprint. It has undertaken initiatives to build the most energy-efficient and sustainable buildings possible, and done so in ways that can be implemented by other building owners.
Its showroom and office facility in downtown Atlanta was the first LEED platinum project of its type in the world. Its manufacturing facilities in LaGrange, Ga., feature the use of landfill gas as a main energy source.
“We wanted to walk our talk; we wanted to develop the most aggressive green space that we could,” John Wells, president of Interface America, says of the goal for the Atlanta showroom and office space.
Interface founder and CEO Ray Anderson had been spreading the gospel of sustainability for several years by the time the project started moving forward. (In a video circulated on the Internet, Anderson had lamented Interface’s impact on the world’s natural resources, likening himself to a “plunderer” and saying, “The day must come when this is illegal. Someday people like me will end up in jail.”
Built in 2004 by Atlanta-based Holder Construction Co. and designed by TVSDesigns of Atlanta, the showroom and office project became the first LEED-Commercial Interiors project in the world to achieve platinum status by the U.S. Green Building Council.
But it was more than just a marketing showcase for Interface. Wells and the contractors and designers involved in that project say it was a real-life testament to the corporation’s belief in the absolute need for getting off oil and coal and otherwise protecting the environment.
“[Whether] you’re a service business or a real-estate developer, you’re going to live in a world of continued escalation of energy costs and materials costs,” Wells says. “How are you going to decouple yourself from that? You’ve got to have more energy-efficient, materials-efficient buildings.”
Yesterday: The showroom About five years ago, Interface realized that it had taken its hometown somewhat for granted and did not have a sufficient presence there among the architectural design community. At the same time, it was creating a new consumer-oriented brand, FLOR. A main goal for the showroom project became developing a location that could increase the company’s presence among both the local design community and urban-oriented individual consumers. And, Interface wanted to make it as green as possible.
“Steve Clem, TVSDesign’s interior architect and design director for the showroom project says as leaders in sustainability, it was essential that Interface demonstrate sustainable qualities in their own environment. “That was the driver,” he says.
Daylight is a main design element that Clem and TVS used. Ground-to-ceiling windows make up the majority of the 7,080-sq-ft showroom’s exterior walls. The team also utilized fluorescent lighting throughout, as well as concrete and bamboo flooring, below Interface modular carpet tiles, and either no- or low-VOC materials.
“Obtaining platinum [LEED] level was obviously the focus,” adds John Wood, project executive for Holder. The LEED-CI program was still in its pilot stage, making the job even more challenging. “They kept changing the scorecard,” Wood says.
The project earned points from the USGBC for a string of notable items. A power-management plan including Energy Star equipment and appliances reduced energy usage by more than 75%, according to Interface records. Restroom and showroom kitchen fixture performance reduced water use by 32%.
An estimated 33% of furniture and furnishings came from salvaged, refurbished or reused materials, and 64% of wood-based materials were certified in accordance with Forest Stewardship Council guidelines. Roughly 93% of construction waste was diverted from the landfill through a waste-management plan.
Wood says extra steps were taken to achieve platinum level, which included teaching staff and students at the nearby Georgia Institute of Technology about green construction.
The project team was teaching itself, too. Holder’s veteran project superintendent, Jerry Studdard, definitely caught the sustainable bug, Wood says.
“On day one, [Studdard] had no LEED experience,” Wood adds. By the end of the job, he was an expert at what it took. He really embraced it.”
Wood says Interface’s sustainability efforts are not about just one project; they’re a company culture.
“They don’t just preach it,” he says. “They practice it big time, and get really excited about it..”
Today and tomorrow In LaGrange, Ga., John Bradford, Interface’s director of operations, wonders if it might be time to build that algae farm he’s been thinking about.
He taps a chart posted in one of LaGrange’s 10 manufacturing buildings that shows a slight uptick in total energy used during the past year. The 2007 total is still 45% below 1996, but is up slightly from 2006.
“It’s time for another project,” he says. In 2007, approximately 25% of energy required for Interface’s manufacturing facilities in LaGrange and West Point, Ga., came from renewable sources, mostly either green electricity or landfill gas.
Solar panels line up along the “RCA” plant in West Point, short for Raymond C. Anderson, Interface’s founder and CEO. In LaGrange, the main manufacturing building gets 40-45% of its total energy from methane, the result of a city landfill gas project. Bradford boasts that absolutely no water is used for process cooling or heating at LaGrange.
“Energy follows water,” he says. “Water is the hardest thing to heat up and cool down.”
In another building, Interface is converting approximately 50,000 sq ft of former warehouse space into a facility to showcase products to commercial customers. The company is utilizing the building’s close proximity to a swamp to save energy.
“We’re talking about some skylights, but a lot of the air conditioning and creature comforts will [come from] geothermal,” Bradford says. He adds that because the building sits on a swamp, wells will be built on site. “That makes geothermal really work well, because you’ve got that water table real high.”
Bradford’s algae farm might be implemented on the new customer center. The concept of algae farms – essentially a way of converting solar energy to chemical energy – has garnered attention lately as a potential source of biodiesel. There are even efforts under way to use algae to create jet fuel. Bradford’s vision isn’t as grandiose, but he’s pretty positive it’s feasible.
“We’d take CO2, pump it into an algae farm, which is a glass tube that’s cut into a triangle” and then just grow the algae, compress it and then burn it for fuel, he says. “Microbes are 80% of the biomass on the Earth. We don’t use enough of them.”
There’s also the possibility of a waste-to-energy facility. The company would burn scraps from the recycling plant and use a turbine to convert that to energy, Bradford says.
There’s no doubt that Bradford’s a true believer, but it wasn’t always the case.
“When I got here in ’97, we were coming to the realization that Ray was serious about this,” he says. “I grew up on a farm, so I understood the short cycles of sow and reap. But then we were taught in college that we should overpower Mother Nature and separate ourselves from her, with machinery and electricity and abundant power. That was engineering school.
“In the sustainability vision, I saw a coming together of business and nature that just felt right. Everyone of us who are left here had our own personal epiphanies and that charged us to take our talents and put them into the transformation of Interface.”
Today, Interface’s goal is to have no impact on the environment by 2020. That means producing 100% recycled products and using zero nonrenewable forms of energy by then.
“We want to get completely off oil,” Bradford says of the manufacturing process. “And the way to do that is either 100% recycled or 100% renewable. And we want to get completely off the electrical systems, if we can figure out how. We might get one or two of our operations completely off-grid, making our own electricity.”
On the goal of 100% recycled that was put forth by executive management several years ago, Bradford says it is still in place, and is pushing to meet it with bioPVC, bionylon and biopolyester efforts planned for the near future.
“That’s the next 10 years,” Bradford says.
“There’s never going to be a zero footprint,” he says. “Nothing in nature has a zero footprint.”
He says that the beauty of Nature is “she never takes more than she needs.” When resources are squandered, the consequences are extinction, he says. “That’s kind of how we’ve been operating. How do we get our footprint inside that line?”
Wells sees it as a matter of survival.
“If you own a space, if you develop a space, how are you going to compete? How are you going to survive in a world of increased energy costs?” he asks. “We believe that energy costs are not going to decrease. So you better be designing your facilities and your business model for that future, which is upon us now.”