When USG started designing our new headquarters space, we knew we wanted to be proactive about sustainability, but sustainability and LEED certification were not our first goals. Our goal was good design, and where there's good design, there are sustainable design benefits.

In March 2007, nearly 950 USG employees moved to a new 18-story glass and steel building located in Chicago's west loop. We are a building tenant with twelve floors, totaling about 330,000 square feet.

We used the latest in building science to create a healthier and more productive space for our employees, clearly a business-driven objective. What we also built was a space that is more environmentally responsible at a lower cost-per-square foot than our former headquarters. The sustainable features of our new headquarters include:

  • Less water and operational energy use
  • Superior indoor environmental quality, including increased use of natural light, improved acoustics and better circulation
  • More efficient use of space: reduced average square footage and footprint per occupant by 36 percent and increased public space by nearly 300 percent
  • Nearly 70 percent of construction waste diverted away from landfills

We've registered our new headquarters, 550 W. Adams St., as LEED for Commercials Interiors (CI) registered space, the U.S. Green Building Council's voluntary rating standard for green design and construction of tenant improvements. Our goal is LEED-CI Gold certification. LEED-CI applies to tenant improvements of new or existing office space. The rating system examines the tenant's electrical, mechanical, HVAC and plumbing systems, as well as furnishings and the effect these elements have on occupants and their comfort. The rating has six sections:

  • Sustainable Sites
  • Water Reduction
  • Energy and Atmosphere
  • Materials and Resources
  • Indoor Environmental Quality
  • Innovation and Design Practices

Sustainable Sites

In the Sustainable Sites section, we expect points for the "heat island reduction, non-roof" credit because our parking is located under the building, greatly reducing the solar reflection index. While we don't own the building, we have influenced its overall design by requesting a green roof as a requirement of occupancy. More than half of our roof is covered with drought-resistant vegetation. We paid for the roof, so we are allowed to submit points toward the heat reduction roof credit.

As a Chicago-based building, meeting the Density and Community Connectivity, and Transportation, Public Access requirements were simple. To earn points, a project has to be close to at least ten community sites such as banks, day care and health care.  Our building is within blocks of nineteen of the twenty community sites LEED specifies and we are steps away from train stations and bus routes.

Water Reduction

For Water Use Reduction credits, we submitted points for our use of low-flow, low-flush lavatories, water closets and sinks, which has reduced water usage by slightly more than 25 percent.

We decided against motion sensor operated devices both as part of our Water Reduction and Energy Performance (part of the Energy and Atmosphere section) strategies as we let our employees control their own environments.

Energy and Atmosphere

We reduced our Lighting Power by nearly 27 percent from the Chicago Energy Code, a stricter standard than what LEED requires. We installed shelf and pendant lighting that use low voltage florescent bulbs. One hundred percent of our employees have natural light and 97 percent have daylight views. We found during the spring and summer, nearly half our employees didn't turn all their lights on.

Building windows have low-energy glazing with a shade system designed to improve comfort, diffuse and divert the direct sun light, and allow for refracted light to penetrate deeper into the space. The shade mats, manually controlled, are made with 60 percent recycled content. None of our offices are along the building's perimeter window line, yet all have windows that provide access to daylight views. We maximize natural and indirect light with lower workstation walls and more glass to separate spaces. We also used ceiling panels that provide high light reflectance. This allows us to improve both the quality and quantity of the natural light by distributing more of it throughout the space.

Nearly 100 percent of the company's appliances and equipment are Energy Star rated, including computers, printers, snack machines and cafeteria equipment. We drastically reduced the amount of equipment we use by 94 percent. We use forty-five pieces now compared to 732 individual pieces in our previous location. These strategies earn us possible Energy Performance, Appliances and Equipment points, and provide significant savings in fax lines and toner cartridges costs.

Materials and Resources

Under the Materials and Resources section, we expect points for Storage and Collections of Recyclables. We have trash cans and recycling bins in our cafeteria and break areas, and paper recycling and trash bins in all printer locations, offices and cubicle areas. We also hired vendors to help ensure proper sorting of recyclable materials. During the construction process, we diverted nearly 70 percent of construction waste away from landfills. We either reused or recycled 73 tons of the total 108 tons of waste generated.

We submitted points for selecting regionally manufactured building materials with minimal environmental impact, including our own products. Products such as SHEETROCK brand gypsum panels are low in embodied energy which is the amount of energy required to extract, manufacture and transport a building product.

Most of the USG product lines we used, such as our ceiling panels, flooring and wallboard came from nearby manufacturing locations, including our East Chicago, Indiana and Walworth, Wisconsin plants, as well as other Midwest locations.

Indoor Environmental Quality


When it came to Indoor Environmental Quality, our material selection decisions focused more on occupant health and comfort than manufacturing. The LEED rating system centers primarily on VOCs used and emitted during manufacturing. We selected products that produce no VOCs or other emissions during manufacturing and product use.

As noted earlier, 97 percent of our employees have daylight views, a strategy also eligible for Environmental Quality points and designed for occupant comfort.

Innovation and Design Practices

Improved acoustical performance is another occupant comfort strategy that was important to us and we're citing our efforts in this area for possible Innovation and Design Practices points.

The floor plan of our new space is designed to foster interaction and collaboration. We reduced the average square footage and footprint per occupant by 36 percent and increased our public spaces by nearly 300 percent. Yet, our new headquarters is actually quieter than our former closed-office set up. At the centerpiece of our acoustical performance efforts are ceiling panels which absorb and block significant amounts of sound. We used extensive acoustical modeling to verify our materials selection. Using these ceiling panels increased our Noise Reduction Coefficient from 70 percent in our former location to 90 percent in the new space.

We also installed a state-of-the-art sound masking system above the ceiling. The system sends out an engineered background sound similar to soft blowing air to cover noise and conversation in open areas, while improving privacy in enclosed spaces. Our third sound control strategy was to surround offices on three sides with a gypsum soffit system that reflects open area noise back and to the sound absorbing ceiling.


Additionally, sound is controlled by placing major locations of traffic concentration, such as filing, storage and central printing areas, at the core of the building so that workspaces and low traffic areas are towards the exterior walls of the building. Even stairwells are centrally located next to the elevators and have a bright, open feel so we have more employees using the stairs. We believe our increased floor plan efficiency will also be eligible for Innovation and Design Practices points.

We expect the LEED certification process to take approximately one year. Upon completion, we plan to apply for the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star Challenge and the Green Building Initiative's Green Globe System.

Our decision to move our headquarters was business driven. We needed a more cost effective space where our company and employees could grow and thrive for years to come. The strategies we pursued to achieve our business objectives were also environmentally friendly and sustainable choices, a project benefit indeed.


Construction Business Owner, December 2008