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  May/June 2008
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Sierra Magazine
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Comfort Zone: Smart Designs for Pleasure and Planet
Cube With a View
By Reed McManus
May/June 2008


A three-story-tall "sky garden" in San Francisco's new federal building provides a raptor's perch high above the city.

WORKER BEES DRONING TOWARD their cubicles in a typical highrise might notice a window that opens and leap to a decision: "Farewell, drab monotony!" The windows in San Francisco's new 18-story federal building, on the other hand, open not to let frustrated bureaucrats out but to let fresh air in.

The mid-city edifice opened last year with a design that's supposed to slash energy use by half compared with traditional buildings. Among the benefits are loftlike office spaces flooded with natural light and breezes.


Above: The lobby soars 90 feet. Below: The federal building offers cubicle dwellers plum positions next to opening windows.

Cool air on the narrow building's north side flows naturally to its warmer south side, aided by undulating ceilings. Perforated steel panels on the south side shade the structure from the sun and create a thermal blanket. Trapped air warms and rises, pulling cool air across each floor. Sensors keep the whole thing humming: Windows open automatically when needed, and electric lights adjust to the available daylight.

Making a subtle statement about alternative energy, most elevators only stop every third floor, encouraging employees to get some exercise by walking up- or downstairs to reach their cubes.

What's it like working in a building that taps into natural cycles? "My office gets to over 75 degrees from the sun," one critic said. "It's cold," said another. "I leave my jacket on till mid-morning." And the building's postapocalyptic industrial look is off-putting to some. But anyone who remembers the dilapidated preapocalyptic bus station formerly on the site might be more forgiving.

WHAT I LIKE
"The 'skip-stop' elevators encourage people to move," says Maria Ciprazo, project executive for the General Services Administration.

LESSON LEARNED
"We anticipated everything but the glare," says Ciprazo. "We've had people shield their monitors with umbrellas and ponchos." (Glare-reducing shades will be installed by June.)

ON THE WEB What's your idea of a green living or work space? Tell us at sierraclub.org/sierra/shelter.


Photos by J. Michael Tucker; used with permission.

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