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New Offices, New Ways of Working, and Abundant Energy Savings

July 6, 2010 - 2:01pm


A few weeks ago, our entire communications office was lucky enough to be among the first to move into the new Research Support Facility (RSF) here at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). Moving into a new building may not sound all that exciting, but this was a momentous day for NREL: the RSF is ultra-efficient and is a showcase for energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.

As the lab's director, Dan Arvizu, said in his welcome message to our office, "The Laboratory began this journey more than thirty years ago, and today—after years of research, planning, and sixteen months of construction—it has finally come together. You now occupy a front row seat on the edge of sustainability."

That's a pretty cool seat to have!

This new building and all its innovations are certainly incredible, but they do affect how we live, work, and collaborate with one another on a daily basis. Many of the changes are immediately positive, and others take more adjustment.

The biggest change for an office full of writers and editors (if you guess we have a lot of introverts here, you would be right!) is an open office plan. In the interest of natural lighting, there aren't any fully enclosed offices or cubicles.

This open plan is quite a change for those of us used to extreme quiet and privacy; a few of our folks with journalism backgrounds liken it to a newsroom setting. This does take getting used to; I've had to learn not to look up every time someone walks by. Much as I like to be friendly, I don't have to say hello each time I see someone!

We've also had to come to some informal agreements on etiquette. No yelling over the short walls, for instance. We try to respect people's space and concentration, just as we would in a building with more private spaces. Rather than just barging in and starting an impromptu meeting, we try to give a little knock before having a quick, quiet chat in the workspace—or we step into one of the conference rooms.

To keep our energy use down, we all share centrally located, efficient printer/copier/scanner/fax machines instead of having many small printers scattered around the office. Our kitchen appliances are also energy-efficient.

The building is also smart; the overhead lights only turn on when the natural light gets too low. Instead, we all have small LED task lights at our desks. Best of all, we'll be able to open the windows when the heating and cooling systems aren't running. In fact, a program on our computers will tell us when to open the windows. If you work in an office building, you know what a luxury fresh air can be!

None of these are tough changes, and it is nice to see more people throughout the day and not feel caught up in a cubicle maze. And of course, all of the windows, natural light, and beautiful views of the mountains really make the building a pleasant place to be.

Some of my favorite parts of the building are the lunchroom and courtyard areas—not just because we never previously had a space for lunch, but because they are so light, open, and comfortable. We have copious outdoor space with tables and benches that are also fantastic places to meet and discuss projects, problems, and ideas. Even the landscaping in the courtyards is innovative and efficient. The whole place inspires more creativity than our dark cubicles and offices ever did.

Also interesting to me are the new accommodations for composting. John wrote about composting a few months ago, but this is my first experience with it. I love that almost none of what I throw away each day goes in the trash.

I could go on, and the things I've mentioned are just a few of the most obvious features of the building; there are many, many innovations that have gone into the design. If you like to geek out on all of the cool energy-efficient and renewable technologies that have gone into making this building possible, check out all of the articles on NREL's Web site.

My point in writing this, though, is not to make you jealous of our cool building. It's to spark a few ideas for your own workplace. You may not work in the most efficient building, but could you start a composting program at work? Or a recycling program, if you don't have one yet?

How about the windows; do they open, or can you rearrange things so more natural light reaches everyone? (Of if you get a lot of heat from the windows, maybe you need to think about window coverings.) Do you need all of those overhead lights, or could LED task lighting do the job?

What about those inefficient appliances in your office's kitchen? Could they be replaced with more efficient models? Or your printers and other computer equipment; does everyone really need their own printer, or would one centrally located, highly efficient printer do the job?

There are likely many things you could do to improve the efficiency of your workplace; Energy Savers has a few ideas for how to save energy at work, and the RSF hopefully gives you a few more.

Every workplace is unique; what could you do to make yours more efficient?

E-mail your responses to the Energy Saver team at