Google’s award-winning new head office sets new benchmarks with Green Star SA, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and Healthy Materials targets, and celebrates local design and locally sourced materials.

On the third floor of a commercial office park in Bryanston it commands impressive views over Johannesburg. Site handover, initially planned for December 2014, took place in March 2015 and actual construction time took just four months.

Regional cultural identity

Elené Olwagen, interior architect at Boogertman and Partners Interiors, recalls the vision behind the design was to focus on regional cultural identity and epitomise Johannesburg’s character through the physical environment.

The business is a global enterprise, so almost all meetings are via video conferencing (VC). This is accommodated in six smaller booths, depicting four of Jozi’s most iconic buildings plus five bigger meeting rooms.

The 1400m2 space has been fitted out to allow for rapid growth in the number of Google employees. Support facilities include a gym, canteen, a mothers’ room, a massage room and two hydration stations that serve beverages, fresh fruit and snacks. Three breakaway spaces open up three of the floorplate’s corners.

Recycling was also a major part of the design vision for interior finishes. Used wheelbarrows have been recycled as chairs and Lucky Star tins and old books have been repurposed as light fittings; reconstituted timber is used; and crates have been repurposed as tables in the canteen.

To protect privacy and create comfortable meeting environments, the acoustic requirements in the VC booths and meeting rooms were considerable. Adding an extra layer of insulation above the exposed roof trusses, and cladding all the smaller enclosed spaces floor-to-soffit with acoustic panels achieved this.

Targeting LEED and Green Star SA

Solid Green Consulting and Ecocentric Green Building Consultants joined forces to guarantee success in meeting the ambitious green targets stipulated by the client, and to ensure the tight deadlines would be met.

These consultants held workshops with the professional team in order to clarify what was expected from each discipline to meet the various performance targets. The criteria from Green Star SA and LEED were also analysed on a comparative basis to find overlaps and identify where certain credits were specific to one system but not the other.

Jesse Hamman, sustainable building consultant at Solid Green, comments: “This is one of the first projects to apply for both Green Star SA and LEED certification, so it was very challenging to coordinate all the requirements. The South African market is not geared towards these processes; and it was not easy to keep track of the score cards and make sure we were meeting all the various criteria.”

The project scored well on energy because the consultants had to show that the size and type of HVAC system was optimised in terms of the building design. “All lighting uses LEDs with occupancy and daylight control, and the HVAC invertor units also have occupancy control,” says Solid Green sustainable building consultant Chilufya Lombe.

Healthy materials

In line with Google’s drive to create a healthy and productive work environment to energise and inspire its employees, all materials on the project were required to conform to the company’s Healthy Materials Programme.

Enabled through Portico, an online portal that assigns scores based on material health and transparency, this allows design professionals to make informed choices about which products to specify. This stringent process was useful as materials that had been approved by Portico automatically qualified for LEED and Green Star SA.

Jutta Berns-Mumbi, founder and principal at Ecocentric, explains. “The Healthy Materials Programme goes way beyond LEED and Green Star to accurate and transparent product declaration, so every material used on this project had to be approved by Portico. The rationale is that if you understand potentially hazard ingredients, you will know how to manage the effects.”

Hlologelo Manthose, sustainability consultant at Ecocentric, adds: “When a product was specified by the architects, we contacted the manufacturers or suppliers through Portico to submit an ingredient hazard assessment and disclosure through Portico. This would then be recorded on the Google database and, if it met the specified requirements, it could be used on the project.”

However, this process was not without its challenges. “We found that, quite often, products that met the programme’s requirements are not yet available in this country,” Berns-Mumbi says. “So, in order to avoid importing products and incurring the related carbon footprint, there were instances where a material would be used even if it did not meet all requirements, provided that the manufacturer had disclosed all the product’s ingredients.

“We also found that products had not necessarily been through the rigorous testing processes that would give the information we needed. Local manufacturers often do not have testing process in place, and we encountered resistance because we asked questions that nobody had asked before.”

In addition, because interior materials were often specified with very short lead times, the green consultants were left with very little time to research these materials and find alternatives. Marloes Reinink, founder and principal at Solid Green, says: “Ideally, for a Green Interiors certification, products need to be specified well upfront with clear guidance from the green consultants. The materials credit scores a significant 30 out of the 100 available points and the credit itself is very complicated, taking into account every ingredient of the product based on weight. So it’s difficult to ascertain upfront how well you will score in this area.”

Virtual sustainability

Luke Mckend, country director at Google South Africa, says the company is involved in a number of projects across Africa. “These initiatives are focused on developing a healthy Internet ecosystem within which everyone on the continent can thrive,” he explains. “These range from infrastructure projects such as Project Link (metro fibre networks that provide faster, more reliable Internet connectivity to under-served areas), to supporting projects such as Digify, which is aimed at providing young people with workplace-ready digital skills as well as supporting developers with access to training and resources. Our aim is to ensure that as many people across Africa have access to the Internet as possible in a way that is meaningful to them.”

Google is also investing in renewable energy infrastructure in South Africa through its million (R103 million) investment in the Jasper Power Project, a 96MW solar photovoltaic plant in the Northern Cape. The project is being developed through the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) and, once completed, Jasper will be capable of generating enough electricity to power 30 000 South African homes.

“Suffice to say that the SA team love our new office. It’s an excellent space to work in, collaborate with and inspire clients, and introduce many others to what’s possible in the digital world,” Mckend concludes – well-deserved praise for a beautiful, productive and healthy workspace.


By Karen Eicker

See earthworks Issue 31, April-May 2016 for the full feature.