How Google gets the most from green buildings

How Google gets the most from green buildings

Editor's Note: In the runup to the VERGE DC conference, Anthony Ravitz, leader of Google's Real Estate and Workplace Services Green Team, talks about what's at the heart of his company's strategy for buildings and campuses.

Much has been written about Google and its millions upon millions in investment in renewable energy. But until recently, the public seldom got a peek into the inner workings of the Silicon Valley juggernaut and its own energy practices.

That changed last fall when the company lifted the veil on its energy consumption, efforts to make that more efficient and other work to reduce the environmental impacts of operations.

In addition to releasing a white paper on data center energy efficiency, the company launched its Google Green site, which provides a broad view of the firm's overall footprint. Included is a look at what the company is doing at its campuses.

In advance of the VERGE DC conference this week, Anthony Ravitz, who leads Google's Real Estate and Workplace Services Green Team, talked to me about the firm's strategy for workplace design and greener buildings. Here's our conversation:

Leslie Guevarra: From Google's perspective what's the best hope for advancing better and smarter buildings?

Anthony Ravitz: Something that we think a lot about is what does it mean to be a better or smarter building? And from whose perspective? What matters to us?

We're designing buildings for Google and for Google's employees. What matters most to our employees and how can we create the highest performing environment to really create the best place to work in the world?

Something that's really important to us is creating the healthiest environments we can, first and foremost. Thinking about those people and their well-being, what are the things that make a building the greatest place to come and spend your day every day? [How can a building] function seamlessly ... for us to come and live and work in extraordinary environments that function without us having to think about it?

I think in the ideal world, better and smarter buildings would do all of those things ...

How 'User Experience' Applies to the Workplace

LG: Is this a philosophy that Google held from its inception or something that evolved?

AR: Right, well I think they're principles that really are pervasive throughout the culture of our company and go back to the very beginning. Both of our founders are extremely focused on creating the healthiest work environment possible and what the company can do to promote well-being amongst our employees and make that easy. At the same time, something that we say within our core business is, 'Think about the user first and all else will follow.'

For our engineers that user is someone using our products every day. For me, in our Real Estate and Workplace Services group, that user is the Google employee, and always thinking about them first in our work is certainly a core value for me and everyone else within our group.

If you think about going to Google.com as a user, you type something in that you're looking for and Google should be able to quickly understand exactly what information you're trying to access and give you access to that information.

There's a lot of complexity clearly that's behind that, but it's a very simple page that's white that says Google on it and there's one box and a couple buttons. I think our engineers constantly challenge us who are working more in the building industry than the software industry, [asking] 'Why can't our buildings work more like this? Why is it so complicated?'

LG: So it's that idea of, if you will, elegant simplicity. Something that takes you where you want to go, but it's pretty seamless. The user doesn't have to think about it much because it's just there. Is that what you're saying?

AR: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

LG: Will you recap some of the ideas that Google has brought to buildings and campuses?

AR: Most of our buildings are existing buildings and not buildings that we built from the ground up. So flexibility has to be a key part of our strategy in making existing buildings work. You know, we have a lot of not very wonderful [existing] buildings that we've done some pretty creative things with here in Silicon Valley. So they're not all the highest performing buildings in the traditional sense, but we've managed to do great things to support our business within many of these environments.

Innovation as the Key Driver to Workplace Design

Innovation is really a key driver for us in moving Google forward as a company -- how can we create a work environment that catalyzes and creates a hotbed for that type of innovation? [So] when a Google engineer wakes up every morning, they're excited to come to work. Creating that place where magic happen, that's what our buildings need to do, be that place every day.

I think that's what really drives a lot of decision-making in terms of creating open and collaborative work places, in terms of how food plays a role in our culture, and in a lot of the perks that we provide to our employees in our workplaces that make it a great place to work -- a place that helps people keep us innovative, [where they can] come and be creative every day and be energized by being here.

What Stands in the Way

LG: That desire to create the best place for creativity, the best place for work, sounds like a no-brainer. But it doesn't seem to be the guiding principle for a lot of design in office buildings. Is that the biggest barrier to progress, to having more buildings that are smarter, better and greener?

AR: I think to some degree they're somewhat separate issues. There's a lot we can do with buildings that aren't necessarily the smartest buildings to create great workplaces. But I think there's a lot more we can do if we had smarter and better performing buildings. I think the building industry is one that traditionally changes very slowly and where we have a lot of challenges. Even where we have new and wonderful technologies it might be hard to integrate them or to implement them.

Another example is in our attempts to create a healthy workplace. We look a lot at building materials and we've set a goal to eliminate EPA chemicals of concern and Living Building Challenge red list materials from all the building materials that we buy and build with. It turns out that within the building industry there isn't free flowing and transparent information about what's in building materials. So it makes it very challenging for us not just to achieve that, but to even know, to readily and easily access the information we need to answer the questions we have. So that's one example of the barriers we have.

You were asking questions about guiding principles for designing offices.  I think we need to challenge ourselves to aim higher, ask tougher questions and to expect more from the market. It's challenging for leaders. [For example,] if we're trying to find out what's in a chair, it's tough for one manufacturer to really take the lead and come out and tell the world everything that's in their chair and be really transparent about it, if they're the only person doing that. It's tough to be a leader in that type of market environment.

Google and the DoD at VERGE

LG: When you go up on stage this week in your panel with Rob Watson and Dorothy Robyn from DoD, you'll be up there with someone who represents one of the largest, most traditional public organizations in the country and you're one of the larger, more innovative, relatively newer organizations in the country. What do you think you two can learn from each other?

AR: I think we can learn a whole lot. We've had some opportunity to do some work we've done partnering with the USGBC [U.S. Green Building Council], alongside the GSA [General Services Administration], U.S. Air Force and others. And it has been incredible and inspirational to see the work that they've accomplished at a scale and level of complexity that is much greater than Google's offices. 

We have many tough challenges and they have many other tough challenges, and I think it's exciting to see how much innovation is actually happening in that space. Given that size and a lot of the ambition that has been driven from within the government, there's a lot of exciting work happening.

LG: Are there other things that you hope that people will take away from your discussion at VERGE?

AR: I hope that we can ask each other some exciting and challenging questions about where we can go as an industry. The whole idea of having better and smarter buildings isn't something that's talked about enough.