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A visit to a treehouse in the Carpet Capital

Inside Mohawk Industries' new Georgia design center.

When I first agreed to fly to Georgia to witness the opening of Mohawk Industries’ new design center in Dalton, I hadn’t appreciated that the event would take place on Election Day. And when I flew that morning from California, I never imagined that Donald Trump would be our new president — at least, not until the next morning when I woke up in Atlanta.

Yes, plenty shocking for me and millions of others.  Obviously, that story is well covered elsewhere.

But this trip was more about red lists than red states. More on that in a minute.

Dalton is the heart of carpet country: Northern Georgia, where the bulk of flooring products have been made since the 1890s. It is one of the last bastions of concentrated manufacturing in the United States, one of the few places where "Made in the USA" isn’t just about assembling things manufactured in other countries.

Dalton, the "Carpet Capital of the World," sits in the center of Whitfield County, home to more than 150 carpet factories employing more than 30,000 people — roughly equal to the population of Dalton itself — including companies such as Mohawk and Shaw. More than 90 percent of the carpet produced in the world today is made within a 65-mile radius of the city.

There, on a hilltop in Dalton, sits a mid-century modern glass building with a commanding 360-degree view of landscape and natural vistas of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northwest Georgia. Its perch makes it seem like a treehouse of sorts. Originally the headquarters for World Carpet, a company since acquired by Mohawk, the building has been used most recently as a showroom for Mohawk Flooring residential products.

Today, the 33,000-square-foot building is known as Light Lab and is a symbol of Mohawk's future more than its past.

A southern beacon of sustainability

The conceptual design of the interior renovation for Light Lab was provided by students from the Savannah College of Art and Design, and the building is now home to Mohawk’s commercial and hospitality product design teams. In May, the building received Petal Certification from the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge (LBC) program. Light Lab was the first LBC Petal Certified project in Georgia and the first restoration project in the Southeastern U.S.

The LBC is a certification program, advocacy tool and philosophy that aims to be the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment. The challenge is comprised of seven performance categories, called Petals: place; water; energy; health & happiness; materials; equity; and beauty. Petals are bestowed projects that satisfy the requirements in at least three categories, with at least one being water, energy or materials. Light Lab satisfied the requirements for the site, health, materials, equity and beauty petals.

Jason McLennan, founder and chair of the board of the International Living Future Institute, was on hand with me for the ribbon-cutting of Light Lab, along with Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of ILFI.

"Mohawk is walking their talk," McLennan told me. "They are one of strongest partners of ILFI for red list-free products and transparency."

"Mohawk’s Petal Certification further demonstrates the company’s progressive attitude and unwavering commitment to both sustainability and ILFI’s transformational programs, including the Living Building Challenge, Declare and the Living Product Challenge," added Sturgeon.

Mohawk’s efforts in sustainability are particularly striking because flooring and carpet companies compete intensely on sustainability. And it’s all taking place in and around Dalton. Interface is well-known for its pioneering work under founder Ray Anderson, while Shaw Industries, part of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, has invested heavily in Cradle-to-Cradle certification and other sustainability initiatives.

Flooring customers are often LEED-credentialed architects — often global companies such as Gensler and HOK — who are savvy about the environmental implications of building products such as flooring. They are demanding customers, and the stakes are high for companies such as Mohawk in winning RFPs for both new and existing buildings.  

This is all about connecting nature and people, and impacting future generations.

George Bandy, Mohawk’s new VP Sustainability, knows this world well, having spent 16 years at Interface and served as chair of the U.S. Green Building Council. As he put it: "This is all about connecting nature and people, and impacting future generations."

Of course, it's also about connecting with customers, one key role Light Lab plays. As such, it is part of a trend in recent years for companies across a range of sectors to create showcase facilities variously known as "innovation hubs," "customer experience centers," "learning labs" and other monikers. Many of these are in the building sector — at the headquarters of Steelcase and Saint-Gobain North America, among places I've visited recently — including at other flooring companies.

Petals to the medal

In receiving ILFI certification for Light Lab, Mohawk chose to focus on several areas, including:

  • Materials & beauty. Building materials and products are chosen based on the impact on human health and environment. For example, the space that the Design Center occupies, surrounded by mountains and trees, establishes a connection to nature aimed to inspire the occupants and educate the community.
  • Salvaged and repurposing materials. Considering that FSC-certified wood is not easy to come by in Georgia, and knowing that repurposing materials is a plus, Mohawk decided to bring materials from former facilities to use in Light Lab when the design called for wood. Specifically, all of the overhead details of wood came from tufting creels from a previous Mohawk facility. Designers also reused some light fixtures from other Mohawk facilities.
  • Red list-free and LBC-compliant materials: The materials red list is a compilation of harmful-to-humans chemicals and materials compiled by ILFI’s Living Building Challenge. All materials that have been installed, from ceiling to floor, including minor components such as glues, have been vetted and comply with the LBC Red List.
  • Appropriately sourced materials. All of the materials were sourced from within 500 miles of the building, although that requirement created some design challenges. Mohawk was able to get the marble countertop from a local quarry in Georgia and worked with a local artist in nearby Rome to create lighting artwork made out of Mohawk’s red list-free polymer.
  • Access to daylight and views. With ceiling-to-floor windows, the space has ample daylight and outdoor views. The team desired an open-floor plan to facilitate collaboration and to allow daylight and views to flow democratically to employees. An existing skylight in the center of the building allows natural light into an area where people will converge to collaborate. One staffer I met at the event noticed a nest of hawks in the trees right outside of the building.
  • Biophilic design. Modern life means spending a great amount of time indoors, interacting with the virtual world through computers and under artificial lighting. For years the standard in corporate America has been closed cubicles with almost no access to natural light or views, and this kind of setting takes us miles away from nature. Biophilic Design aims to bridge this gap between an unnatural lifestyle and the natural world. For the Design Center, Mohawk created an open office environment that would allow ample amounts of natural light and views to the beautiful greenery and mountains.
  • Flooring. This, of course, is Mohawk’s business. It selected flooring to reflect various natural patterns and processes. Inspired by the multi-layered beauty of our cultural landscape, the flooring shows  that patterns and textures can be combined in almost limitless ways — just like in nature.

Setting the bar

Putting it all together: Why work so hard on Light Lab in off-the-beaten-path Georgia?

As with a lot of certifications, Mohawk chose to set the bar high. Taking a 1960s building far enough to meet the LBC can be challenging. Sourcing all materials from within a 500-mile radius is particularly tough in this day and age of global supply chains. And to be the first building of its kind in the Southeast, where green building is not as pervasive as most parts of the country, allowed it to really stand out.

But in doing so Mohawk made a statement about the role it aims to play within the flooring industry and building sector — in Dalton and beyond.

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