Google's Anthony Ravitz on goat-hair carpet and red-label sweets

Google's Anthony Ravitz on goat-hair carpet and red-label sweets

Anthony Ravitz, horizontal

More and more companies realize that boosting their buildings' energy efficiency can pay off in big energy savings. But Google has expanded well beyond simple efficiency in its green building strategy: For the past two years, it has been evaluating the materials used in its office buildings, furniture, equipment and other supplies -- and selecting accordingly.

Aiming to eliminate harmful chemicals from its buildings, the search giant requests full transparency from its vendors, requiring them to provide comprehensive product ingredient information at every point in the supply chain.

Its motivation extends beyond the bottom line. As Anthony Ravitz, Google's real estate and workplace services green team lead, put it during a panel at VERGE DC this week, the search giant sees its employees as its biggest assets and believes that better buildings can help it retain top talent, which is always a challenge in Silicon Valley.

Ravitz previously told GreenBiz editor Leslie Guevarra that Google is tapping the "user experience" concept to ensure its employees enjoy coming to work in a healthy office environment.

At VERGE DC, Ravitz answered questions from GreenBiz contributor Padma Nagappan about how Google is using its search capabilities to foster its green initiatives.

Padma Nagappan: You mentioned collecting data about materials that go into office products. When it comes to office furniture, is Google looking into things like replacing particle-board tables that contain formaldehyde, for instance?

Anthony Ravitz: Yes, we are always looking for alternatives solid-surface materials for desktops, countertops, etc. We've experimented with bio-based materials and even work surfaces topped with linoleum. Some of them are working well and others still need some tweaking. We're working closely with the manufacturers and providing feedback in an effort to improve and commercialize the solutions.

PN: In the panel, you talked about the big challenge of gathering data about what's in all of the products you use. What stands in the way of getting more information about materials?

AR: There shouldn't be that many barriers. It shouldn't be such a challenge. Google has advocated the HPD (health product declaration) reporting standards. I applaud manufacturers who are involved in the HPD pilot and working on improving their product. The reality is that we have 80,000 chemicals in the world and we don’t know about their health impact. We’ve been doing things a certain way for a long time.

PN: How will Google leverage its search and organizing capabilities to advance smarter buildings?

AR: We "dogfood" any Google products that might be useful for us in operating [our] buildings with more intelligence. For example, we leverage Google Docs and Sites internally to foster better communication between facilities managers across the globe, to improve how we operate.

PN: What are some initiatives you've taken to make the office space more healthy and fun?

AR: I don't know if this qualifies as fun, but I'm really proud of the work that our culinary team has done around nutrition labeling and information. They take a very data-driven approach, using the Harvard Food Pyramid, to help us make healthy food choices at work every day. All foods are labeled green, yellow or red accordingly. They've also tried to make the healthy options the most convenient. Sweets always seem to be on the bottom shelf!

Our efforts to use healthy materials have led us to dematerialize quite a bit and use simpler products. I think this has pushed architects working on projects for us to be more creative and has resulted in fun solutions. We have spaces decorated with simple lumber or we've cut up old doors into sculptural forms. We've tried carpet made from goat hair and all sorts of other unexpected materials.

PN: How will Google's energy measures support the broader movement for smarter buildings?

AR: We always look at energy measures as part of a more integrated or systems-based solution. I think they always have to be looked at in the context and should make buildings smarter in addition to providing improved efficiency or renewable energy.

Photo from Day One of VERGE DC taken by Goodwin Ogbuehi for GreenBiz Group.