Keller Gets His Green Building


    GRAND RAPIDS — While the Big Three of the commercial furniture industry have led West Michigan‘s charge into sustainable business, Cascade Engineering has matched its billion-dollar brethren stride-for-stride.

    Chairman and CEO Fred Keller founded the company in 1973 with the belief that a business could be profitable and socially and environmentally responsible. Since then, Keller and his company have become synonymous with that triple-bottom line.

    When Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell made sustainability the theme of his State of the City address, it was Keller who gave the introductory remarks. Keller will be a keynote speaker at this week’s Michigan Sustainable Business Conference at Grand RapidsCommunity College. He teaches a sustainable business class at AquinasCollege and New York‘s CornellUniversity

    As a company, Cascade issues an annual Triple Bottom Line Report. Last year, it reported $157 million in sales. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality named it a Clean Corporate Citizen.

    Meanwhile, the company sponsors an employee home-ownership program, a welfare-to-work program, and twice has been recognized by Goodwill of Greater Grand Rapids for its placement efforts.

    So when it came time to move its corporate offices to what is now called the Cascade Engineering Learning Center, at 3400 Innovation Court, making the facility green was a given.

    “This building makes a statement,” said Marie Zeman, facilities manager. “We couldn’t preach the sustainable story if we didn’t actually try to live it. We needed a symbol to show people that it matters to us and it is a part of our culture.”

    “We wanted people to get the sustainability message from the moment you drive up,” added John Kowalski, manager of marketing communications. “We really take these values to heart and the building represents that one step further.”

    Housing all of the company’s central services — finance, human resources, marketing, leadership, training and some research and design — the LearningCenter begins to make a statement from the moment it comes into sight.

    The driveway and parking lot is a pervious (brick) paving system that allows water to penetrate. There is preferred parking and a recharging station for hybrid cars. There are bike racks, and outdoor lighting is limited. The landscaping is designed to optimize water usage and storm runoff; trees provide shade and reduce heat islands.

    The canopy atop the entranceway is covered with a vegetative roof. In lieu of a lawn, a large area of dirt will soon grow into a field of indigenous wildflowers — a prairie that, once cultivated, won’t require mowing or irrigation.

    “We wanted it to look like a new building,” Zeman said of the 16-year-old, two-story structure. “We actually had a totally different plan in mind and at the last minute we decided it looked too much like a bank building. We wanted a high-tech, environmental feel to it.”

    Within shouting distance of the rest of Cascade’s eight-building campus, the corporate offices relocated to the renovated building a few short months ago from a facility directly to the south. Smiths Aerospace now occupies Cascade’s old headquarters.

    Like all of Cascade’s practices, the relocation was going to answer to the triple-bottom line.

    It so happened that the standard for ecologically responsible real estate was launching a program tailor-made for the LearningCenter, as the United States Green Building Council debuted the pilot of its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for Existing Buildings.

    “This is a totally recycled building,” Zeman said. “You’d never know it when you walk through the front door. We renovated the building to not look anything like what it used to before. We tried to preserve what was there that was good but yet give it a whole different life.”

    In what was formerly the distribution center and corporate offices of a now-defunct company, the Cascade crew first replaced the HVAC system with a new one that promotes comfort. Here is both ecological and social capital — the system is more efficient and there are thermostats in all of the private offices and in several of the open office units, giving employees the ability to adjust the temperature to their comfort level.

    All the lamps and light fixtures were replaced with high-efficiency products; the carpet was replaced with reusable squares.

    “We reused several materials that were in the original building,” Zeman said. “People told me I couldn’t reuse the ceilings because they wouldn’t look good. They look great.”

    By weight, 90 percent of what came out of the building was recycled, including the roof, asphalt, concrete and carpet.

    Even Keller’s office furniture was recycled, second-hand from the office of a Big Three furniture company’s chairman.

    “It was something else we didn’t add to a landfill,” Zeman said.

    The entirety of the lobby wallpaper was produced from a single Japanese sycamore tree. Throughout the life of the building, 75 percent of the building’s waste will be recycled. At its prior facility, the company was already at 70 percent.

    Other LEED-specific features include waterless urinals, low environmental impact housekeeping practices and a high-reflectance, white roof.

    “A lot of the things we did were quite excessive to do,” Zeman said. “We planted the prairie field — and most people think we’ve just killed our grass and are going to put in a parking lot. That was expensive to do. The grass was perfectly fine; we just would have had to mow it and there would have been no investment at all, initially.”

    But that investment today will likely reap dividends in the long run, she said. After a five-year payback period, the company will see pure savings each concurrent year from not mowing, fertilizing or irrigating the majority of its “lawn.”

    “And it’ll be beautiful,” she added.

    On the subject of expense, the LEED certification process carries maintenance and administration costs of its own as exhaustive records must be kept on an ongoing basis.

    “I don’t care that much about the rating,” Zeman admitted. “It’s still a green building. I’d rather just do that and not worry about documenting everything. It isn’t as important to be certified as it is to do what’s right.

    “It’s the right thing to do regardless.”

    The facility holds its fair share of social capital, as well.

    There is no workspace in the building where natural light is not available. The majority of offices have a view through windows on three walls. There is an onsite fitness club open to employees of any Cascade location, with outside access so that employees don’t have to walk through the office in their gym clothes.

    Serving employees and a community need, the diner-like cafeteria is catered by Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids, which is using the facility as a training site for its new food service program.

    All of the cafeteria’s fixtures and equipment were obtained from the bankruptcy sale of a nearby restaurant — more material kept out of the dump, Kowalski said, and the only possible way for the company to provide such a lunchroom cost-effectively.

    “When you bring the financial, social and ecological capital together in a balanced business model, it just makes good business sense,” he said. “You’re not only impacting the financial welfare of the company, you’re also helping the environment and you’re helping the people in the community that either support you, work for you, or work next to you.”    

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