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‘Green Teams’ Reshape URS’ Work Environment, Practices

When global engineering firm URS Corp. relocated its San Diego office two years ago, its staff saw an opportunity.

Here was a chance to make something green.

The firm took the environment into account as it made tenant improvements to a high-rise building leased from The Irvine Co.

URS also nudged its staff, encouraging behaviors that would tread a little less harshly on planet Earth.

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“We’re all trainable,” said Patricia Trauth, a landscape architect with URS, noting how the older generation at the San Diego office clings to energy intensive habits.

Trauth led a group of about a dozen employees who spent spare hours working to make the office greener. In the end, those efforts earned the San Diego office LEED Silver certification in the fall of 2012.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

It all started when URS decided to move from Mission Valley to the top floors of a glass high-rise near the University Towne Center mall.

Opportunity for Change

“We were given a huge opportunity by management to be innovative in our design of the space and to make it environmentally friendly,” Trauth said.

The result, she said, benefits everyone.

One of the first things Trauth points out during a tour of the URS offices is the low cubicle walls. Short walls let natural light from the windows permeate deeper toward the core of the building.

When URS built out its new space, it provided both overhead lighting and individual task lights at employees’ desks.

You can tell the old people from the young in the office, said architect Jeff Zubik, with a grin. The old guard has the overhead lights blazing. The young folks have overhead lighting at a minimum, using their individual task lights.

URS, along with Irvine Co. representatives and Bycor General Contractors, made green choices in how to improve the newly leased space. When possible, they reused doors and partitions. They specified carpet containing a high amount of recycled content, which was produced within 500 miles of the site (so there weren’t the greenhouse gas emissions of a long-distance trip). They also specified furniture with recycled content.

The Green Building Council program awards points for green approaches to a variety of issues. Since URS is an engineering firm, Trauth was able pull subject matter experts from the office staff to solve problems. Yat Lee studied how to make the best of an aging heating and cooling system. Kasia Trojanowska researched ways to cut water use.

By now six URS offices have received LEED certification.

URS, based in San Francisco, has organized “Green Teams” in its offices. Trauth leads Green Teams in URS offices in the West, Midwest, Gulf Coast, Alaska and Hawaii — plus three Canadian cities.

Creating an Awareness

Cecilia LaVariega leads the Green Team for the San Diego office. Part of LaVariega’s job is outreach, which includes publishing statistics on resources used (such as paper products) and letting people know how they can take green habits home.

There are other green touches at the office: Kitchenettes on each floor include separate bins for recycling and rubbish. Appliances are Energy Star rated. And here’s a tip for people secretly raiding the freezers at URS: Avoid the composted garbage. It’s in the freezer so that it doesn’t stink.

The kitchenette also contains plenty of information on public transit options. The building has bicycle lockers. The LEED process even awards points based on where the building is within its community; being near transit and within walking distance of restaurants and shopping are big pluses.

URS has more than 57,000 employees and operates in more than 50 countries. The company reported slightly less than $11 billion in revenue in 2012, up from $9.55 billion in 2011.

As for those low cubicle walls?

“There was a perception this would be a louder space,” Zubik said. In fact, one department asked to keep its high cubicle walls.

But employees learned cubicle etiquette and they keep the noise down, a group of managers said.

The journey to a greener building has been like peeling an onion, Zubik concluded. Peel away a layer and you only find a new layer appears.


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