Walking through San Francisco and Silicon Valley’s tech office spaces, a clear pattern quickly emerges: There is usually a lot of daylight, open space, and room for people to move around with their laptops—in other words, few people are chained to their desks. There’s another, underlying pattern that isn’t as obvious at first glance: In the Bay Area tech industry, sustainability (however you define it) is a selling point for employees. And that means some of the wealthier companies in the U.S. are putting a lot of money into proving that they tread lightly on the Earth.
To learn more, I turned to BCCI Construction, a Bay Area construction company that works with companies like Google, Skype, Square, Salesforce.com, Mozilla, and Adobe. "There are crazy recruitment efforts by all these companies. They’re all in competition with one another to get these engineering folks, and it’s whatever they can offer them, from food 24/7 to libraries, music rooms, and nap rooms. One more thing to offer them is this green environment that they can work in as well," explains Brad Gates, vice president of business development at BCCI.
Alex Spilger, director of sustainability at BCCI, let me see for myself in a tour of the San Francisco building that houses both Google and Mozilla. The latter company has a pretty typical tech space—it’s kitchen-centric, airy, and filled with natural light. It is practically made for remote workers who like to move around, with open desks and a videoconferencing deck (something that in and of itself can cut down on employee gasoline use and CO2 emissions). Mozilla also has one of the better bike-sharing programs for employees in the Bay Area. You can spot the company’s employees downtown on their orange Firefox-themed bikes.
Like so many other tech companies in the area, Mozilla is expanding. The company currently occupies two floors, but is in the process of building out the old Gordon Biersch Brewery restaurant on the first and second floors of the space. The beer taps will remain, of course. According to Spilger, Mozilla’s 17,000-square-foot space on the building’s top floor could have been LEED certified, though it isn’t.
Mozilla was gracious enough to give me a full tour of their space; unfortunately, my tour of Google San Francisco was limited mainly to the cafeteria, which has some breathtakingly beautiful views of the Bay. But no matter. Google’s biggest green innovation can’t be seen. The company’s 81,300-square-foot LEED-Gold-certified space is free of the Living Building Challenge’s red list building materials—building materials deemed harmful to humans and the environment. That’s no easy task since materials don’t come with ingredient lists; as Denis Hayes, the president of the Bullitt Foundation recently explained to Co.Exist, it requires reaching out to companies directly and in some cases taking it on faith that they aren’t lying. Google dives deeper into its green building credentials here.
Square’s current space, located in the San Francisco Chronicle Building, is another prototypical tech site with daylighting and nooks and crannies for employees to sit in when they get tired of their desks. It’s not LEED certified, and I didn’t get a sense that it harbors any above-and-beyond attempts at sustainability. But Square’s office manager Maja Henderson tells me that "every Square [employee] shares the same sentiment. We want to be as eco-friendly as we can." It’s an honorable sentiment, and the world will find out for sure if Square means it when the company moves to a new four-floor space near Twitter headquarters in late 2013.
If LEED certification is a good measure of building sustainability—and some would say it isn’t rigorous enough—Bay Area tech companies are on top of their green game: Skype’s Palo Alto space is LEED-Silver certified, Intuit’s Mountain View offices are LEED certified, Apple’s new campus is expected to get LEED certification (its current offices also have certification), and Yahoo’s Sunnyvale campus is LEED-Gold certified. Scan through this list of Northern California LEED building projects and you’ll find a number of tech companies as well (not to mention the ones that are unnamed because they’re just tenants in larger buildings).
Some of this culture of sustainability is more representative of the Bay Area as a whole than the tech industry. Marianna Leuschel, creative director at the Sausalito-based design and consulting firm L Studio, says that a non-tech company client performed a survey of prospective employees and found that 80% wanted to know what the company was doing in the environmental realm. "In San Francisco, people want to work for socially minded and environmentally minded organizations," she says. That much is obvious. The tech companies just bring an infusion of cash into the mindset that has been prevalent in the area for decades.
"It’s almost like they’re in friendly competition with one another," says Spilger. "There’s a race to be the greenest tech company in California."
Now there’s a bigger challenge in store for the Bay Area tech industry: climate resilience. As New York City found out all too painfully during Hurricane Sandy, it doesn’t matter whether a building is LEED certified in a flood zone. Fast Company's New York headquarters has a list of credentials that would make any green-minded tech company envious—it was the first LEED-Gold building in the city, uses 35% less electricity each year than a generic office building in the city, collects rainwater on the roof to irrigate a nearby park, offers outside views and direct daylight for 90% of occupied space, and the list goes on. But during Sandy, the building still flooded. It didn’t matter.
The sea level rise maps for the Bay Area aren’t comforting. Silicon Valley is especially vulnerable—companies like Cisco, Citrix, Dell, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and LinkedIn all have property on vulnerable land. In an interview with Scientific American, Eric Mruz, manager of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge warns specifically of Facebook’s future woes: "Facebook is going to have to deal with sea-level rise. It’s going to be a huge threat, with sea-level rise projections skyrocketing now. They will definitely have to do something with their levees to protect their property."
Will Travis, senior advisor for the Bay Area Joint Policy Committee, argues in the Scientific American article that the Silicon Valley product life cycle is "so short they don’t think long-term." That’s true. But the short product life cycle makes these companies more nimble than most. They also have the cash on hand to take on big projects like ensuring that red-listed materials aren’t used, and employees who care about their environmental impacts. These factors have combined already to make the Bay Area tech industry more environmentally aware (in terms of buildings, not necessarily products, but that’s another story) than others. If the San Francisco-Silicon Valley nexus is smart, it will take the next step towards resilience.