Building of the week: Etsy’s HQ

I haven’t done a building of the week for a while, but an interesting example came up in the book I’m reading at the moment, Paul Hawken’s Regeneration. He mentions the corporate headquarters of Etsy, and I thought I’d share it.

Etsy, as you may know, is an online marketplace for crafts and handmade items. When they needed a new and larger headquarters, they wanted a building that reflected their values of community, craft and sustainability. They opted for a retrofit of a 1920s building that had once housed a printing press, refitting it to meet the Living Building Challenge – one of the most rigorous and comprehensive standards for sustainable architecture.

Living Buildings, as described by the International Living Future Institute, are regenerative. They are supposed to give back more than they take, a considerably higher standard than sustainability. They foster community, create habitats for biodiversity, and aim to generate more clean water and energy than they use.

This is difficult in the middle of New York, with an existing building. Etsy have nevertheless secured the certification. One aspect of this is materials, with a high proportion of reclaimed and recycled building materials used, and strict rules about toxic and low carbon options. A wooden water tower on the roof was taken apart and reused to make a staircase, for example. Cabinets and fittings were made from salvaged scaffolding timbers.

The building already made good use of natural light, and this was enhanced with open plan working and low energy LEDs. Even with the best will in the world, it would be borderline impossible to meet the building’s energy needs entirely on-site. The solar panels on the roof only provide a small fraction of the energy, and Etsy have a solar array on another site as an offset.

Rainwater is captured by the building, which helps to slow stormwater run-off and protect the surrounding streets from flooding. Rainwater is then used to irrigate the green roofs and walls, of which there are many. As part of the biophilic interior design, the aim was that any employee would have a view of greenery from any workstation in the building. Along with natural materials and textures, and lighting that mimics natural settings, this is proven to create positive and healthy working environments – including high air quality. Three different terraced areas are planted with native grasses and mosses and other vegetation that make them a home for pollinators and birds.

When calculating the carbon footprint of an organisation, user travel often looms large, and Etsy have considered their employees’ commutes. The site was chosen for its proximity to public transport and cycle lanes, and generous bike storage and showers are available.

And of course, being Etsy, the building is also full of handmade elements and bespoke furniture from makers on their platform.

There would be different opportunities when building from scratch, or with more access to land – particularly on energy and biodiversity. Equally, there are advantages to re-fitting an older building, which saves the embodied carbon and preserves the built heritage of the area. With the limits of its context, Etsy’s HQ isn’t a fully self-sufficient building. But what I like about it is the holistic approach. This is a building that has to function as an office and corporate headquarters. But it also considers community and place, wellbeing and mental health, beauty and aesthetics, as well as the environment. I wish there were more examples of buildings that take that broader view.

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