A GreenHouse that Brings the Outside In

The building we call the GreenHouse opened in 1995. The complete site it occupies puts the people who work there in touch with the natural world.

Big skylights and tall windows bring natural light in and offer views to the outside. And the GreenHouse connects office and plant workers to the cyclical changes of day to night, season to season.

Herman Miller July Article
Plantings line the walkway that serves to connect office and plant workers.

Changes in time and climate play out on a landscape that has been sculpted into a series of layers and sedimentation basins that slope toward a river at the front of the site. The layering and plantings act as a cleansing system that slows and filters storm water runoff from the parking lots and the building roof — all through six acres of constructed wetlands.

Herman Miller July Article
Native plantings cover the entire site, framing the GreenHouse in the background.

Native plantings cover the entire site, eliminating the need for fertilization, irrigation, herbicides, and lawn-mowing equipment. Wetland plants, such as cattails and bulrushes, absorb more water than a traditional bluegrass lawn and help break down pollutants. Hedgerows of shrubbery and stands of ash and oak buffer the site from wind and snow, and they attract an array of wildlife.

Herman Miller July Article
A retaining pond behind the GreenHouse, looking toward another facility on the site.

Trees, grasses, and wildflowers dominate the view of the building from afar. Closer in, the contour of the land and the landscape naturally lead the visitor to the building’s entrance. In fact, one of the building’s inviting features appealed to a group of uninvited guests not long after the building opened. A colony of paper wasps moved in right above the entry. Instead of using pesticides to get rid of them, a member of our facilities group and a certified beekeeper brought in honeybees. They persuaded the wasps to move on and soon started producing honey. We’ve been bottling the honey and giving it to visitors ever since.

Herman Miller July Article
Tending bees on the GreenHouse site; the honey they produce is bottled and given away.

Solving a problem in this sweet way is emblematic of the GreenHouse project. It created an environmental asset at a reasonable cost set a new standard for the company. In 2000, the U.S. Green Building Council recognized the contribution the facility made to sustainable design everywhere by awarding it the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Pioneer Award.

Herman Miller July Article
Skylights bring natural light deep into the GreenHouse manufacturing area.

Today, most of Herman Miller’s seating products for North America are made in the GreenHouse, but that was never a foregone conclusion. Back in the early 1990s, we needed more production facilities for a growing division. The head of the division at the time was committed to speed and saw nothing wrong with throwing up a building to give the division more room to produce. As much as he prided himself on being aggressive, however, he also pushed himself to be open, so that when a better idea came along he could change course with enthusiasm.

Herman Miller July Article
The shape of the GreenHouse echoes the natural contour of the building site.

A better idea took shape in the hearts and minds of a number of people at Herman Miller, but one of the most important was Max De Pree. Son of the company founder, Max became the de facto guardian of the company’s architecture in the 1970s. Among the beliefs and guidelines he articulated was one that was very pertinent to the building proposal that would become the GreenHouse: “A building is either an environmental asset or an environmental problem.”

To build an asset rather than a problem, we sought fresh thinking. Many of our employees were already there, pushing management to formalize a grassroots effort to go beyond reusing, reducing, and recycling and embed a structure for sustainability at all levels of the company. Some of them had helped form the U.S. Green Building Council. And when it came time to look for an architect for the new building project who could throw it a curve, they all agreed on one person: Bill McDonough, a Yale-trained architect practicing in New York who was beginning to define what a green building could be. The resulting GreenHouse became a truly unconventional workplace, one that broke down the barriers between office and plant workers dovetailed nicely with McDonough’s desires to take advantage of natural light, views, and air flow, and his goal of creating a “living building.”

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