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Building Sustainably for Growth: Q&A with Vans

Naturally the new headquarters for Vans in Southern California sports an outdoor metal monument to skateboarding repurposed from an old fountain. The shoe brand’s black-and-white checkered pattern rings the top of the company’s building just off the 405 freeway in Costa Mesa. Meeting rooms are named after riders who spurred Vans’ growth. Last year, annual revenue was $2.3 billion.

The company, founded in 1966, was practically bursting out of its leased office space in nearby Cypress before moving to the new digs in June. “This is the first time that Vans has had a true global headquarters in our whole history,” says Kim Matsoukas, senior manager of sustainability and social responsibility for Vans. “It opened up a lot of opportunities for us.”

Recently we caught up with Matsoukas to find out how the company weighed sustainability-related decisions for the new headquarters, and what a difference employee demand has made on the space.

What does sustainability mean for Vans?

Vans is a very youth culture-oriented company. We care a lot about kids. They’re a big part of our fan base and we want to make sure that we protect the resources that we have for future generations. That’s how we define sustainability.

What prompted the decision to move to a new space this year?

We leased our old space, and we were growing rapidly. We needed a new home. From a sustainability perspective, in a leased space there are a lot more challenges. You have to work with a landlord, the business case is harder to make, and it’s harder to decide to make big investments.

We’ve grown a lot in the last 10 years. In our old building, we actually had to rent out more space in the building behind us for about 100 people. It definitely impacted the ability to collaborate. It was a good thing to get us all under one roof.

What were the requirements for the new global headquarters?

Definitely space was the biggest requirement — was it going to have enough for all of our people plus the projected growth that we had? At our old building, as we grew, we converted meeting rooms into offices. [Vans executives] wanted space to grow beyond the building that’s here now. They needed a big piece of land. The building itself was empty. It hadn’t been occupied for years so it really was a clean slate and I’m sure that was part of their decision as well. They could start from scratch and make it our own.

Which steps did the company take to make this new space sustainable?

We knew before we bought a building that we were going to go for LEED certification. We are owned by VF, which has a requirement that any office we build or remodel meet LEED certification. Also, being in California, it’s not that difficult given all the energy efficiency and other building requirements here. But there was a decision about how far we wanted to take it. I pushed for the most we could possibly do. It wasn’t necessarily a given that we were going to do solar, but we made the right decision.

Why wasn’t solar a given?

When this building was purchased, they gave us a budget that didn’t include solar. Then when it became clear that was something we wanted, we had to figure out are we going to do a PPA or make that investment? We decided to invest. So we made the business case, finance agreed it was a good investment, and they signed off. Without solar we still could have been LEED-certified, but we wouldn’t have been LEED Platinum. That was a big selling point.

What other aspects of the new space did you consider?

We wanted to do EV charging stations. I had worked to install four at our old building. When we first installed them, we only had four people [using them]. By the time we left, we had 20 people sharing four stations. Clearly we needed more.

We also went to employees throughout the process and asked them what they wanted to see for sustainability. Water has been a big issue in California. We’ve gotten some rain, but in the couple years leading up to moving in, that wasn’t the case. People really wanted water-efficient landscaping and fixtures.

How did that LEED certification process go?

The first step we took was to do an assessment. California requires you to recycle 50% of your construction waste. There are LEED points for that. California Title 24 gives a decent amount of energy efficiency points. The low-VOC paints and coatings required in California also gives you points. We did a baseline and then asked our architect team to tell us what was going to be easy to accomplish and what wasn’t.

We were pretty close to Platinum. Then we said, of the things left, what’s feasible? And then, of course, cost. We also took into account other benefits like our employees asked for this, maybe we should do it. That was one factor.

Was there an example where employee demand made a difference?

Landscaping. LEED does a good job on energy, but on the water side, even with their regional priority credits, I feel like it’s a lot of effort for very little in terms of points. So it’s hard to make the case. Water-efficient landscaping, we really wanted that. Then some of the costs came back and we thought, maybe we don’t need that.

There were three options: low, medium, and high. We decided to go for the medium because we’re in a desert climate. And also because, for our employees, that was the main thing they wanted to see. The high-end option meant price, not necessarily water efficiency. It might have more flowers. The low option was mulch and xeriscape, which we amped up. There’s no turf grass anywhere. Our groundcover is designed so there’s no groundwater pollution. Our watering systems are all drip-irrigated.

What are some key sustainability features of the new building?

All the fixtures and equipment, HVAC, and lighting were designed to be 48% more efficient than building code requirements. And then the water fixtures we installed inside the building are designed to be 40% more water efficient.

Our solar is a 1-megawatt array projected to cover the majority of our energy use, but we’re still fine-tuning that. We have 30 EV charging stations. Those are free for employees and we have a couple for visitors as well.

Are there metrics from the new headquarters yet?

We did enhanced commissioning as part of LEED, and now we’re doing measurement and verification to make sure we’re hitting the projected energy efficiency targets we used for LEED calculations. At first I thought, oh no, they don’t match. But then our engineers said this is normal — it takes a couple months to fine-tune your systems.

What’s next for the new space and sustainability in general at Vans?

I felt excited about the ability to help reset behavior around sustainability. We’ve had a desk-side recycling program for a while. I tried to use this as an opportunity to make it easier and better by changing up our system and adding composting. Near our mailroom is a hard-to-recycle area, which is something we didn’t have in our old building because we didn’t have space. We have Styrofoam recycling and skateboard recycling.

Where do those skateboards go?

If the decks are usable, we give them to an organization called Boards for Bros that refurbishes old skateboards and gives them to kids who can’t afford them. If they’re broken, they go to an organization called I Ride I Recycle, which takes the boards and makes them into tiles for architectural use. It’s really cool.

Mark your calendars: The next Environmental Leader Conference & Energy Manager Summit will take place May 15-17, 2018 at the Denver Marriott Tech Center. More information here.

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