The building that started a movement | U.S. Green Building Council
Please upgrade your browser. This site requires a newer version to work correctly. Read more
Published on
Posted in Industry
Published on
Posted in Industry

Much has been said about Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s terrific plan to revitalize Downtown Las Vegas, but some may not know it all began with one building – namely, the major renovation of an old city hall that’s on target for LEED Gold certification. I spoke to Brad Tomm, Sr. Manager of Campus Operations and Sustainability at Zappos about this very special LEED project.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did Zappos, a billion dollar company with a campus sprawled out in the suburbs of Henderson, Nevada, decide to move its headquarters to the heart of downtown Las Vegas?

We were in three leased office buildings in Henderson and had come to the point where we had simply outgrown the space. About a year and a half ago, Tony Hsieh, our CEO, was discussing options on how to grow the company and some of the options associated with new buildings. One idea was to build a new campus somewhere out in the desert, kind of like Google and Apple, where we could have all of our amenities right there for employees.  But then Tony started hanging out in downtown Las Vegas and one of his good friends, the owner of Downtown Cocktail Room, told him: “You know the city of Las Vegas is vacating their old building, why don’t you consider moving your company downtown and take over the old city hall?” Tony loved that idea, and set the plans in motion to bring the Zappos HQ from the suburbs to downtown. He started thinking about how to create a campus that would be part of the community, a campus like NYU in New York, where everything wasn’t necessarily “on-campus.”

What’s really unique about this project, especially for a corporate headquarters, is how inviting you are of the community. Normally corporate campuses are large and full of fun things to do, but they’re walled off. Why does Zappos want to bring the community in, and why is that important?

You know that’s one of our core values: building open and honest relationships. We really strive to communicate well with the community, and get to know people. The NYU model for a campus is special because the university just blends in with the community - that’s the vision for the Zappos campus. You can walk into the campus and walk back out and be in the heart of downtown. There’s another satellite Zappos office nearby so people will be out walking around, interacting, having collisions, and that’s the vision for downtown Las Vegas.

Collaborative collisions?

Collaborative collisions. Absolutely. We think that living and working in downtown Las Vegas will make you smarter and we want people to venture outside the office and really interact creatively with the other businesses and community members that are nearby.

Wonderful. It’s clear Downtown Las Vegas was one of the main factors driving the relocation. Zappos took over the old city hall, gave it a major LEED renovation, and made it the new company headquarters. And that process catalyzed a much larger movement, called Downtown Project. Interestingly, while the focus of Downtown Project is strictly downtown Las Vegas, it is in fact changing all of Las Vegas. Everyone in Las Vegas and many people outside of the city are talking about it. Downtown Project is affecting a cultural shift, and it’s palpable. So in many ways this is the story of how a LEED building is changing an entire city. For those who may not know much about the change that it’s affecting, can you tell us more about Downtown Project? 

That movement is also a startup. Downtown Project is a company, separate from Zappos, and Tony Hsieh is the CEO. It is a $350 million investment of his own money into Downtown Las Vegas: $200 million into real estate, $50 million into education, $50 million into Tech, and $50 million set aside for small business development. And there’s a whole team of passionate people committed to helping transform Downtown Las Vegas into the most community-focused large city in the world. An area of Downtown called East Fremont is under redevelopment with some really cool restaurants, lounges, a container park for shops, a speaker’s theater, clothing stores, and even a charter school. Lots of tech companies have moved downtown, some have been funded through the Downtown Project Tech Fund and now they’re living and working there as well, they’re part of the community. Downtown Project is really taking a community driven bottom-up approach to city planning.

What’s the relationship between Zappos and Downtown Project?

Well, the most obvious relationship is that Tony is the CEO. Even though they are two separate companies we know each other, we’re all friends, and we’re excited to be co-developing and cohabitating downtown. Zappos’ involvement is currently centered on the new campus downtown, and Downtown Project is going way beyond with its involvement in multiple awesome venues and spaces.

You’ve been involved with the Zappos headquarters project since its inception. Can you describe how LEED came into the picture?

Yes, there are definitely discussions that come up around LEED that get the team excited. LEED pushes people a little farther in their thinking and makes everyone think a little bit smarter on the project. And it’s also fun because the challenge of pursuing LEED certification has brought everyone together to think collectively and creatively about how to enhance the project for its occupants.

Pride in a LEED building is important to the culture of Zappos, and being around you and the rest of the project team, there also seems to be an authentic excitement emanating from the people involved. Would you say there is a difference in having people work on a LEED project vs. a regular project?

Yes, there are definitely discussions that come up around LEED that get the team excited. LEED pushes people a little farther in their thinking and makes everyone think a little bit smarter on the project. And it’s also fun because the challenge of pursuing LEED certification has brought everyone together to think collectively and creatively about how to enhance the project for its occupants.  

Let’s talk about education…you spoke about having people on board who are familiar with LEED, that it really helped you guys. It seems like when we first talked Silver was the target and now you’re going for Gold, so how important was education?

Our process started with an awesome team of subject matter experts that could answer every question we had, and be a resource for the contractors and the architects, and the development team. Our LEED consultants are our subject matter experts, they are our roadmap, we rely on them heavily, and they’re also really cool people and a pleasure to work with. They were able to educate us on how to best build this building, and how to mitigate cost premiums. Thanks to education and collaboration, we built a building that’s exactly on the same budget it was in its inception, and now we’re on target to achieve LEED Gold certification!

Having a green building is great. But people think you know, green is green; it’s costly. Tell me a little bit about the business strategies and cost incentives for pursing LEED.

Well, we did the right thing. I’ll give you one example. We could’ve kept all the old toilets from old City Hall, they were pretty old, but they were usable. Reusing them would have saved us a tremendous amount of money, but LEED’s attention to water conservation pushed us to think a little farther, and we ended up retrofitting all the toilets with new low-flow high efficiency toilets and that’s awesome. It cost us a little more money, but in the long run we will be saving water, which is a precious resource out here in Las Vegas and the desert. Our building is 45% more water efficient than the baseline model, and we’re really happy about that. We’re not worried about saving on the cost of water, more importantly, we’re proud to conserve water in our region.  

Can you tell me a little bit about some new strategies or interesting things that are being incorporated into the new Zappos headquarters?

In terms of technology and green building and LEED, I don’t think we are trying anything that is earth shattering. But one thing we’re pushing that most other companies have not tried is high-employee-density. We tried to allocate less than 100 square feet per employee in the open office. We also do not have single occupant offices or cubicles. All employees, even Tony, sit in an open office environment where desks are organized in rows, pods, or clusters. What this strategy ends up accomplishing is a drop in your kilowatt-hours (kWh) per employee, besides making you become very close with your neighbors (which can be a lot of fun!) For example, we have a high efficiency building anyway, but when you do the calculations per employee, the numbers are even better than most LEED buildings because of the high-employee-density. And I’ll give you an example: Keeping the climates/regions similar, one could build a LEED Platinum building that’s 40% more energy efficient, but if you have large single occupant offices and ample empty open office space with low occupancy, then when you do the math you will see your kWh-per-employee is much higher than a less efficient building with higher occupant density. So we think by combining a building that is 25% more efficient than the baseline (per the Zappos energy model) with high employee density equals a really low resource consuming, efficient workplace.

High-employee-density is a trend we’ve been seeing in a lot of tech companies and Zappos is definitely a big proponent of it. I mean, I’m not talking about bunk beds in the office, but we’re pretty close desk-wise. We’ve also gone to the model of dropping the cubicles. Again, you won’t find cubicles or offices in Zappos. We like “doortop” tables, or work benches that are adjustable so people can stand or sit, and are also completely moveable. We’ve found that employees are happier with this setup, because when they don’t have cubicles, they can see their neighbors. This also allows for awesome opportunities for daylighting and views. We have great natural daylight in most of the campus and the majority of our employees can see a view of the horizon from the 10-story tower.

With LEED being brought in after the fact, and now that you’ve gone for Gold certification, did the new Zappos HQ cost more than it would have without LEED?

We found we could build a LEED Gold, high performance building, within budget, including some of the coolest credits in LEED. And that’s what I think we’re most proud of.

What are the coolest credits in LEED?

I’m a big fan of commissioning. This is the first time Zappos owns, operates and manages a central plant. We bought two brand new chillers, four new boilers, a couple new cooling towers, and we’re really thrilled with that. I love big, mechanical equipment, so I think one of the coolest things from LEED is Enhanced Commissioning, which is basically like a super tune up. I think of Enhanced Commissioning as buying the best hot rod engine, but if you don’t tune or calibrate this engine, it’ll never run properly. You won’t know what to do with it. And it will be inefficient. I also love the building reuse and materials reuse credits; we’re reusing 90% of the campus the way it was because it was good concrete and steel; good bones of the building.

Anything else you want to tell us?

Some people are doers and some people are the believers, and generally you’ll figure out who’s in which camp. But I’m a believer in LEED because I know that humans are a high impact species on this world. You can just look around and see our impact everywhere. I think LEED is so important because our buildings consume so much energy, they give off pollution, and our buildings are where we live, work, and play. We need to make those as efficient and healthy as we can. As more and more of the population moves to the city –75% of all humans will be living in a city in 2050—we have to make our buildings, where we live work and play, as green as possible to keep this world beautiful and pollution free. We need to take the steps right now and go above and beyond LEED. I’m really excited that LEED version 4 is coming out soon, it’ll just push people to the next level. I think once you’re part of a LEED project, or you’ve worked inside a LEED building, you’ll become a believer too because you can really see and feel the difference—you’ll know your building is making a lower impact on this world.  

USGBC Articles can be accessed in the USGBC app for iOS or Android on your iPhone, iPad or Android device.
iOS App on App StoreAndroid app on Google Play