An office relocation spurs MSR Design to pursue Living Building Challenge Petal certification for a workplace renovation with an aspirational approach to building materials

By Joel Hoekstra

Jack Poling, FAIA, was on vacation when he got the call. We found the place, his partners said. It’s perfect for us.

Poling, then president of Minneapolis-based MSR Design, didn’t cut his vacation short, but he was intrigued. The 50-person firm was exploring the possibility of moving from its longtime home in an old flour mill—a ruin that MSR had helped transform into the Mill City Museum 20 years ago, showcasing their talent for historic adaptive reuse. If it were to move, the firm knew it wanted to design an office that supported the way its designers worked today, and that highlighted a different set of values—chiefly, MSR’s commitment to workplace health and sustainability.

Poling eventually arranged for a tour of 510 Marquette, where more than 14,000 square feet were up for lease on the second floor, with direct access to the Minneapolis skyway system. The offices overlooked a busy intersection and light-rail stop. Busses trundled past every few minutes, and pedestrians accrued on the corners. Like MSR Design’s previous home, 510 Marquette is a building with a past: Designed by Cass Gilbert, the architect of the Minnesota State Capitol, it was completed in 1925, and for many years it housed the local branch of the Federal Reserve, though heavy renovations had stripped away most historic details. Poling agreed: It felt right for MSR’s next chapter, a place for a clean start.

With a lease in hand, Poling and his staff began the design process. Company-wide design-discussion workshops generated three key ideas that MSR employees wanted in the plans: The space should promote human health and well-being; spawn, support, and showcase creativity and the design process; and celebrate the firm’s culture and identity. “Everybody got to have a voice,” says senior associate and designer Rhys MacPherson. “I think that’s why the space has worked so well.”

At first glance, the new studio resembles that of a budget-minded tech startup. Workspace is fluid and nonhierarchical: Managers and interns alike occupy desks arranged in long rows. A space that can be viewed from the skyway through a large glass portal features a VR studio, a glass projection wall that’s writable, a 3D printer, and a critique area.

The only interior enclosures are a few small conference rooms and a 42-by-45-foot black box containing a large conference room for client presentations and board meetings; a central making area lined with a half-dozen alcoves where designers can pin up work for critiques; and three booths for privacy and focused tasks. The large conference room abuts a kitchen/community space and is fitted with a hydraulic pivot door that can be lifted to facilitate all-employee meetings and other large gatherings. The bones of the building, from brick walls and old patches of travertine floor to fireproofed steel structure, are all left exposed.

But the most impressive elements of the design are essentially invisible. Early in the design process, MSR Design committed to the time-consuming research needed to construct the healthiest possible workplace, free of all items listed on the International Living Future Institute’s Red List—the “worst-in-class materials prevalent in the building industry.” Going a step further, the firm is now moving toward eliminating all Red List items from its materials library. The designers also addressed concerns about clean air and noise; MSR now measures decibel levels (rattling metal ducts were replaced with much quieter fabric models) and regulates CO2 levels, VOC (volatile organic compound) levels, and indoor air quality in an effort to “clean up” the workplace environment.

As the firm’s pursuit of excellence gained momentum, MacPherson was among the staffers who pushed the leadership team to commit the firm to making the office the first in Minnesota to earn Living Building Challenge Petal certification, for design achievements in materials, beauty, and equity (see sidebar). To qualify, MSR Design used salvaged marble and other reclaimed materials, selected a high percentage of Declare products (those that bear the International Living Future Institute’s “nutritional label for products”), and worked with Stahl Construction to ensure that all waste was recycled or—if toxic and nonrecyclable—sequestered. Indoor air quality was monitored during construction to the degree that, upon completion, a typical clean-up phase was not required. “We wanted to push the boundaries of design and performance while proving that buildings don’t have to harm the environment,” says MacPherson.

The new office looks and feels distinctly different from the old MSR Design space. Staff no longer enjoy an elevated view of the Stone Arch Bridge curling across the Mississippi River, but enthusiasm is high for the healthier, toxin-free, highly connected workplace.

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Architect and client: MSR Design
General contractor: Stahl Construction
Size: 14,400 square feet
Construction cost: $1.35 million
Substantial completion: December 2019

The Living Building Challenge is a framework for reaching regenerative design through achievements in seven performance areas. For full certification, projects must satisfy requirements in all seven areas, or petals: site, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity, and beauty. For Petal certification, projects focus on three petals, one of which must be water, energy, or materials.