BRUNSWICK — The curving walls in the entryway of Nature Conservancy’s recently remodeled Maine headquarters are lined with yellow birch, harvested sustainably from the nonprofit’s forest holdings in the St. John River Valley.

The carpet has an abstract design that conjures up visions of waves coming to shore on an overcast day; it’s made entirely from cast-off and recycled fishing nets by a company called Interface Carpets. Up a ramp to the right is a bright, open kitchen featuring a wooden counter made from wood silvered from spending decades if not a century at the bottom of the Penobscot River.

They say every house tells a story, but the Nature Conservancy’s fourth-floor office in historic Fort Andross in Brunswick tells a work story. The materials speak directly to the woods the nonprofit protects and manages in Maine and the Maine ocean and river waters it aims to keep flowing clean. Unsurprisingly, the building meets green design standards for LEED certification, which it is awaiting. It’s net zero energywise, meaning it feeds as much energy into the grid as it takes out of it.

But the Nature Conservancy’s newly renovated office has also just been awarded a new international certification, the WELL Building Standard, that is directed toward a sort of physical and emotional greenness for the human beings who work there.

Only 77 buildings worldwide have met this standard since it was established in late 2014, and the Nature Conservancy’s office in Brunswick is the first in Northern New England to do so. The idea is to improve the office experience for workers, meeting psychological and physiological standards for wellness. In this case, it is a particularly good fit for a staff that is devoting their careers to protecting and preserving nature in a way that works for people and the planet; they tend to be people who would rather be outside.

“We knew we wanted to have LEED certification,” said Alex Mas, the associate state director for Nature Conservancy in Maine, who has been with the nonprofit for 17 years, including nine in Maine. He, along with operations director Maggie Stone, served as sort of co-general contractors for the project. They started by consulting with Thornton Tomasetti, a national engineering services company with a specialty in sustainability. A Portland-based team from Thornton Tomasetti, led by Gunnar Hubbard, advised them on meeting the WELL criteria.

“They said, ‘Have you heard about this WELL Building Standard? As we see it, this is the future direction of green building,’ ” Mas remembers. The idea was to design places that people can thrive in.

“The LEED rating system only go so far in terms of indoor health,” Hubbard said. WELL, he said, “is much more focused on the people side.”

It spins off an architectural concept called biophilic design (biophilic translates from Greek as a “love of living things”). The design movement was inspired by a 1984 book called “Biophilia” by Edward O. Wilson, which argued that the human tendency is to focus on life and lifelike processes and nurturing that tendency nurtures the spirit.

Yellow birch harvested from forestland managed by the Conservancy was used in the office, the first space in New England to earn a WELL building certification.

The Environmental Protection Agency says the average American spends 87 percent of their time indoors and another 6 percent in their cars, leaving just 7 percent of one’s life to be spent outdoors. Researchers from Harvard, the Mayo Clinic and the EPA suggest the more time we spend outside, the better off we are. But unless you are a fisherman or a farmer, it’s hard to conduct business outside. Which is why places like the Nature Conservancy are trying to bring the outside inside. It’s about light and air quality but also, visuals.

On a tour of the offices, Mas points to the carpet that runs through the main work area. It’s full of yellows and greens, and yes, it is representative of biophilic design, deliberately organic. “It has evolutionary kind of connections for us,” he said. “If you look at the ground and see floor covering that sort of looks like it could be on a savannah or a grassland somewhere, it has that kind of natural gradation, it makes you feel more calm, more stimulated, more productive.”

Cube-land

It’s not that the offices weren’t nice before. The old mill is a treasure, filled with massive old beams, high ceilings and polished floors. But dividing floors that used to be open for massive looms and sewing machines – in its Cabot Mill days, textiles and shoes were manufactured in what is now called Fort Andross – tended to create a warren more suited to rabbits than humans.

“This used to be cube-land,” said Thomas Abello, the Nature Conservancy’s director of external affairs, gesturing out at the work spaces on the savannah. Everyone has an individual area, with lots of standing desks and plants, but the walls of the cubicles are low and light floods through the space.

Tom Abello, director of external affairs at the Nature Conservancy, in the new loft space at the office in Fort Andross. Abello helped coordinate
sustainable, local materials for the redesign.

The few offices that do have walls are interspersed with the cubicles, and many of those walls are glass. Kate Dempsey, the state director of Nature Conservancy Maine, has a small office set back from the windows. It’s a far cry from a classic corner office and very different from what she used to have, a long office along the windows that look out on the Frank J. Wood Bridge and the Androscoggin below it. Yet Dempsey was eager to give up that prime real estate.

“She would often say, ‘I feel so guilty,’ ” Mas said. “She’d say, ‘I have got all this great natural light, and I’d step out my door and my colleagues are sitting in the gloom.’ ”

From Dempsey’s social media postings, it was clear she loved her office, sharing photos from there of eagles, or sturgeon season on the Androscoggin, when the big fish are jumping. But she spent so much work time on the road, or in meetings, away from that room with a view. Meanwhile, her colleagues who tended to be desk-bound, like Kelsie Tardif , a development coordinator, were looking at walls.

“We deliberately designed the space to flip that,” Mas said.

Now Tardif has a clear view across that savannah-like carpet, out a huge window onto Maine Street below and the curve of the Androscoggin as it heads east toward Merrymeeting Bay. Natural light dominates (the high-efficiency LED lights are set on sensors that make them brighten steadily as the sun sets on a dark winter day). “You feel like you are outside even though you are inside,” Tardif said.

This is the first job she’s had where she has to spend so much time in front of a computer all day. “What makes it OK is knowing that any point, I can just turn my head and look out at the beautiful sky and the trees and the birds,” she said.

And maybe call a co-worker over to discuss such biophilic questions as, was that a peregrine falcon?

How much for the biophilia?

That was the goal of the WELL certification. It might just a piece of paper, or what Gunnar Hubbard calls “a measuring stick,” but the point is to set a higher bar, he said.

“What the Nature Conservancy is doing is showing what is possible,” Hubbard added.

How much did all this cost? Stone said she doesn’t have the final tally, but that it has been dramatically cheaper than other options the organization considered. Before making the decision to remodel, Stone said the Nature Conservancy debated options like new construction out at Brunswick Landing, the site for the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. That involved some serious sticker shock.

A meeting held in a conference room with Kate Dempsey (far right), the state director of the Nature Conservancy, at the nonprofit’s newly refurbished offices in Brunswick. The office overhaul included not just encorporating green materials, but an effort to improve the space for workers as well.
Staff photos by Brianna Soukup

“Financially, it was a no-brainer to stay here,” Stone said.

They worked out a deal for a 15-year lease with Fort Andross’ owner, Waterfront Maine, that included the owner installing 160 solar panels on the roof. Those generate enough electricity to supply all the office’s needs, plus juice for two charging stations in the parking lot below for electric vehicles. One of these charging stations is available, free, to the public.

Waterfront Maine also made a donation to the project, which Stone said the Nature Conservancy decided to earmark for its new HVAC system, a key part of improving air quality.

“You can do a healthy build in an old building,” Stone said.

Some of that involved deep-cleaning wood beams that were more than a century old (the top two floors of the mill were added around 1891, according to the Pejepscot Historical Society). “It was all from the industrial age,” Stone said. “And the WELL standards are so much more strict. Now you could basically lick the posts and feel quite OK about it.”

Portland architecture firm Briburn did the design work, collaborating closely with both Stone and Mas. It was Alyssa Keating, a Briburn project designer who has since moved on to another firm, who came up for the idea of what Stone calls “the wandering wall,” that curved arc of yellow birch that guides visitors into the space. Mas said Keating was inspired by looking at aerial photos and seeing the way the Androscoggin wraps around the building; she wanted to mirror the curve of the river inside.

The staff of about 37 moved down to the first floor of the mill while Warren Construction, a Freeport firm, built out the new space. Construction took about nine months, and when the staff returned, they found a transformed space, with touches throughout meant to improve the work day. Like “The Den,” a small room with a couch and a refrigerator. This space was a top priority for Stone. She’d nursed her baby at the old Nature Conservancy space. “But the door didn’t lock and it wasn’t really that cozy.”

Kate Dempsey, the state director of Nature Conservancy, during a meeting at the organization’s office in Brunswick. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

She loves the space now, which includes small framed illustrations of baby animals. “It’s a place to fully separate from work a little bit, where you can have that space to think about your baby.”

There’s one nursing mother on staff now benefiting from the room, and “I’m sure, more to come,” Stone said.

But it’s also a good place to go with a headache, or to make a private call. Then there’s the mezzanine, where three wingback chairs repurposed from the old office sit grouped over a million-dollar view of the Androscoggin. It’s a cozy, contemplative nook available to all, from the boss to the next person who gets hired.

Speaking of, since the conservation group moved into the new space in 2017, have applicants shot up? Stone laughed. That’s hard to quantify, she said. But since an opening for a job in development was posted about a week ago, she said they’ve had about three times as many applicants as usual.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 5 p.m. Monday, April 16, 2018 to correct the status of the building’s LEED certification and Alyssa Keating’s title.

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