Etsy started out in 2005 as a small online marketplace for makers and DIYers, but the company has turned into an e-commerce behemoth that’s enabled housewives to knit their way to millions. Along the way, the $3.5 billion company has aggressively tried to do business the right way by hiring a diverse workforce, building community, and offering generous employee perks that go beyond a free lunch.
Its new headquarters in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn serves as a physical embodiment of this “responsible citizen” philosophy–from the solar panels covering its roof down to the salvaged furniture outfitting its conference rooms to the public gallery of maker goods in its lobby. The hope? That it’ll push others to adopt its conscientious ways.
The global architecture firm Gensler designed Etsy’s new office to meet the Living Building Challenge (LBC), a strict green building certification program that’s more rigorous than the industry standard LEED.
LEED is about leaving as light a footprint on the environment as possible. The Living Building Challenge–the certificate of which you can only receive a full year after construction is complete–awards buildings that have a net positive impact on the environment. Buildings that adhere to the LBC standard have to meet sustainability requirements around water and energy usage, materials, and more.
For Etsy’s new office–which takes up an old industrial building that once housed the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ printing press–Gensler focused on LBC areas such as materials, health, and beauty.
Through sourcing locally made furniture and fixtures–the LBC states that 20% of a materials budget, which includes furniture, should come from within 300 miles of the building’s location–Gensler hit one of the LBC’s requirements and simultaneously tapped Etsy’s community of makers. The architects estimate that 100,000 square feet of the 200,000-square-foot office is furnished with handmade goods from about 20 different local designers and manufacturers, which Etsy handpicked.
“We had furniture meetings every single week, which is not normal,” says Amanda Carroll, Gensler’s principal-in-charge of the project. “The emphasis on furniture was three times that of a regular project.”
Etsy and Gensler worked closely with the makers to see if they could produce the quantity and scale of furniture needed (for example, workstations for 600 employees), and if they would be interested in and able to get “Declare Label” certification, which is kind of like a nutrition facts list letting you know a product doesn’t contain toxic chemicals. To do that, the designers had to submit detailed documentation about what was in their pieces–a more formal process than many of them were used to.
“We received sketches that were done in crayon that showed what a chair is going to be,” Justine Chibuk, a project manager at Etsy, says. “It’s melding that with a much more stringent process.”
The process of finding materials—like Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood—for Declare Label certification sparked camaraderie among the makers. Often, suppliers or materials are held as trade secrets but in this case, since many of the designers were experimenting with new materials or techniques, they shared information to make the process easier for the group. In the end, it benefited the small businesses since their work could become part of a very short list of Declare Label products—a potentially lucrative designation.
Gensler submitted about 30 products commissioned as a result of this project to the LBC for Declare Label certification and specified 30 more from mass manufacturers that were already on the approved list, ranging from acoustic tiles to wall coverings and insulation.
“We approached over 1,500 manufacturers about being transparent,” says David Briefel, a sustainable design specialist at Gensler. “It’s a small percentage that went for the Declare Label, but maybe for some it’s the first time they’re hearing about this being important to anyone.” While it seems like a loss, Briefel sees the “ask” as a way architects can become advocates for greener products.
Gensler also tried to get large manufacturers to develop products that would meet the standards, but found that some weren’t able to reformulate fast enough. For example, Gensler approached Herman Miller to produce a version of the classic Eames Aluminum Group chair that would be LBC compliant, but they weren’t able to. (The architects ended up buying secondhand versions of the chair–they are LBC-approved.)
“I think that’s an important signal that the broader commercial furniture community is waking up to this idea that there’s going to be some pivoting happening,” Carroll says of the sourcing process. “It’s a contribution to a larger community of people who are trying to find materials that are better for the built environment, the people experiencing them, and also the planet.”
In Etsy’s previous location, which was just a few blocks away in the same neighborhood, space was scarce. The new headquarters has a mix of personal workstations, communal lounges, conference rooms, and craft studios to give the 600 employees who are currently in the office the freedom to move where they’ll produce the best work.
The workstations are in an open-plan space but to help eliminate visual distractions, the architects organized the tables perpendicular to one another to shorten the field of vision. Additionally, they placed plants throughout the office so you can see some greenery regardless of where you are in the office.
While there are private offices in the building, the best views and the tallest rooms in the building are reserved for communal space, like the Lab, a maker space that’s filled with craft supplies, a digital design studio, a 3-D printer, a screen-printing studio, and letterpress tools that are used by Etsy’s employees as well as during events that are open to the public. There’s also an area with board games, a grand piano, and a ping-pong table for when people need a break. A wellness studio offers space for yoga and a few bean-bag chairs for naps. The office also has a handful of outdoor spaces, including a roof deck–outfitted with a solar array that provides about 1% of the office’s energy–and two terraces that are off lower floors for when people want some fresh air.
Artwork abounds in the space to reconnect everyone to Etsy’s base and also to pay homage to its last office. For example, they turned old desks into wall hangings and used a felt wall divider as an acoustic dampener. On the stairwell between security and reception on the second floor, Gensler designed a space where Etsy can easily rotate artwork.
“When you have a monumental moment in architecture, it’s typically fixed,” Carroll says. “Instead, we created a platform for Etsy to create their own installation or whatever it is they want their first welcome to be.”
One of the biggest differences between this office and Etsy’s previous office is that it is the sole tenant in the building, which gave the company an opportunity to have a presence at the street level. The ground floor is open to the public and a gallery of products and furniture made by people in Etsy’s community is visible through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls.
“We were looking for spaces where we could directly engage with the community in some form,” says Josh Wise, Etsy’s global director of workplace ecology and design. “It further expresses an ongoing commitment to the neighborhood as well.”
That extends to how the company planned its food program. Rather than hiring an in-house chef for “Eatsy,” their cafeteria, Etsy enlists local caterers to come in twice weekly to provide meals.
“We’re not creating a closed experience, having people go out into the community was a deliberate thing,” Wise says. “It distinguishes us from the typical campus where you walk in and you never have to leave.”
What excites Gensler and Etsy now that the office is complete is what can happen beyond its walls.
“We can have greater impact in a ripple effect,” Carroll says. Recently, the firm held an event at the new headquarters, which was attended by over 100 clients and dozens of architects who may apply some of the strategies implemented at Etsy in their future projects. “Within Gensler we’ve already had so many people ask us, who made that chair, who made that table, and that was intentional on Etsy’s behalf. For some of our Fortune 500 clients, it was the first time they were in Brooklyn and the first time they were completely surrounded by handmade goods. It is an eye-opening moment for many of them, and there was an acknowledgment that it creates a joyful space. That was part of the strategy: We can open people’s eyes to more inventive ways of design.”
[All Photos: © Garrett Rowland/courtesy Gensler]