Johnson Controls: A Living Campus
Steve Meier in Headquarters, Sustainability

Le Corbusier was a Swiss-French architect with a funny name who designed Modern buildings for a living and said a lot of pithy things.  One thing he is particularly noted for saying is that “a house is a machine for living in.”

I think differently. So does Johnson Controls. We think a building—whether it’s a house or an office or an airport—should be a living machine. And there’s a big difference. A living machine is intimately and keenly connected to the people who inhabit it, so much so that the building itself seems to have its own breath and pulse. I’m blogging to tell you the story of one such living building—or rather, a campus full of them.

We at Gensler had the pleasure of working with Johnson Controls over the last six years. We were hired to transform Johnson Controls’ 1960s office complex just outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, into a high-performance campus to showcase its innovative sustainable products and technologies. The scope of the project involved site master planning, the renovation and repositioning of three existing buildings and the design of two new ones: a Campus Amenities building and a headquarters for Johnson Control’s Power Solutions Business.

Most people know Johnson Controls for its thermostats— in fact, Warren Johnson invented the room thermostat in the late 19th Century. But Johnson Controls also makes sensors galore—for everything from humidity to carbon dioxide and occupancy. It makes hybrid and electric battery systems for cars. It even makes car interiors, many of them specifically for fuel-efficient vehicles. In broad terms, Johnson Controls’ core business is energy efficiency. Its vision is even broader, though. Johnson Controls sees its mission as creating “a more comfortable, safe, sustainable world.” Those are words from the company’s brand value statement.

Those are words that struck all of us on the project team. Creating a “more comfortable, safe, sustainable world” is a very holistic way of looking at the business of energy efficiency.

We decided to adopt the same holistic approach to sustainability in designing Johnson Controls’ corporate campus. Of course, the new campus had to be a showcase of Johnson Controls’ products and systems. Of course, it had to be a model of sustainability in the “eco” sense of the word.  In fact, we believed the entire campus had to achieve LEED Platinum status and significantly reduce energy use—goals we reached whole-heartedly. But we also believed the buildings we designed and renovated here had to push the definition of sustainability if we were to take a holistic view of the term. The buildings—and we, the architects of them—had to consider the human factor in all of this: what it actually takes to sustain people in a super-smart environment.

That became the vision for this project: this idea that buildings need to respond to people, to inspire people, to sustain people. They need to be living machines. That is what makes this project really different.

We determined that a connection to nature is critical. Nature rejuvenates people and is good for the brain. Although most of us accept this anecdotally, a study from the University of Michigan quantifies it. The study shows that people learn better after walking in the woods as opposed to walking down a busy street. Much of our design concept here was about giving employees that metaphorical ‘walk in the woods’ every day when they come to work. It was all about creating a symbiotic relationship between people and the building and then the building with the outdoors. We very deliberately gave every employee a connection to the landscape both physically and visually through the glass we added. There are outdoor walking paths through the campus and gathering spaces as well. Daylighting permeates the place.

Perimeter walls throughout the two new buildings are floor-to-ceiling glass. Employees “feel” the outdoors. And the indoors “feels” and responds to them. We used Johnson Controls’ Personal Environment Module. It’s an under floor air distribution system and it gives all employees the ability to adjust temperature, air movement, lighting and white noise in their own cubicles.

The entire Johnson Controls campus achieved LEED Platinum status, making it the highest number of LEED Platinum buildings in one location. To do that, every LEED point had to be addressed including daylighting and landscaping. We restored 13 acres of native prairie on the site and created 32,000 square feet of rain gardens that will cleanse runoff of pollutants before it reaches open bodies of water. Before, there was beautiful landscaping, but it was all about man controlling nature. We flipped that around and returned the site to a more natural state.

I want to close with a couple of notable—and we think incredible— statistics.

Links for additional information:

Fast Company, “America’s Greenest Corporate Campus”
Johnson Controls project description on Gensler’s website
Green Keepers, a feature story on sustainable retrofitting on Gensler’s website
Johnson Controls press release on receiving LEED Platinum certification for the campus

Steve Meier is a principal in the Chicago office of Gensler. Steve combines a user-driven approach to design with a passion for sustainability, as seen in the design of Headquarters office buildings and workplaces for clients such as BP, Navteq, Wilson Sporting Goods, Radio Flyer and Johnson Controls. Contact him at
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