Before Skanska USA Building moved its Southeast regional headquarters in Atlanta last October from an owned building to 1.5 floors of leased office space, the company built out the space with sustainability in mind. Today, Skanska is working with the U.S. Green Building Council in an effort to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification in the commercial interiors program.

Environment sustainability is nothing new for Skanska, which in 1999 was the first construction firm in the United States to win ISO 14001 certification for its energy management system. Last summer, the United Nations named the company construction manager for its master plan to renovate the U.N. headquarters in New York, which aims for a LEED silver rating on completion.

“As a construction company that is promoting green construction, we felt it was extremely important that we walk the walk, leading by example,” says John Reyhan, general manager of Skanska’s Georgia region.

Adhering to sustainability principles while building out the 41,000 sq. ft. of offices at 55 Allen Plaza, Skanska’s new regional headquarters, proved as challenging as new construction. An office tenant has less control over its environment, so the company focused on aspects that it could control. That process began with particulate containment, from a thorough cleaning before renovation to a system of frequent air filter changes during interior demolition and reconstruction to limit dust introduced into the space.

“One of the biggest things we needed to do from a construction standpoint was to separate the metering of our energy consumption so we could reap the benefit and measure the amount of energy savings and consumption we were utilizing through our conservation strategies,” Reyhan says.

In the finished space, light fixtures use 26% less energy than standard lights, waterless restroom urinals reduce water use by 30%, and the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system is rated 17% more efficient than conventional units. The office design requires less power, since natural light flows through glass walls into the interior, and sensors switch off lights when ambient light is sufficient for working.

To enhance air quality, the construction company installed carpet (made from recycled materials), wall coverings, and furniture rated to produce minimal levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), harmful gases emitted by many paints and other products.

Nearly all materials used in an office environment release volatile organic compounds into the air, says Carl Smith, CEO of the non-profit GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, based in Marietta, Ga. At high levels these naturally occurring chemicals can cause health issues, and even at low levels can trigger asthma or allergies in some people. To help companies select products that release a minimum of harmful chemicals into the air, the institute establishes acceptable indoor air quality standards for products, environments, and buildings.

New construction with a green design is the ideal way for a company to ensure that it is operating in the most sustainable environment possible, Smith says, but that’s not always an option. Even in a leased space, a tenant can improve air quality through choices in carpet, paint, furniture and other products.

“Most of us work in the already-built environment,” Smith says. “By selecting products — paint, flooring, furniture, office equipment and even the cleaning products for the office space — that have been tested and certified by a third-party, industry independent entity as low in [harmful] emissions, you can ensure that you are making the best choice for the health and well-being of the people who will be inhabiting the space.”

Skanska is pleased with the interior it created at 55 Allen Plaza and plans to enjoy the space for a long time. In fact, the company gained a point toward LEED certification by signing a 12-year lease, which reduces the likelihood of frequent moves that take a toll on the environment.

“Our company has been very sensitive and respectful of the environment for a very long time,” Smith says. “It’s the right thing to do.”