Could corn mugs and transportation incentives make an architectural firm a better place to work? Dustin Watson, principal of Development Design Group (DDG) based in Baltimore, Md., thinks so. That’s why the architect launched DDGgreen in 2007.

Today, out of a firm of 110 people, 20 are active members of DDG’s green team. These environmentally minded employees have made significant changes in their workplace — from transportation incentives to the use of recycled paper in the company’s large, in-house printing operations. NREI recently spoke to Watson about the program.

NREI: What prompted you to green your own company?

Watson: I’ve been the champion of green in the office, trying to increase our green footprint. So I started a group called ‘DDGgreen’, where we would meet once a month and talk about things we could do to talk to the CEO and the board of directors about how we could make our company a little bit more green.

The original idea was educating our employees, increasing research and resource development so that we could incorporate more sustainable design within projects. And that expanded into how we could green our operational policies, and our procedures and activities. Having community events and being part of the community as well, we really started to look at it as a holistic endeavor and how we could bring about more sustainability just within the office.

NREI: What are the components of the employee program?

Watson: One of the things we have implemented is a green benefits program. There are a couple of live-near-your-work incentives within the state of Maryland. The state pays up to $5,000 and we match them. We also have a financial reward if someone gets a fuel-efficient car, which is $2,000 for buying a car that gets 45 miles-per-gallon. We’ll actually buy someone a bike up to $250 if they use it as their primary mode of transportation to and from work during the warm months. There’s also a mass transportation bonus. If someone gets a monthly bus pass, we’ll pay for half of the cost.

NREI: Are there any benefits for employees who achieve the LEED AP (accredited professional) certification?

Watson: For the LEED AP certification, we’ll pay for the test. We’ll give someone the day off to take the test and give them a $1,000 bonus for passing the test. That’s another part of trying to increase the number of LEED-certified employees.

NREI: Tell us about the DDGgreen employee newsletter.

Watson: We put out a quarterly newsletter that has articles about projects that we’re working on, things we’ve done in the community. For instance, Herring Run Watershed Association is a local organization that helps maintain the quality of this river that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Every year they have a thing called a ‘seedling shuffle’ where they’ve started to grow different types of plants and they have to move those little seedlings into bigger pots. They’ll do thousands of them during a weekend and they get volunteers to come out and help them replant these. They sell them in a spring landscape fair and raise money for their organization.

NREI: Has DDGgreen made any impact in your company’s operations?

Watson: Being an architectural firm, we have a big in-house printing component. DDGgreen was able to get them to use completely recycled paper. The cleaning crews use green products. We have an intranet now in-house for the employee manual and HR information so that information no longer needs to be printed.

We replaced the paper cups with corn plastic cups for each employee, which cost about $1,800. We previously had used about 30,000 paper cups a year, which cost us about $5,000 a year.

NREI: How much have you spent on the program to date?

Watson: The newsletter is mostly people’s time. When we have our meetings, we try to have everyone write a small article or piece or come up with ideas. We print out a few copies but it’s all electronic. We send it out to all the employees electronically. We do use it for marketing to clients as well but the focus of it is more about the company and the employees.

We’ve had three employees take advantage of the live-near-your-work program, all three living within 10 miles of the office. One of those employees received about $3,500. As for the transportation incentive, no one has taken up the fuel efficient vehicle reward but numerous employees have taken advantage of the mass transportation reward for which we have paid half of their monthly bus passes. We have also paid a $1,000 bonus for the LEED exam to six people, or $6,000 and exam fees.

NREI: What has been the response of the employees to the program?

Watson: In the long run our employee benefits program has help us remain competitive in attracting new employees and I believe in retaining employees. There has been a sense of pride within the firm that the company is doing something that benefits the environment but at the same time it also benefits the employee.