The Big Green Commute Challenges the DC Region to Go to Work, Make a Difference

At 6:30 AM on May 15th, Tim Bragan left his house in Glen Echo, Maryland and embarked on a kayaking voyage south down the Potomac River. After navigating Little Falls—a rapid at the DC line, which was running at Class Four that Tuesday—he continued all the way to Hains Point and up the Anacostia River to reach his destination in Capitol Hill. Although an avid whitewater kayaker, Tim wasn’t out for any morning tour; he was commuting to work.

Tim, a Principal at Landscape Architecture Bureau, was a participant in the ninth-annual Big Green Commute, a week-long commuting competition hosted by ZGF that challenges commuters in the Washington, DC region to “Go to Work, Make a Difference.” The competition—which coincides with National Bike to Work Week each May—incentivizes self-propelled commutes via walking and biking (and now kayaking) but also rewards taking public transportation, carpooling, or driving electric vehicles.

Winners of the 2018 Big Green Commute—Urban Land Institute, Walter P. Moore, Landscape Architecture Bureau, and Perkins Eastman—celebrated the results at the awards reception on June 6th.
Winners of the 2018 Big Green Commute—Urban Land Institute, Walter P. Moore, Landscape Architecture Bureau, and Perkins Eastman—celebrated the results at the awards reception on June 6th.

The Big Green Commute wasn’t always so “Big,” although the “Green Commute” was inherent. When the competition was conceived in the early 2000s, it lasted only one day and was entirely internal to ZGF. Employees in the DC office challenged our coworkers across the firm to a commuting competition to determine which office was the “greenest” of them all. Over the years, the competition evolved into a week-long battle with each office competing for custom trophies and bragging rights. The annual event inspired more and more ZGFers to adopt new methods of getting to work that didn’t involve sitting alone in a car.

In 2010, my colleagues in the DC office invited other architecture firms in the region to participate in a regional version of the Big Green Commute. In 2013, we decided that architects shouldn’t have all the fun, and we opened the competition to any company in the DC metro area. Since then, we have watched as DC commuters have enthusiastically embraced the event. The competition has expanded to include more than 40 companies and 1,500 individuals, who have unleashed their own competitive drives and creativity in attempt to win the competition! In 2018, participants commuted an incredible 60,475 greener miles over the course of one week while documenting their paddles, steps, rides, and electric-vehicle drives on social media (#BigGreenCommute).


Participant Photos from the #BigGreenCommute Instagram Feed

In addition to making an impact through their action and advocacy, Big Green Commute participants have given back to the community through their support of local non-profits. Since 2013, participants have donated more than $31,000 to Big Green Commute community partners, Coalition for Smarter Growth and Community of Hope. Coalition for Smarter Growth is the leading organization in the DC region making the case for smart growth and a greener, better commute for everyone. Community of Hope is a non-profit, community-based organization that creates opportunities for low-income families in DC and uses Big Green Commute support to provide sustainable transit subsidies for its clients to get around the city for job interviews, doctor appointments, and everyday errands.

As ZGFers have organized the Big Green Commute year after year, our efforts have been built on our belief that change can be affected at a personal and community level. The Big Green Commute is more than just a fun competition; it addresses critical issues. According to data provided by the World Bank, transportation accounts for more than 33% of the United States’ CO2 emissions. Driving continues to be the major mode in which DC-region commuters get to work, and DC-region commuters endure the 2nd-longest average commute in America according to US census data (spending an average of 32.2 minutes on a one-way commute to get to and from work). Following the 2018 Big Green Commute, 28% of participants reported that they would consider changing their commuting method in the future. Those 28% of participants are our biggest success and demonstrate that we can inspire change through a friendly competition! Our goal for future Big Green Commutes is to replicate that success on a larger scale: imagine the impact if we could convince 28% of DC-region commuters to green their commutes and reduce their CO2 emissions!

Tommy Wells, Director of DC’s Department of Energy & Environment, congratulated participants on their action and advocacy at the Big Green Commute Celebration.

When we started the Big Green Commute, we hoped to inspire others to make a change. However, we’ve found that the participants of the Big Green Commute have inspired us. Whether it was Tim Bragan, who conquered a three-and-a-half-hour kayak commute, or Perkins Eastman, who started their own internal competition and spread the Big Green Commute to their regional offices across the country, Big Green Commute participants have adopted this competition, turning it into the growing community event it is today! Thank you to all you green commuters for going to work and making a difference, one commute at a time.

To learn more about the Big Green Commute, visit For updates on the 2019 Big Green Commute, please email

ZGF’s Kari Thorsen on Destigmatizing Behavioral Healthcare Through Design

In our fast-paced world of oversharing, instant feedback and the need to curate what appears to be perfection, it is easy to see how anyone can suffer from mental illness. Every day in the United States, 123 people take their own lives and an untold number make an attempt. The latest celebrities to die by suicide bring to light again that this disease has the potential to affect any one of us, famous or not. And I continue to find myself asking: how do we destigmatize mental illness to allow anyone who needs help to feel comfortable seeking it out?

I believe that in addition to more openly discussing mental illness, we can also impact the stigmatization of the disease through design.

When I first began working in the behavioral health sector, I pictured what I thought behavioral health design was: a small office with a sofa, a private resort only meant for the wealthy, scenes of psych wards from old horror movies. Over the past 10 years, I have toured a number of behavioral health settings, and unfortunately, many still feel like the latter. The great news is that we as designers can change that.

We can create beautiful spaces that support patients in their journey towards mental wellness and still keep them safe from self-harm. Beauty starts by creating an interior environment that is familiar to the those seeking care. And more therapeutic environments can be achieved by:

  • Using materials and finishes that connect to the natural world through texture and color.
  • Giving patients choice in their environment, from multiple seating options to selecting the color of the room that uplifts their mental state.
  • Providing access to daylight and views, or when that isn’t an option, providing lighting that mimics it.

None of this is new to healthcare design, but we must be more thoughtful about how we apply the same thinking in a behavioral health setting. We also need to push our industry partners to continue to develop products that look like something you would see in any other built environment, and not something used in a prison cell. I am talking about some of the smallest details: door handles, coat hooks, toilets, and faucets – things that patients touch every day.

When these elements start to look like the kind we’d encounter elsewhere, we can help destigmatize mental illness and allow people to focus on healing.

Kari Thorsen, a principal in ZGF’s Seattle office, has led the interior design and planning of projects for the region’s most prominent healthcare systems and providers: Swedish Medical Center, Seattle Children’s Hospital, CHI Franciscan Health, Virginia Mason and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

VIDEO: Kinetic Shading Solution

As a student at University of Oregon’s School of Design in 2014, ZGF associate Tyler Short concepted Penumbra – a kinetic daylighting and shading system. An alternative to traditional window shades, the individual louvers can twist and shift in three dimensions enabling light to permeate a building while preventing direct sun from coming in. The concept was a hit, earning praise from Dezeen, Gizmodo, and HuffPost, among others. To watch the shading system in action, watch the video below.

Designing for Human Health: USGBC Magazine Interviews ZGF’s Kathy Berg and Marty Brennan

For an article featured in the spring issue of its member magazine, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) recently interviewed ZGF partner Kathy Berg about how design can inspire greater physical activity in the workplace.

ZGF project architect and daylighting specialist Marty Brennan also described how the use of circadian lighting indoors can complement natural daylight, improving occupant wellness. At a ZGF-designed behavioral-health facility in Seattle, circadian lighting helps synchronize patients’ natural sleep-wake rhythms, marking the passage of time and providing a sense of calm as the day winds down.

Berg was also featured on a recent episode of USGBC’s “Built for Health” podcast series, where she discussed the impact of design on how people move within the built environment. The full issue can be read here.

VIDEO: The Future of Post Occupancy Evaluations

ZGF’s Chris Chatto recently presented at Building Design + Construction’s Accelerate Live Conference on the next frontier of pre- and post-occupancy evaluations. Examining best practices from ZGF’s own experience in developing pre- and post-occupancy evaluations of the spaces we design, Chatto shared the following insights with attendees from across the design and construction industry.

  1. Start small, think big: Don’t try to do it all on the first try (or survey). Grow an internal culture of POEs through tools and processes designed to be scalable within the firm.
  2. Create vs. contract: Resources, both people and technical, vary at each firm. Developing your own POE vs. contracting with an outside organization should be an individual choice for each firm. At ZGF, we’re already seeing benefits and synergies from the effort of developing our own.
  3. Pre-occupancy informs post-occupancy: Utilizing pre-occupancy surveys at the outset of projects can demonstrate its value in design and help define issues and metrics that may be best assessed and compared by a post-occupancy survey.
  4. Successful POEs benefit the entire integrated design team: In high performance buildings, resource use, occupant comfort and experience, and their productivity and satisfaction are intimately tied together. Post-occupancy process should reflect that. Recognizing and advocating for this builds support of designers and project managers, consultants, and most importantly clients.

To watch the full presentation, click the link above.

ZGF Designs First-of-its-Kind Care Model for Behavioral Health

Designed as a state-of-the-art care model for behavioral health treatment and research, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Child, Teen & Family Center and Department of Psychiatry Building is grounded in ZGF’s commitment to create healthcare spaces that support treatment breakthroughs for clinicians and enhance positive outcomes for patients. Under construction and slated to open in 2019, the building is a critical step forward in advancing behavioral health research and treatment while simultaneously increasing access to and removing the stigma associated with behavioral health services.

Born out of a vision from renowned child psychiatrist and human geneticist Dr. Matthew State, the center will be the first-ever UCSF facility for both pediatric and adult psychiatric patients and one of the first facilities in the U.S. to integrate the neurosciences with traditional psychiatry. The integration of these diverse disciplines under one roof will provide a hub for research and training to advance the prevention and treatment of mental illness.

Research indicates that the stigma associated with behavioral health services, compounded by a scarcity of clinicians and facilities, resulted in over half of those with mental health disorders forgoing treatment in the last year. The Child, Teen & Family Center is intended to serve the Bay Area community, helping to normalize behavioral healthcare and increase access for patients across the full spectrum of ages, including some of the most vulnerable patient populations.

“From the minute they walk in the door, we want to signal that the patient is valued and that there is no difference between walking into this building and walking into any other [medical] building where the patients are at the center of the experience,” says Dr. State, who serves as the executive director of the UCSF Child, Teen & Family Center.

Throughout the building, beauty is married with high-performance design to create a welcoming environment, inviting scientific inquiry as well as healing. Not unlike ZGF’s work in children’s hospitals and other healthcare environments, careful attention is placed on design interventions that support safety, while also promoting a sense of normalcy and optimism.

Openness to the community and transparency in how the building will operate is a primary design driver and will be emphasized through the central atrium and the materials palette. In support of normalizing the care environment – and in stark contrast to the institutional palettes and harsh fixtures typically associated with behavioral healthcare – the design will use extensive daylighting, integrated graphics, color, texture and natural materials. Inspiration for the materials comes in part from San Francisco’s colorful “Painted Ladies” houses and the foggy ocean surroundings to evoke a comforting, home-like environment. The location itself, sited on the edge of the UCSF Mission Bay Campus, enables patients to be fully part of the medical community, and not relegated to a faraway locale as is often the case with psychiatric facilities.

“A departure from a centuries-old model, the building brings traditional science and psychiatry back together, so that the physical and psychological are looked at simultaneously, and researchers can come together to find new avenues for diagnosis and discovery to lead to new treatments,” says Jan Willemse, a design partner with ZGF who has helped shape the project from the outset.

The building will bring multiple programs and researchers at UCSF’s Department of Psychiatry under one roof for the first time and enable flexibility, interaction and collaboration among the neurosurgeons, practitioners, clinicians and staff who will work across the connected floors. “We strongly believe in and wanted to execute on the idea that psychiatry plays a crucial and equal role in the neuroscience community,” said Dr. State.

Early integrated design events held between ZGF and UCSF user groups showed just how drastic a difference this model will make – with researchers quickly envisioning opportunities for collaboration by virtue of being located in the same building. By treating patients ranging from child to adult, researchers and clinicians will be able to better understand physiological explanations for behavior, and also environmental factors across a patient’s lifespan.

A 180-seat auditorium will further encourage collaboration, creating space to host meetings and exchange ideas among members of the Department of Psychiatry, and with the Bay Area community, numerous partners and stakeholders.

To best support patient care across generations, clearly-defined entrances will separate access for adults, and for pediatric patients at the Child, Teen & Family Center, as well as access to research spaces. Patient floors will be designated by specific age populations, creating a specialized patient experience whether the patient is seven or 70. Floors will be outfitted with identical footprint rooms that allow for flexibility between clinical and exam rooms, but also for when programs need to flex and grow. To further the feeling of transparency and inclusiveness, glazing will maximize openness and rooms will be outfitted with wood-trimmed doors.

During planning, careful attention was given to not only ensuring interaction among staff and researchers on each floor, but also interaction via vertical circulation and ample collaboration spaces. Patient waiting rooms will be located adjacent to the atrium – a change from traditionally “hidden” waiting rooms, and in support of the message that behavioral health patients should be visible and treated as they are in other healthcare settings. The atrium itself – visible from the exterior – will serve as a central wayfinding element and symbol of community. Bridges and walkways linking one end of the building to the other will promote connectivity across disciplines and between patients and staff.

Beyond discoveries within the building’s walls, proximity to wet research labs and the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital – all located on the Mission Bay campus – will give patients and families the opportunity to participate in progressive clinical research that will support long-term treatment and wellness.

“My biggest hope is that this building is a game-changer for behavioral health facilities,” said design lead and ZGF principal Justin Brooks. “That the design supports existing patients and those seeking treatment and supports a changing attitude toward behavioral health spaces that will proliferate throughout the healthcare community.”

During the month of May, ZGF is recognizing Mental Health Awareness Month with a series of posts and videos that explore the topic of designing behavioral health spaces.

ZGF’s Tammy Felker on Humanizing Behavioral Health Spaces Through Design

Before embarking on a career in architecture, ZGF’s Tammy Felker – featured in the below video – had an inkling that design was in her future, so much so that family-vacation itineraries were often dictated by visits to historical sites and buildings.

While working as a critical-care nurse at the University of Virginia Medical Center, her career intersected with architecture during her involvement with the university’s hospital replacement project. It became apparent to Felker that healthcare design could benefit from a clinician’s perspective. After 16 years in nursing, she earned a Master of Architecture in 2001 and has worked in medical planning and design ever since.

During her career, Felker has seen a dramatic shift in the way hospitals and healthcare systems approach behavioral health. Compared to all healthcare facility types, she says, the physical environment of an in-patient behavioral-health unit, in particular, has the greatest potential to impact patient outcomes.

When it comes to designing spaces for the greatest therapeutic benefits, Felker says ZGF’s approach is to introduce design interventions that promote a sense of normalcy and healing, while balancing patient and staff safety considerations.

“The spaces and rooms, the furnishings, the fixtures, they’re all tools to help with healing, just like an IV pump in a medical-surgical unit,” she said. “Presenting options for patients’ choice of care, control of the environment and interactions with others is really important as well. This can all be enhanced by the physical environment we create.”

At Swedish Medical Center’s Ballard Medical Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) in Seattle, the ZGF design team inherited two floors of an existing hospital that would be renovated into a 22-bed space promoting recovery, mindfulness and safety. Designed to simulate the activities of daily living, the facility includes private spaces for patient bedrooms, transitional zones, and communal spaces for dining, activities and interactions with fellow patients and staff.

In stark contrast to what Felker first encountered as an architect – when only prison-grade fixtures were available to those designing BHUs – the Swedish project incorporates wood, fabrics, wall coverings, Corian counters and even ceramic tile. These are familiar materials found in homes that also lend a feeling of sophistication. While elevating the experience for patients, these finishes also carry the dual benefits of safety and durability. Acoustical considerations also drove design decisions, as noise can often agitate patient populations, she said.

The solid-core reception desk at the main nurse circulation area serves dual roles. Custom-milled and built from Corian, its unique shape and textural edge help it act like an art feature. But the desk also provides a potential barrier between patients and staff when needed, in contrast to old models like the kind depicted in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” with nurses seated behind a wire-glass enclosure, and pills being slipped under a pass-through cutout.

Another key design driver for the Swedish BHU is the emerging trauma-informed model of care. To minimize the need to restrain patients – which can trigger memories of past trauma – the project includes calming rooms for de-escalation. The quiet spaces allow patients to change the color and intensity of lighting in the rooms, imparting a sense of safety and control. Patients also use them to meditate and practice breathing exercises, the kind of skills that can be developed in the inpatient environment to manage symptoms after being discharged.

An exercise room featuring a stationary bicycle, yoga mat and exercise ball – unique to the Swedish BHU – is helpful in combatting depression and foundational to overall health and wellness.

Circadian lighting helps synchronize patients’ natural sleep-wake rhythms, marking the passage of time and providing a sense of calm as the day winds down.
Circadian lighting helps synchronize patients’ natural sleep-wake rhythms.

In common areas, tunable LED lighting helps synchronize patients’ natural sleep-wake rhythms, marking the passage of time and providing a sense of calm as the day winds down.

To destigmatize the environment in the BHU, existing structural columns were transformed into nature-inspired art features covered with glass and ceramic tile. This is another departure from BHU designs of old, where structural columns were wrapped in concrete and painted, leaving grooves, steel housings and fixtures exposed.

“What’s really important is the message we send to patients, their families and the community,” Felker said. “Through the design, we are signaling that these are valued members of society and that the hospital and the organization has invested in these spaces to provide comfortable, warm and therapeutic environments for their wellbeing.”

During the month of May, ZGF is recognizing Mental Health Awareness Month with a series of posts and videos that explore the topic of designing behavioral health spaces.


New Approaches to the Design of Behavioral Health Spaces

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month this May, we’ll be publishing three pieces about designing behavioral health spaces. First, in the video below, we spotlight two of our newest projects: UCSF’s Child, Teen & Family Center and Department of Psychiatry Building and Swedish Medical Center-Ballard’s Behavioral Health Unit. Both are advancing the look, feel, and functionality of modern mental health facilities, and challenge long-held notions of what these facilities can and should be.


The results of a new post-occupancy evaluation of the Swedish Medical Center facility  – posting to in the coming weeks –  shows the impact design can have on the patient experience and patient outcomes.

The demand for behavioral health services has never been more pronounced. The primary driver is a 2008 federal health law that requires insurers to cover mental health at the same level as other types of healthcare. Today, one in five American adults reports suffering from a mental-health condition, and half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14. Despite these statistics, the negative stigmas associated with mental illness, combined with a scarcity of clinicians and facilities, resulted in over half of those with behavioral health conditions forgoing treatment last year. This population is among the most marginalized in the U.S. healthcare system.

As awareness around mental health issues grows, so does the imperative to provide environments that support healing.

At ZGF, we are committed to creating beautiful environments that are safe, friendly, and therapeutic for patients, their families, and healthcare staff.

During the month of May, ZGF is recognizing Mental Health Awareness Month with a series of posts and videos that explore the topic of designing behavioral health spaces.

TEDxPortland: A Day of Inspiring Speakers, A Lifetime of Inspiration

From subsidy-less affordable housing, to a virtual symphony, to the future of bionic limbs, this year’s TEDxPortland delivered awe and inspiration with each of its 13 speakers. The oldest of the local TED “x” events, the day-long conference has a rich history of spreading ideas, sharing knowledge and building community in Portland.

ZGF shares TEDxPortland’s commitment to knowledge sharing and community and we have been involved with TEDxPortland since its inception eight years ago. ZGF’ers not only serve on the board, but are past speakers, too, and each year we send a ZGF contingent to experience TEDx.

Alluding to one of Portland’s characteristic charms, the theme of this year’s event was Bridges— with speakers focusing their talks on mending the divide between today’s social and political differences.

In the spirit of TED, we want to share our most inspiring moments from the conference:


Who was your favorite speaker and why? 


Tyrone Poole hit on something I strive to do in my creative work when he said, “people that don’t know what the box looks like always think outside the box.” It is easy to let what we already know suppress hidden opportunities. — Mak Shibuya, AIA, Associate




It’s difficult to choose a favorite…but the speaker that stood out was Colleen Yeager, a mother fighting for equality for her transgender son. Her message, “everybody deserves the right to be themselves,” is indicative of the fact that not everyone feels free to be their true, authentic selves out of fear they won’t be accepted. Her story inspired me to spread compassion and open-mindedness, showing people, especially children, that this world is meant for them, no matter who they choose to be. — Megan Donaldson, PR Coordinator


What are your 3 key takeaways from the TEDx Portland conference?


1) The energy that people possess and exude for something they are passionate about is incredible. In our own personal way, we have the possibility to be influential, whether it’s positive or negative – so choose wisely. 2) We need more empathy in this world. Be yourself and develop your own sympathetic magic of authenticity, intuition, and transparency. 3) Life is work, family and everything in between. There is no balancing act, it is enough. Do it well and lovingly toward yourself and those that surround you. — Sophie Hong, AIA



Read and be critical of data and information, be a student of history (precedence matters), and be inclusive and embrace diversity. — Gene Sandoval, AIA, Partner




How do you plan to apply your takeaways to your work at ZGF? 

R_180420_printmediumWatching the art of storytelling unfold with each speaker was magical. I took inspiration from the very structure of what I saw: how to craft and tell a great story that makes people take notice, take notes, and a week later still get teary thinking about it (that’s me getting teary!). I want to bring that level of storytelling to our projects at ZGF and help every one of us build up the chops to tell our stories with the emotional precision of the TEDxPortland speakers I saw. — Monica Schaffer, Associate Partner, Director of Communications


E_150615_N440_printmediumLead, push our leaders, clients and partners to embrace and promote reform, on behalf of community and through our built environment. — Peter van der Meulen, AIA, LEED AP, Principal




E_150615_N338_printmedium“Nothing significant ever happened without challenges. Without challenges there is no brilliance.” (Mira Kaddoura) – I’ll stop missing 100% of the shots I don’t take and appreciate the failures alongside the successes. — Kim Bandy, Assoc. AIA, Associate



For more info on TEDxPortland and videos of the speakers from the past eight years of TEDx goodness, please visit

VIDEO: The Power of Computational Design

In our latest video, we share a variety of case studies highlighting our use of computational design to make informed design decisions earlier than ever, and to understand the larger ramifications of those choices. The result: more and better options for our clients, and more cost-effective solutions overall for human-centered, high-performance spaces.


Our teams use computational design in many ways, including:

  1. Simulating employee movement within a new tech campus. By using data from the client’s existing office space, we can ensure that proposed circulation paths are optimized to handle the flow of employees at high-traffic times including their arrival at work, when they head to lunch and during their end-of-day departures.
  2. Balancing energy use and occupant comfort in a proposed office mid-rise by modeling external shading configurations. This led us to shed an unnecessary and costly external louver, thereby saving money without sacrificing comfort or energy performance.
  3. Intentional, rather than intuitive, building programming for a proposed Seattle tech campus where the effects of the sun’s daily arc were simulated minute by minute. By minimizing glare and heat gain in key areas, thermal comfort and access to daylight were maximized while the energy needed to cool the building was dramatically reduced.
  4. Rapid design iteration of a complicated curved-façade high-rise allowed hundreds of iterations to be generated in days rather than weeks, providing the design team with access to a range of options and new solutions for the client.

For more, watch the video above.