Case Studies

NK Architects

NK Architects finds a captive market for green-building: schools and healthcare facilities

Institutional clients like schools and healthcare providers are increasingly willing to invest long term, both with the incorporation of renewable energy and sustainable design. That makes them ideal clients for architecture firms like NK Architects.

NK Architects is a full-service architecture, interior design, planning and structural engineering firm based in Morristown, New Jersey. It works closely with schools and healthcare providers—two core markets that have a particular interest in the kind of sustainable, high-performance construction NK Architects specializes in.

NK Architects

In this niche, NK Architects has made a name for itself. Two recent education projects attained LEED Gold Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and Modern Healthcare named NK Architects the “#1 Healthcare Architecture Firm in New Jersey.”

Daniel Topping, a principal at the firm, says there are two reasons for that success. On one hand, NK Architects’ forward-thinking clients are “taking the long view of their construction,” so they’re willing to invest in green technology and design practices. On the other hand, NK Architects is committed to advancing the industry by leading the way with green and sustainable design best practices and being a vocal industry proponent.

“In our core market of education and healthcare, we are institutional partners with our clients,” Topping says. “Our clients really feel we’re able to use sustainable, high-performance design to help them move in directions they may not even know they want to go in … We’re an integrated approach to designing for a better future.”

Partnering with progressive schools and universities

NK Architects specializes in K-12 private schools and both public and private higher education institutions.

In 2016, the firm achieved LEED Gold Certification for Oliver Street School, one of the New Jersey School Development Authority’s (NJSDA) public schools in Newark, New Jersey. NK Architects used a design-build approach for that 130,000-square-foot elementary school, which occupies an entire city block and includes specialized instruction classrooms, a media center, an assembly room, cafeteria and gymnasium, as well as administrative and support facilities.

On the private side, NK Architects is helping smaller schools like Chapin School in Princeton, New Jersey, seek LEED certification, too.

In late 2015, NK Architects completed University Hall, a LEED Gold, ground-up, 80,000-square-foot academic building for William Paterson University. Of all the public institutions in New Jersey, Topping says, William Paterson is “very progressive” when it comes to installing renewables, so that project included solar power, as well as a heavy focus on daylighting and energy efficiency.

A shift toward resiliency in healthcare design

On the healthcare side, NK Architects does everything from ground-up buildings for health systems to senior care and outpatient medical office buildings.

Many of the firm’s healthcare clients in New York City have, after Hurricane Sandy, made resilient design a priority. Some of those clients even receive FEMA, or Federal Emergency Management Agency, funding to make their buildings more resilient.

In some cases, that’s “the small, silly things” like moving emergency generators from the basement, where they’re going to get flooded, to the roof. In other cases, resilient design means taking “a more holistic look at what the physical layout, flexibility and how a building can serve over time in a more resilient manner,” Topping says.

One of the firm’s recent healthcare successes was a LEED Gold nursing home in Middlesex County, New Jersey. That was the first LEED-certified nursing home in the state, and when compared to other, similar facilities, it was roughly 35 percent more energy efficient.

Green building advocates

Of NK Architects’ technical staff, 60 percent are LEED accredited professionals, and they’re quick to share their knowledge and expertise. They regularly advocate for green building practices, speaking at, for instance, healthcare seminars and architecture industry conferences on the East Coast.

“We are active believers in the outreach that keeps information sharing,” says Topping, who also sits on the USGBC New Jersey chapter’s board of directors.

In 2016, NK Architects spoke at meeting of ERAPPA—the Eastern Region of the Association of Physical Plant Administrators—which supports the planning, maintenance and operations of educational facilities in the eastern U.S. and Canada. The firm regularly speaks before the National Association of Independent Schools, or NAIS, a non-profit, membership-based association that supports more than 1,800 independent schools in the U.S. and abroad.

Its projects are often used as locations for seminars and case studies. For instance, 350.org, a global organization leading the charge against climate change, hosted a building tour and conversation at William Paterson University’s University Hall.

Cultivating a culture of curiosity

To keep its staff at the forefront of the green building industry, NK Architects hosts in-house seminars as well.

“We try to cultivate a culture, in-house, that activates a sense of curiosity and discovery that each professional that works here has,” Topping says. “There’s no real, top-down approach. We’re really an organization largely filled with licensed professionals and curious, self-directed people.”

The firm works closely with USGBC for both education and networking. Recently USGBC hosted a seminar to educate NK Architects’ staff on the International WELL Building Institute, a green-building organization and standard committed to improving human health and wellbeing through the built environment.

Next, NK Architects is preparing for the transition to LEED v4. With each LEED update, Topping said, it takes a while to get the industry trained and up-to-speed. NK Architects is prepared to work with its external partners to make sure they don’t hit any unexpected roadblocks as LEED v4 is adopted.

“Then, once all parties are more versed in it, it’s a lot easier,” he says. “Then you continue. You ratchet down. You push in the direction; you kind of legislate toward the world you want to make.”

NK Architects will continue to push toward the world it wants—a well-designed, sustainable and resilient world. “We’re making things attainable through the information and knowledge sharing and ambitions of the entire design world,” Topping says. “We’re getting there.”

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