Austrian adventure and trekking travel company ASI Reisen chose to build its new headquarters in the natural surroundings of Innsbruck. This reflects not only the corporate culture of this company but also the very concept of the building itself. The symbiosis between humanity and nature lies at the very heart of this new structure.
Some people’s idea of adventure travel means jumping on board a plane and flying to the other end of the world – without any consideration for humanity or the natural environment. A diametrically opposed approach is taken by the sustainable adventure travel company ASI, which offers some 2000 travel packages to 92 counties. Every trip entails countless considerations to ensure that a core part of the experience is the greatest possible respect for the environment. The issue of sustainability has been an integral element in the company’s philosophy since day one. When Hannes Gasser founded the company in 1963, his motto was “mind and soul for nature and culture.”
For the past ten years, his son Ambros has managed the business. In retrospect, he says, “Nobody talked about sustainability back then, but, from the very start, we were greatly concerned about raising awareness of this very issue. What emerged from this commitment has since become a clearly defined mission for us.” Specifically, this means constantly monitoring the environmental footprint left by travel, and, wherever possible, minimizing it. And what can’t be eliminated is 100 per cent compensated for by ASI Reisen. At the same time, value creation at the local level – i.e. for the benefit of the communities at the holiday location – is measured and continuously increased. The result is not only a sustainable model of tourism for travelers but also for local communities.
When it came to building a new headquarters for its 65 employees in Natters, a small Tirol community located just south of Innsbruck, it was clear that the new office space had to reflect the company’s culture and its commitment to sustainability. After brainstorming with a number of architectural offices, Gasser found the ideal partners in the Norwegian design team from Snøhetta. The architects have taken on such prestigious large-scale projects as the Oslo Opera House and the National September 11 Memorial Museum & Pavilion at the World Trade Center site, but have also gained valuable experience designing buildings in sensitive natural environments. As the new ASI Reisen headquarters was to be built in lush forest surroundings, the Norwegians proved to be the perfect choice.
“As far as I was concerned, it didn’t matter how the building looked. What was of prime importance was whether the new office space could provide a harmonious working atmosphere for our employees,” explained Gasser. In order to optimally tailor the building to the company’s requirements and operations, employees were asked to take part in the design process. They were grouped into workshops and asked to find a word which best described what they wanted from the new building. Two groups chose the word “symbiosis” and another “synergy.” “In the final analysis, the two concepts aren’t so very different,” says Gasser. And in fact, the workplace reflects the true symbiosis between people and the natural surroundings, as well as creating synergies between the building’s interior and exterior.
To make place for the new head office, a company building erected in the 1980s first had to be torn down. The new building was then connected to an existing structure from the 1990s with a bridge. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows and a radically open floor plan result in the space being permeated with sunlight, while at the same time providing a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and forests. An abundance of plants (at least 160) bolsters the interior’s natural mood within the office and the omnipresent use of woods such as spruce, larch, and silver fir.
“The façade is covered with ivy, hops, wild vines, and other local climbing plants, thereby integrating the building with its natural environment, as well as establishing a wonderful interaction with the landscape,” says Gasser. What’s more, the appearance of this “green curtain” changes throughout the year and thus also adapts to seasonal thermal insulation requirements. The microclimate created by this green buffer zone reduces the energy needed for cooling the building. The plants are automatically irrigated by a system utilizing collected rainwater.
Just as with their travel offers, the impact on the environment during construction was kept low thanks to sustainable construction methods that economically make use of natural materials – especially wood. Another factor was employing an optimized energy concept that includes both low and high-tech solutions, such as an air-water heat pump system.
“To promote symbiosis in the space, we have created different zones, which combine and vibrate with each other,” explains Gasser. Instead of individual offices and walls, the office space is completely open, stretching out over three floors. Everything is transparent and everything is permeable. There are a few soft barriers, shelves with plants, and a couple of closed conference rooms, but these are the exceptions. The workplaces look the same for everyone, even for the boss. He doesn’t sit in his own office, either. Instead, he is right in the midst of things and rotates with the team every six months. Then it’s off to another table with different employees from other departments.
“It’s the hip thing right now to come to the office and find your own workplace. That doesn’t mesh with our company culture, so we decided upon a longer timeframe before changing work stations,” conveys Gasser. At the moment, he shares a four-person table with a programmer, a product developer, and a colleague from the sales team. This way, staff from various departments of the operation get to see each other’s day-to-day business, which fosters an understanding of the bigger picture. Besides the work tables, there are open meeting zones, such as the lobby with its comfortable sofas, the so-called “base camp,” the meeting niches, known as “bivouacs,” and the “marketplace,” a canteen for 70 people, where, once a month, the staff eats breakfast together.
When asked about his progressive entrepreneurship, Gasser responds unpretentiously. “I wouldn’t call it that at all. But I do receive a lot of input and my task is to sort things out and see what fits with our corporate culture.” One of those “fits” led to the creation of a silence room. In the old office, some staff members liked to nap in the afternoon and seek out secluded places like the archive. Gasser responded with plans for a quiet space in the new building. In addition to nap niches, the room hosts yoga sessions twice a week and, on two other days, a shiatsu therapist sets up her couch and massages necks and shoulders.
On the basis of regularly conducted anonymous surveys, Gasser has concluded that his employees are far happier in the new building. The name of the new headquarters says it all. The staff lovingly call it the “ASI nest.”