Simple & Sustainable

by Nate Hunter

A green approach to retailing store design.

Sustainable, or green, design has been instilled in the American psyche by various facets of the media over the last several years. As designers of a variety of building types, from high rise office buildings, airports, educational facilities, data centers and sports stadiums, it has become commonplace for our clients to request that their new facility achieve LEED certification, often seeking the higher end of either Gold or Platinum ratings. One sector we have seen a lag in these requests is in our retail practice area.

As we work with retail clients we often here that they looked at LEED several years ago, and the task of implementation was too complex or costly. While this may be true in some cases, the effort to achieve the same benefits that are commonly associated with LEED can be achieved through a slightly more focused process.

Gensler KFCSydneyAustraliaTypically, the journey into the greening of a retail operations starts by focusing on the store itself. Some retailers that we have worked with have been mandated by senior management to ensure that every new store achieve LEED certification. LEED is the predominate standard for sustainable design in the U.S., and stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.” It was created by the United States Green Building Council (USBGC), which administers the standards and regularly updates them to ensure that current requirements exceed standard practices and codes. The original LEED protocol was designed for corporate office buildings, and many of the LEED credits do a far better job at addressing scenarios related to office buildings rather than retail store design. Even LEED for Retail can be difficult to implement, and the protocol intended to support retail rollout required unyielding adherence to prototypical designs — often to the point of being impractical.

Upon completion of a LEED assessment of a retail store, what commonly follows is a realization that the LEED standards can be ill-fitting to a large portion of the retail industry. Retailers who are on tight schedules and budgets may find that the requirements of LEED make adherence to the program difficult. Ironically, smaller footprints suffer the most, as the administrative expenses are generally consistent, but without a large design and construction budget to absorb the cost, the smaller facilities typically cannot bare the expense. Standard retail lease durations can future complicate the situation, as the opportunities to recoup the initial investment can be diminished.

In today’s economic environment, the logical choice is to create sustainable design programs that specifically address the needs of the specific brand. The opportunities for an electronics retailer or grocery store will be sustainably different than a clothing or dry goods retailer. By focusing on the specific design and operations of the store itself, and then creating a series of achievable and measurable goals for reduction and economization, meaningful advancements in improving operations can be made.

Gensler REIBoulderCOThis process should start with an assessment of the built facility or prototype. Opportunities to reduce both first costs and operational costs should be considered. As operational costs are reoccurring, while first costs occur only once, operational costs should be weighted greater than first costs. All too often, facility design has been considered separately, overly focusing on the reduction of first costs. Standard accounting practices which separate construction budgets from operational expenses must be set aside to ensure that facilities are genuinely designed to the benefit of the retailer. Investment in systems that will allow the monitoring systems that represent the largest utility expenses, such as air conditioning and heating, lighting and water usage should be evaluated. Past and anticipated escalation of utility expenses should be factored in the study as should reoccurring maintenance expenses. The impact that one system has on another should be considered as well. For example, not only are LED lights more cost-effective to operate, the lighting heat load could be reduced, which would result in less heat load, likely smaller HVAC units, and lower monthly utility bills in the cooling part of the year. Take into account the high cost to re-lamp a retail store every year or two, and a clear financial model can be developed for consideration.

Smart sustainable design should not be limited to high-tech systems or controls. The green mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” reinforces the concept of smaller and simpler is better. This concept should be applied not only to square footage, but complexity. Reducing complexity lessens the chance of operational failure. Favoring simple solutions over complex technical design should be a directive given to the entire team. Investing first in simple elements, insulation, better door and window assemblies, and exterior solar controls will reduce the amount of heating and cooling that will have to be utilized to keep the store at acceptable operating temperatures.

While the facility is being analyzed, operations should be reviewed and feedback sought by the design team from the persons responsible for maintaining the facilities. Determining what materials, fixtures or systems are performing satisfactorily is vital to achieving the goal of sustainable design. Specifying a low cost ceiling tile can be costly if it is found that the tile is being replaced at twice the rate that a slightly more expensive alternate would be.

While many retailers elect to open flagship LEED stores, the effort can result in a few over-designed celebrations of sustainability that fail to make a serious impact on the retailer’s entire portfolio. Too often, marketing money is allocated to non-performing systems or features, which run the risk of becoming future problems for the operational staff. Restraint must be exercised to avoid these unfortunate decisions and keep the focus on the identification of better strategies that can be implemented across the entire real estate portfolio.

Retailers should also avail themselves of the massive amount of annual research undertaken by retail leaders such as Walmart. Since 2005 Walmart has been conducting extensive research on every aspect of the design and operations of its retail stores and distribution centers. This information is shared with the retail community at an annual conference at the Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters and published on its website ( Past research has included studying the idle time for tractor-trailer delivery trucks, the practicality and ramifications of waterless urinals, and alternate energy generation, to name a few. Every item is evaluated based on a holistic grading scale where initial cost, life cycle cost and customer satisfaction are all considered.

It’s vital that retailers continue to evaluate their strategies and stay current with practical solutions. Advancements in lighting, building materials, HVAC equipment and controls all continue to improve. New exterior lighting control systems now offer the ability to individually control each exterior light, and can be retrofitted to existing lighting fixtures. Retrofitting these systems can transform a poorly designed and poorly performing parking lot lighting package into a finely tuned system that can be controlled to suit the needs of the retail operation throughout the various parts of the night.

Staying current with proven technology is paramount to success. Early adoption of new systems should be carefully considered and the risks evaluated. Care should be exercised in evaluating the quality of new materials. Years ago, as the green movement was gaining momentum, we saw a rush for manufacturers to rush to market green products. Some of these early products proved unable to withstand the rigors of abuse that an active retail store demands. To be truly sustainable, materials must have a durable life equal to or in excess of comparable conventional materials. Bamboo was often heralded as a green flooring material, with an emphasis on it rapid growth rate allowing the bamboo forests to rapidly replenish itself. In ideal growing conditions, some species of bamboo can grow at an astonishing 24 inches per day. When compared to an oak tree that may take over 100 years to reach full size, bamboo appeared to be an excellent choice. What was soon discovered was that virtually every species of bamboo (there are over 40) are far too soft to withstand the impact of ladies’ high-heeled footwear. As a result, floors became dimpled and began to exhibit unacceptable wear within weeks of installation. Had proper research been conducted, the design team would have likely learned that the few species of bamboo that are dense enough to be successfully used in commercial flooring applications are amongst the most expensive and difficult to obtain.

Some early energy-efficient lighting proved incapable to throwing light onto displays, or suffered poor color rendition, making clothing look unflattering. Designers would often specify high-quality LED fixtures, only to have the specification modified by vendors who assured the accountants that the alternate fixture was equal to the original specification and only half the price. The outcome was usually not positive — with poor quality, foreign-made components that lacked engineering sufficient to achieve the required performance.

Sustainable operations policies must be developed in conjunction with the facility design. There is little point in designing a green facility if the staff is uneducated in how to run it, or the companies’ operational polices are not aligned with sustainability practices.

Finally, it is important to develop a sustainable message for your customer base. This can be as simple as a page on your company website that explains your ongoing refinement of design and operations standards, or public education programs, or even web-based real time monitoring of utility consumption illustrating annual savings as they occur. Restraint should be exercised when engaging PR departments or advertising agencies, as they can overstate the significance of a material or strategy. Carpet with a backing material that utilizes 3% post-consumer material is hardly noteworthy, yet it has been included in press releases as if it was a significant design element. Today’s consumer — specifically the younger Gen-Y’s — not only expect the companies they support to have a green story, they can spot disingenuous green-washing quickly.

Most retailers are still facing a fragile economy, reduced expansion plans and reductions in staff — all of which are likely to continue. Doing more with less is likely to be a trend for the next few years in retail facility design and construction. Sustainable design has been with us long enough where the novelty has worn off, but retailers should continue to seek effective ways to integrate sustainable design into their portfolio with a focus to enhance profits, reduce waste and make a positive impact on their communities, customers and staff.



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