Green design has been on retailers' good-intentions lists for decades. But it seemed too costly or too difficult for some, while others stopped short when no data were available to show cost-savings to help justify it. But all that may soon change thanks to a somewhat unlikely green giant – Wal-Mart.
In July, the world's biggest retailer, possibly better recognized for land-use wrangles and labor issues, opened a new, experimental store in McKinney, Texas. Above shoppers' heads in the 206,000-square-foot supercenter, underneath their feet and outside near their parked SUVs, 26 experiments with green materials, technologies and processes are being conducted and studied. Those findings will be analyzed and shared, possibly helping to usher in a new era of sustainable design that will benefit not only the planet but also the retail industry as a whole.
"We wanted to learn how [we] could improve in the area of sustainability," says Wal-Mart spokesperson Tara Stewart. "We're looking at how we can leave a lighter footprint as we go forward developing stores."
Wal-Mart has dabbled in environmentally friendly design in the past, testing a handful of technologies at stores in Lawrence, Kan., City of Industry, Calif., and Moore, Okla., in the early 90s. Some, such as skylights and dimming systems, became standard for Wal-Mart stores.
But Stewart points out that McKinney is one big green experiment. "We put in everything," she says, including wind energy, solar technology, water conservation, climate control, daylighting and alternative freezer and cooler refrigeration units.
Some are skeptical, calling it merely a good public relations effort that Wal-Mart needs at the moment. But even skeptics are hard-pressed to dismiss the potential this green experiment offers to the industry.
"On one hand, I feel that Wal-Mart is jumping on the bandwagon because it's cool to do now," says Jerry Chevassus, vp, real estate, for REI (Kent, Wash.), which has designed environmentally minded stores for decades. "On the other hand, at least they're attempting to build stores that are sensitive to the environment. And, if a multi-billion dollar corporation takes the lead, it's going to make it easier for us and a lot of other retailers to do the same."
Paul Wanzer, project director at Mithun, a Seattle-based architecture and design firm that specializes in resource-sensitive and sustainable design, agrees the impact could be huge. "I think it's going to show a lot of other people that this is not just some emotional green movement that doesn't make any sense financially," he says.
Others are waiting to see how much useful information actually makes it out of Bentonville. "It will legitimize them as a leader if they share it all," says Marc Mondor, principal at evolveEA, a Pittsburgh-based design and consulting firm that works with Giant Eagle on its award-winning environmentally friendly supermarkets.
Two years ago, Wal-Mart began working with a team of outside experts in green design, architecture, engineering, building controls, landscaping and construction to push the limits of green technologies that perhaps had never been used in a retail setting. In McKinney, Wal-Mart isn't just testing skylights and low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints, but also measuring pervious pavement's ability to reduce runoff in the parking lot by allowing water to infiltrate it; the efficiency of a 50-kilowatt wind turbine to supplement some of the supercenter's electricity needs; and the success of combining waste cooking oil with used automotive oil to fuel the building's heating system.
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a multi-program science and technology laboratory managed for the U.S. Department of Energy, will monitor and analyze the store's systems and materials for the next three years and compare the data with control stores located just a few miles away.
"That information will really help transform the industry," says Rod Wille, principal-in-charge at Turner Construction (Sacramento, Calif.), which worked on the design and construction of the McKinney store (as well as another experimental Wal-Mart store, in Aurora, Colo., slated to open by the end of the year). Wille says Turner has built more than 130 green buildings, but rarely receives feedback on how those green systems actually perform on the job. "Wal-Mart will now be able to tell us 'yes' or 'no' on some of those features," he says.
Wal-Mart says it could start introducing proven green systems into new stores as early as 2006. The sheer impact of its empire adopting just a few of these experimental technologies is hard to ignore. "We don't usually focus on our size, but this is an instance where it can really make a difference," says Stewart.
For instance, imagine 3700 stores switching to a more energy-efficient light bulb. The potential energy savings and reductions in carbon dioxide emissions could be enough to please even Ralph Nader. Furthermore, what will Target, JC Penney or Kroger do if the world's largest retailer becomes a green role model?
Data collection is underway in McKinney, and soon retailers may have a better picture of the viability of green design.