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Riding Out the Storm

Think the recession has spelled the end of the green design movement? These designers and retailers say “think again.”



Five years ago, you couldn’t talk about retail design without hearing buzzwords like “green,” “sustainable” and “energy efficient.” Today, conversations about what’s new in retail design are fewer, as the number of projects have dropped off. So, naturally, there’s less talk about green. But does that mean the movement is dead?

“Green design has slowed down because everything has slowed down,” says Kevin O’Donnell, founder, Thread Collaborative (North Hollywood, Calif.). “It’s not necessarily because of costs, but because there’s less development, less new building.”

Jo Rossman, manager, sustainability and designer programs for the Association for Retail Environments (A.R.E.), agrees the slowdown is related to the economy, not a lack of interest in green. “It still has support,” she says.

In fact, the biggest difference many designers are seeing is that the conversation has evolved from “Are you thinking about sustainability?” to “This is what we’re already doing.”

“Companies are more strategic about it,” says Brian Bucher, creative director, WD Partners (Dublin, Ohio). “It’s a more holistic view of ‘what do we stand for and how can we get credit for it?’ ”

Rachel Zsembery, an associate at Bergmeyer Associates Inc. (Boston), says she sees more corporate mission statements incorporating environmental philosophies that are influencing store design. “The premium costs have come down, so people are saying it’s the right thing, let’s do it,” she says.


From November 2008 to 2009, Office Depot (Boca Raton, Fla.) tracked a variety of environmental factors at its first LEED certified store, in Austin, Texas. Those efficiency results showed that the location was using approximately 14 percent less electricity and was 15 percent more energy efficient than other Office Depot stores. As a result, the company announced earlier this year that it will pursue LEED certification for all new retail stores. “The results prove how beneficial a green building can be from both an environmental and economic perspective,” says Yalmaz Siddiqui, director of environmental strategy for Office Depot.

Just like the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program has helped create a framework for how to build green, local and state-wide mandates are also becoming a driving force in getting it done. “It’s not so much of a stretch anymore,” says Zsembery. “It’s almost expected in certain regions.”

The changing look of green

One of the challenges now for designers and retailers is learning how to integrate branded store environments with a sustainability angle. When WD started working with full-service restaurant chain Eat’N Park, Bucher says the client wanted a more sustainable restaurant design while maintaining its familiar dining environment. “It was more important to look and feel like its other restaurants than to look green,” he says. So designers focused a lot of their efforts on energy-saving measures that were reserved to back of house or weren’t necessarily noticeable to patrons, including more efficient ventilation, Energy Star-rated appliances and wind energy. In the front of the house, LED lighting and low-VOC wall and floor coverings were added.

A major player in the restaurant sector, Darden Restaurants (Orlando, Fla.) has also sought a more environmentally friendly way of doing business for its more than 1800 restaurants. Four years ago, the company embarked on a corporate plan to reduce energy use by 15 percent by 2015. “To make that goal, we have to hit it on a number of different levels,” says Todd Taylor, Darden’s director of design.

Last September, the company opened a state-of-the-art, LEED-certified headquarters building in Orlando and, by the end of 2010, will have opened eight restaurants going for LEED certification in its Olive Garden, Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse chains. Lessons learned from these “labs” will also be applied to new restaurants and remodels across Darden’s entire portfolio, such as increased use of natural lighting, Energy Star-rated appliances, heat reclamation systems and new lighting programs that replace 75-watt bulbs (which had to be changed out two to three times a year) with 7-watt LEDs that last up to 50,000 hours.


Taylor advises other retailers looking to increase their green efforts to just “jump in.”

“There’s so much low-hanging fruit that you can go for,” such as low-flow faucets and toilets, he says. “Then build on that momentum toward something more challenging.” Now, Darden has started looking into water conservation, an area that A.R.E.’s Rossman says is getting a lot more attention because of the cost savings. “This will be the next big push,” she says, including increased use of low flow, dual flush and waterless urinals and switching to low-flow aerators in restroom and back-of-house faucets. A.R.E. member Fetzer Architectural Woodwork reported that by changing its faucet aerators, the company saved approximately 47,000 gallons of water a year and saw a return on investment within two months.

Think locally, act locally

Aligning with the popularity of community-based design, the use of locally sourced materials and repurposed objects is also gaining momentum. For years, Timberland has relied on repurposed objects to connect with the communities in which its stores are located. At its SoHo store, wall panels were constructed of old Vermont snow fences and a coffee table came from a salvage yard in Portland, Maine. Starbucks, which has announced a Shared Planet initiative, used reclaimed champagne racks as wooden cladding and countertops containing recycled mobile phone parts at its Paris Disney location.

Another retailer walking the walk is New Leaf Community Markets, which operates six locations in Northern California. Sarah Miles, New Leaf’s creative director, says incorporating local materials and working with community artists was an integral part of the redesign of its 23,000-square-foot store in Santa Cruz, Calif. “We wanted to build something that was a destination, beyond just a store,” says Miles.

Those touches include a concrete floor inlaid with designs by a local artist, a fireplace made from old pipeline and a community table sourced from a slab of windfall Redwood. Even a visit to local tile maker Paul Burns lead to the discovery – and purchase – of mismatched, discarded Claymonde ceramic tiles for the juice bar, bakery and deli areas. The result, says Miles, is that “shoppers see this as their store.”


On the green horizon

When the economy and retail market picks back up, A.R.E.’s Rossman thinks sustainable design will be right there along with it. “It’s in people’s mindsets,” she says. “Retailers are seeing the cost savings benefit, they get that it’s about savings in the long-run.”

WD’s Bucher says it will also breed more creative ideas and solutions. “Just because it’s sustainable doesn’t mean it has to be minimalism or boring,” he says. “It’s about being better, being smarter. How can we take this new philosophy and do all the things we know people react well to?”



MasterClass: ‘Re-Sparkling’ Retail: Using Store Design to Build Trust, Faith and Brand Loyalty

HOW CAN WE EMPOWER and inspire senior leaders to see design as an investment for future retail growth? This session, led by retail design expert Ian Johnston from Quinine Design, explores how physical stores remain unmatched in the ability to build trust, faith, and loyalty with your customers, ultimately driving shareholder value.

Presented by:
Ian Johnston
Founder and Creative Director, Quinine Design

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