Green Today, Gone Tomorrow?

How post-occupancy testing challenges the latest generation of green retail design.
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Posted November 4, 2013

Our local Kroger seems to have cheaper plastic bags every year. The grocery sack that once held a gallon of milk and a tub of yogurt now might tear as soon as it’s opened. Baggers at my Kroger store have adapted to this, of course, by double bagging everything. Once, at a self-checkout, a helpful attendee even proactively showed me how easy it is to do the same.

If you’ve ever flushed a low-flow toilet twice, cranked up a space heater to overcome a chilly office in the summer or taped over a motion sensor, you’re part of the same phenomenon as the double-baggers: using an environmentally friendly system in an environmentally unfriendly way.

It’s the flip side of an uptick in sustainably sourced materials, green building and fair-trade everything: There are now green products and building systems whose capabilities exceed our motivation to comply with them. For example, consider motion-activated lights that require 30 seconds of waving to click on.

When it comes to retail, interior designers face the twin constraints of set structures, determined by engineers, general contractors or the retailers themselves and client demands, which may lean more toward cost savings than long-term sustainability.

And retailers as tenants, of course, don’t always pay their own utility bills. But according to Rachel Zsembery, a senior associate at Bergmeyer Associates Inc. (Boston), “Any way that you’re affecting the design plays into the end performance of the project, what happens at the end of life of this space and all the materials that you put into it. There’s definitely a responsibility there no matter what your scope is.”

Designers may be able to change that scope, however, as Nathan Lee Colkitt of San Diego-based Colkitt&Co did when prototyping a Puma outlet concept. The green-minded stores include interchangeable stock parts for merchandise displays made of recycled materials, and fixtures can be reconfigured without permanent construction or installation.

Puma came to Colkitt looking for a post-recession facelift for its factory outlet, which had become dated, with limited flexibility for seasonal changes and inventory needs. Colkitt’s new design includes an 8-ft., mobile fixture on wheels that’s two-sided and houses 192 pairs of shoes. An interchangeable kit of parts means that different sizes of shoes can be continually rearranged, and the fixture itself can be disassembled and moved to a new store when the retailer relocates. The designed-for-disassembly fixtures require only minimal labor and the simple tools found in most households.

While a typical 7-10 year lease often ends with a full dumpster out back, Colkitt’s idea was to design a recto-linear store with no interior walls and LEDs hung at a 45-degree angle, the most likely to be useful to the next retailer. “We said, ‘Let’s design a store with no trash.’ I have a fixture that acts as a wall, and it has a bunch of products on it anyway. Why do I need a back-of-house wall?” he explains.

This approach is not only environmentally sound, but offers some financial incentives, too. If the fixtures are unattached and the store is unsuccessful, there’s nothing built into the walls. “Usually, anything you permanently attach to the building can’t be taken with you, but we put fitting rooms and every fixture on wheels,” Colkitt says. Only the cashwrap, with its plentitude of wires and cables, is attached to the sales floor, leaving behind a “clean box” for the next tenant.

Colkitt isn’t concerned that his plan be 100 percent followed, either. Working with the retailer, he says, “is not about selling, it’s about putting energy where energy is well spent. If they don’t keep the lighting, so what? We’ve tackled so much already. We have to pick our battles.”

Sometimes that battle ends in a stalemate, like resignedly double-bagging canned goods at the supermarket. In other words, heed Colkitt's advice: Take the retailer where higher ups are willing to go, accepting the small victories as a part of a greater whole. The benefit? Colkitt and his team ultimately drove forward Puma’s corporate culture (the Puma.Safe program details the company’s “initiatives and commitment for environmental protection and improved working conditions”) by offering a new way of staying sustainable with a clean box concept.

But when you’re working with a cost-conscious retailer – because these designs do often require a greater outlay of capital or, at least, creative expertise – it can be hard enough to convince decision-makers to invest in sustainable materials upfront. Where does back-end testing fit in among these challenges?

Green from the Grounds Up

Even on the green-minded west coast, post-occupancy testing is icing on the cake, not an assumption, especially at smaller retailers. For Olympia Coffee Roasting, designer Roussa Cassel says products like reclaimed wood from Windfall Lumber (Olympia, Wash.) were dictated by company values before she was hired; low-VOC paints and energy-efficient lighting were also givens. Cassel, who subsequently became a consultant for Windfall, says visiting suppliers as she begins a new project is important – especially if materials are highlighted in the space – but she typically isn’t asked to provide post-occupancy testing.

Of keeping designs sustainable, she says, “I’d emphasize the importance of the owner. If they’re not onboard, you’re not going to be able to do any of these things. Unless the owner is committed 100 percent, they’re always going to go for the cheaper product and you start to lose ground on that. You have to define with the owner what their values are.” She says she expects more post-occupancy testing among hospitals, government buildings and other, larger projects, especially when they’re LEED-certified.

Cassel wasn’t the only designer to make that observation. “The retailers we work with typically look at sustainability in two ways – it is part of their culture or it is being driven by a desire to lower operating costs,” says Rick Ferrara, who has collaborated on a number of car dealership designs as an architect and senior associate at Gensler’s Dallas office.

As unusual as it is for the government or – dare we hint – corporate America to be cutting edge, established service retailers like banks or planned long-occupancy sites may be the easiest places for retail designers and architects to win contracts for performance tracking.

“Often, how many sustainable features are incorporated in a retail space really depends on whether the retailer has a long-term or a short-term lease,” Ferrara says. He also points out that retailers in ownership positions or with longer commitments are, logically, more willing to make the capital commitment up front.

Yet it’s trend-driven retailers where the greatest gains might be seen, as the need for a new look every few years creates opportunity to tweak automated lighting and HVAC systems, according to Bergmeyer’s Zsembery. “It’s not that you design your prototype to be as green as it can be and that’s it for the next five years,” she says. “Technology is changing so rapidly and so many things are unproven that I think it’s smart business to make sure that what you’re putting out there is meeting the stated goals. In any aspect of a business, you go back and verify that your strategy is working, but I don’t know if, in the building sector, we’ve done that as much. There’s a big opportunity there.”

Banks Branch Out

Bergmeyer is currently working with chains like Staples, which follows Energy Star guidelines, and cost-conscious financial institutions like TD Bank, which contracted with Bergmeyer to develop and manage its sustainability standards. The bank now uses a continuous improvement loop as it collects data for each retail location to identify outliers and increase performance over time.

Another hipper-than-advertised bank, PNC, tapped Gensler to design a net-zero outlet in suburban Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Through efficient lighting and HVAC systems, photovoltaic panels and diffused daylighting systems, the building generates more power than it consumes each year. “During the winter, when there’s less sun, the facility will pull power from the city’s electrical grid,” says Gensler’s Theresa Sheils, the design director for the project. “It then returns power to the grid during sunny summer months.”

Whether it’s the retailer’s responsibility, the architect’s prerogative or something that falls to designers themselves, green retail building is on the rise. A 2013 study conducted by McGraw Hill found a 20 percent increase in retailers who required sustainably designed spaces (LEED-certified, etc.) in the past two years. And while there’s no report on how many of those shops were tracked post-occupancy, design firms are increasingly likely to broach this subject with clients – and I’m eyeing those sturdy, reusable grocery bags.