The Real Story on Green Building for Retail

On Mon., Feb. 14, in support of an amendment to weaken Evanston's Green Building Ordinance, the thrust from the City side was that LEED certification is inappropriate and/or too arduous for retail buildings and in particular for smaller stores. Leaving aside the serious process concerns over inclusion and transparency that the rollout of this proposed law change has raised, the erroneous premise requires correction. Green building for retail at the Silver LEED or better level is not only feasible, and economically sound, but is already happening in many communities where public and private actors are sincerely committed to the sustainability necessary for our future.

LEED for Retail
We heard on Feb. 14 that LEED is tailored to office buildings, hospitals, and the like, but that retail establishments can't earn the points necessary to achieve a Silver or better rating. This is grossly inaccurate. The U.S. Green Building Council ("USGBC") for some time has had a specific certification program for retail, with two retail certification paths: LEED 2009 for Retail: New Construction & Major Renovations and the LEED 2009 for Retail: Commercial Interiors Rating Systems. This program began in 2001 and involved the participation -- indeed, the initiative --of over 100 retailers ranging from big-box store chains like Best Buy and Office Depot, to department stores like Target and Kohl's, to small-store retailers such as McDonald's. The two paths specifically addressed the needs of retail developers and are targeted for "banks, restaurants, apparel, electronics, big box and everything in between."

LEED for Retail has been tested in a pilot program since 2007. The draft LEED for Retail system was vetted by the member retailers and produced a system of 100 points, with only 50 necessary to achieve a Silver rating. In 2010 this program was formally launched as LEED for Retail, developed specifically to address the unique needs and issues of a retail facility (including supermarkets, freestanding stores, in-line mall tenants, restaurants and banks). It took many of the existing credits in other LEED ratings systems and tailored them to meet the specific needs of retail outlets.

Green Retail Success Stories
Meanwhile, even before 2010, responsible retailers have been able to meet Silver LEED and often better standards under either the Commercial Interiors ("CI"), New Construction ("NC"), or Retail pilot program. Office Depot, Best Buy, Kohl's, L.L. Bean, REI, and Coldwater Creek, among others have all earned Silver LEED for new stores. Kohl's has 19 stores certified Silver LEED-Retail and one Gold LEED-Retail store. The new Office Depot in Austin is Gold LEED-Retail.

Those are bigger stores, but achieving greenness has been possible for smaller retail as well. Staff and the Council could have reviewed  the case study of the Platinum LEED-Retail Natural Body Salon and Spa in Atlanta, or, closer to home, could even take a tour of

  • a Chipotle in Gurnee, IL (Platinum LEED),
  • a Denny's in Joliet, IL (Gold LEED),
  • a McDonald's in Chicago (Gold LEED),
  • the Logan Square Kitchen in Chicago (Gold LEED),
  • Rick Bayless's XOCO in Chicago (Gold LEED), or
  • the Milliken Carpet Showroom in Chicago (Gold LEED).

Other recent small-store examples include a gas station/convenience store in Pennsylvania (Silver LEED) and a Sprint store in Texas. Starbucks, always considerably less than 10,000 s.f., wants to make all their stores LEED certified.

The stale old economic argument, pitting environment against making a buck, does not hold water. Not only is the green economy the key to our future, but real sustainability pays for itself, especially over the life of a commercial building. According to USGBC studies, a green retail building translates into:

  • 7.5% increase in building values
  • 6.6% improvement in ROI
  • 3.5% increase in occupancy
  • 3% rent increase
  • 30%-50% decrease in energy costs
  • 35% decrease in carbon emissions
  • 40% decrease in water use
  • 70% reduction in solid waste, and
  • 8%-9% decrease in operating costs

Resources Are Available
Both the City and would-be developers can easily access materials on LEED for Retail. For a nominal fee, organizations ranging from trade associations such as the USGBC and local green building associations to for-profit companies such as Exocera and USGBC have been offering webinars on LEED for retail for two years, and many of those are available for download.

There are other green retail-industry resources of which Developer X and City staff are clearly not availing themselves. The National Retail Federation has a Sustainable Retailing Consortium with nine active, working councils addressing subtopics from recycling and waste to consumer response to retailers' green initiatives. Chain Store Age ran specific conferences on green in the retail sector, called, in 2008 and 2009. The new LEED for Retail was rolled out this fall at the USGBC conference. All those conferences took place in Chicago. Moreover, there are a wealth of growing consulting resources available to help retailers through the process.

As I write this, I have no idea whether City staff was simply unaware of the above, and was unprepared to challenge the unnamed retailer/developer's assertions; whether the Unknown Retailer was unaware of the above (in which case its commitment to green building is dubious); or whether both were aware and chose instead to give the Council and the public a different story. I cannot come up with any reasonable explanation, because all of the above information is easily found with even a little investigation. But, at minimum, it shows eloquently why a political process is not where we want to delegate "alternative" certification.

Reality Says "Don't Weaken the Ordinance"
The links above, also provided as references below, provide a wealth of information that refute the rushed and misleading case presented on Feb. 14. There are many, many things that a retail outlet can do to achieve Silver LEED, including at 10,000 s.f. and even much smaller. While other competing certification systems may ultimately provide equivalent paths to greenness, no such alternative was even proposed, and experts agree that for now LEED, because of its strong grounding in professional and industry input and reality, remains the "gold standard" of rating systems.

Evanston should finally codify its green building ordinance but should not not make any change to it at this time except to allow for a Silver LEED for Retail as an appropriate certification path as alternative to Silver LEED (CI) or Silver LEED (NC). The importance of Evanston's leadership on this issue, and respect for all the hard citizen work that went into the Green Building Ordinance, demand no less.

                                                      --Jeff Smith


Cascadia Green Building Council, WEBINAR-LEED For Retail: Volume Certification for Retailers (March 2009)

Stephen Del Percio, SoHo Starbucks Seeks LEED for Retail (CI) Certification on Spring Street, gbNYC Magazine (May 5, 2010)

Stephen Del Percio, Chains of Silver: Gateway Center At Bronx Terminal Market Earns LEED Silver Bona Fides, Sustainable Cities Collective (June 22, 2010)

Evans & Company, Best Environmental Practices of Leading Retailers from Around the World (2009)

Exocera, LEED for Retail: Introduction to the Rating System Webinar

Barbara Farfan, Top U.S. Retail Companies With LEED Certified Stores, Buildings and Facilities: Major Retail Chains Prove Their Long-term Commitment to the Green Movement,

Giant Eagle, Township of Pine GetGo® becomes LEED® Silver-Certified (Mar. 16, 2010)

National Retail Federation - Sustainable Retailing Consortium

Sprint Corp., Sprint Adds Texas Store to Roster of LEED-Certified Locations,, Oct. 5, 2010

Tim Trainor, USGBC Takes Wraps Off LEED for Retail Program,, Dec 1, 2010

U.S. Green Building Council, USGBC: LEED for Retail

U.S. Green Building Council, USGBC Webinar Registration [webinar series: LEED For Retail]

U.S. Green Building Council,Green Building Rating System | Green for Retail 2009: Commercial Interiors [draft]

Marianne Wilson, LEED for Retail Finally Set to Debut, Chain Store Age (Aug. 31, 2010)

Marianne Wilson, New LEED Options for Retailers, BUILDING SUSTAINABILITY INTO RETAIL, Chain Store Age (September 2008) at 8A.