Few design and construction professionals will quibble with the notion that U.S. retail operators have largely eschewed green design techniques. To date, office and multi-family developers and tenants have led the charge in the practice of securing LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (GBC). Retailers and shopping center developers have been slower to adopt environmentally sustainable features. The lag, however, has not been because the retail industry is not interested in green design. Instead, the industry has found achieving existing LEED standards — developed with homes and offices in mind — too onerous for the retail world.

The rare operators willing to go green have found the rules of the LEED guidebook for commercial properties provided by the GBC, the nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable building design, to be a bad fit for retail because of stringent occupancy, transportation, water and energy requirements that are easier to apply to offices than they are to stores or shopping centers, according to Kate Costanza, a sustainability coordinator with MulvannyG2 Architecture, a Bellevue, Wash.-based architecture firm. What's more, the certification process, which currently requires extensive documentation and thousands of dollars in registration fees for each property, is too overwhelming if all you're trying to do is get a 5,000-square-foot location certified. The requirements clash with the retail business expansion model, which dictates building dozens of new stores in a matter of months. “When you have a rapid construction schedule to open up in time for the holidays and you have to make sure that all of the [necessary] information is being gathered and documented, that speed can be daunting,” Costanza says.

However, some retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and Kohl's Corp., have chosen to work with GBC and convinced the agency to tweak its rules. Those efforts are now contributing to the creation of new retail-specific LEED standards that are in the pilot stage. When finalized, they may open the door to widespread adoption of sustainable design techniques within the retail sector. Currently, the GBC is conducting pilot programs that will tailor the LEED certification process to retail, including core and shell construction and store interiors. The changes will affect only a handful of certification credits, according to Marc Heisterkamp, director of commercial real estate with GBC, but are expected to have a significant impact on the retail sector. The agency will also make it possible for business owners across all sectors to certify a prototype property and then build all subsequent projects according to that model, eliminating the need for building-by-building certification. All three programs, including LEED for Retail: New Construction, LEED for Retail: Interiors and LEED Volume, are scheduled to launch in the first quarter of 2009. “I have worked with a lot of retailers who were interested in beginning to look at sustainability and they were frustrated because there hasn't been LEED certification available for them,” says Dawn Clark, a principal with NBBJ, a global design firm. “This is all very new and they are very motivated.”

New programs

When it comes to LEED for Retail: New Construction, the points retail developers will be able to earn to qualify for certification won't differ significantly from other commercial buildings, says Teresa Burrelsman, director of the sustainability program with Seattle-based architecture firm Callison, which has been working with Wachovia on rolling out 300 LEED-certified regional banking branches by 2010. The program rewards the use of brownfield sites, recycled building materials and daylighting techniques. Where the changes will really come into play will be within LEED for Retail: Interiors, which will rework GBC's existing standards for commercial interiors to fit with retailers' unique energy, water use and transportation requirements, according to Don Grainger, associate principal with Perkowitz + Ruth, a Long Beach, Calif.-based architecture firm. Perkowitz + Ruth has been working with Wal-Mart, which is participating in the LEED for Retail pilot program along with about 40 other retailers.

For example, office buildings are required to reduce their water consumption by up to 30 percent to earn certification points. But water use at offices is limited to bathrooms and kitchens, notes Grainger. Supermarkets, by contrast, need water to regularly clean produce and comply with health codes, greatly increasing usage and making it harder to cut down. As a result, in the LEED retail guidelines the GBC will exempt fixtures whose flow rates are regulated by health codes from the reduction requirements.

The program will also adapt its daylighting requirements to retail properties. At the moment, GBC requires from 75 percent to 90 percent daylighting quotas for other commercial buildings. In an office building, that requirement can be easily satisfied through the installation of extra windows on each floor. But the necessity for plenty of shelving space and increased security measures at one- or two-story stores makes adding extra windows impractical. To solve the dilemma, GBC will encourage retailers to use kitchen/back of the house areas to provide extra daylighting with windows and skylights, according to Nick Shaffer, retail sector coordinator with the agency. “Retail center developers, in order for them to get credit for core and shell certification…will have to consider the back of house when assessing the viability of achieving the daylighting credits,” he adds. “This potentially could have a large impact on the design of shopping centers.”

The GBC will also tailor LEED transportation guidelines for retailers. The challenge stems from the fact that municipal planning departments dictate parking requirements and usually call for about five parking spaces for every 100,000 square feet of retail, says Grainger. So retailers have little leeway. To account for that, under LEED for Retail, chains will gain points by providing bicycle parking spaces and preferred parking spaces for fuel-efficient cars, encouraging employees to carpool to work and offering delivery services, which will reduce the volume of car traffic to and from stores.

At the same time, the program will make it harder for retailers to earn certain points easily gained by office space users. In an office building, most of the waste comes from paper and food rather than a laundry list of other materials, says Burrelsman, which simplifies recycling efforts. Retailers, on the other hand, deal with a much greater variety of waste products, including paper and plastic packages, hangers and food cartons. As a result, to earn points for waste management, they will have to undergo waste audits, identifying their top five recyclable waste streams by either weight or volume. And if the available recycling services can't handle all that waste, the retailer will have to come up with alternative ways to re-use it. “That's a case of LEED certification being a little bit tougher on retailers, but more appropriate, so being LEED-certified means more,” Burrelsman says.

Retailers will also face more complicated guidelines for energy consumption reduction. Instead of simply optimizing the use of their lighting and air-conditioning systems, the way other space users do, retail chains will be divided into two categories — those that sell food and those that don't. Because the grocery sellers rely on heavy refrigeration, they will have to reduce their entire energy load by using more energy-efficient refrigeration and storing equipment, according to Grainger.

That has already led to pressure from Wal-Mart, Target and others for electric appliance manufacturers to produce “greener” products. “They are banding together and saying, ‘We've got 300 stores we'll do next year and we are on track to improve our energy performance and you've got to beat what you are doing right now,’” Grainger says.

Though retailers are certainly excited about the prospect of sector-specific LEED certification, perhaps the most influential development coming from the GBC will be LEED Volume, which will cut out the need to certify each store individually. Just to manage the process can cost a store operator anywhere between $75,000 and $100,000, on top of LEED registration fees, according to Grainger. But with LEED Volume certification, only the prototype store will need to go through the complete certification process — each subsequently built property will just need to be developed according to the set standard. As of late August, GBC pre-certified seven applicants for LEED Volume.

Many retailers have expressed interest in instituting measures that could lower operating costs, but want proof that LEED certification in itself will be worth their while in dollar terms. That might come if consumers become aware of LEED certification and what it stands for, says Eric Anderson, a senior associate with MulvannyG2. As the GBC works to improve its guidelines, LEED certification might gain the kind of brand power necessary to get retailers' attention.

“I think we are all insanely happy that LEED is on the scene because it has given more credibility to the environmentally sustainable [movement],” Anderson says.