In the charge toward green design, big box stores and trendy boutiques have been largely absent. But the outdoor goods purveyor REI hasn't let the timidity of other retailers limit its horizon.
When the Seattle-based cooperative set out to expand a store in Boulder, Colo., there was no question of cutting corners on environmental attributes. Instead, Recreational Equipment Inc. pushed sustainability as far as products allowed.
Working with Gensler, REI installed an array of solar cells, water-flow meters, and renewable, recyclable, and recycled materials in the 45,000-square-foot store, which opened in October. The environmental package was designed to appeal to REI's eco-aware customers while producing an attractive selling floor that would withstand high foot traffic.
“It's not just about a sustainable product,” says Gensler architect Ted Jacobs, creative director for the project. “There's got to be a look and feel factor. There's got to be a durability factor.”
The building was designed to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Silver standard for commercial interiors, and the store is one of the first working experiments in the council's pilot project to develop standards for retail environments. Though not alone in the effort—40 retailers, including Starbucks and Office Depot, are helping the USGBC arrive at a new protocol—REI brings prior experience with LEED standards to the table.
REI executives have committed to reducing the cooperative's environmental footprint. To get there, they have partnered with Gensler for the past two years, working out the details for and researching products appropriate to a new generation of greener stores. REI calls the effort a “prototype initiative.” Plans call for the Boulder location to be followed later this year by a larger, ground-up store in Round Rock, Texas. A third venue, yet to be announced, will merge lessons absorbed from the first two.
The cooperative's record was already respectable. In 1996, REI set a sustainable standard with a Seattle flagship store by Mithun. Outlets in Portland and Pittsburgh went on to earn LEED Gold and Silver ratings, respectively. For the green prototype, REI switched to Gensler, which has substantial sustainable design experience as well as some posh retailers, such as Reebok and Barney's, in its portfolio.
The prototype team took two years to develop a “kit of parts,” used for the first time in Boulder. The new store, a retrofit and expansion of existing REI and Old Navy stores, is a long, low structure the color of adobe. The horizontal line is broken at the midpoint, where a stack of Cor-Ten steel rises above the flat roof like a metaphoric mountain peak. The façade is made of glass fiber–reinforced polymer panels, piled to suggest boulders.
“It's not something that is recycled,” says Gensler's senior project manager, architect Karen Skillin, “but there's a lightness to the panels, which allowed us to cut back on steel structure, which we thought added to the green-ness.”
Inside, customers are immediately enveloped in the building's showcase, a dramatic glass “light monitor,” which opens to the shedlike sales area. It's also a mini power station: Over a band of clear glazing, building integrated photovoltaic cells (BIPVs), which glimmer like a jeweled honeycomb, are embedded in the glass ceiling. Use of the silicon solar cells is believed to be a first in retailing.
Customers and merchandise are bathed in diffused natural light, thanks to 190 Solatube S21 skylights, special canisters 21 inches in diameter, which channel daylight from domes in the roof. Some tubes have been fitted with fabric to diffuse the light. Sensors dim or brighten supplemental fixtures. Metal halide lighting, which produces truer color, has replaced most incandescent bulbs. The overall system, developed with Solar Design Associates, promises to keep energy costs 20 percent below industry standards.
Renewable bamboo and cork are used for millwork and wall systems. Recycled rubber from tires and sport shoes provides durable cushioning underfoot. Engineered wood offers the ambience of wood flooring while using 75 percent FSC-certified wood. Steel studs were certified recyclable and, like most of the construction materials, came from local suppliers. A bench was fabricated from wood recycled from another REI store. Modular carpeting relies on traction rather than glue to stay put.
Unseen green benefits include conventional solar panels on the roof to heat water and low-flow plumbing fixtures to keep water consumption more than 30 percent below levels set in the Energy Policy Act of 1992. Paint and finishes were chosen for their low- to zero-VOC emissions. Carbon dioxide sensors will regulate the recirculation of fresh air.
The physical centerpiece of the store is a raised platform measuring about 2,400 square feet. It showcases a gathering place, with information kiosks and a community meeting room. Two walls of etched glass allow daylight into the room while enabling those inside to enjoy the action on the shopping floor. REI hopes the community center will put the store at the heart of environmental stewardship.
“We did the best we could with artificial lighting systems, given the technology existing today,” says Doug Ludlow, REI's senior project manager of store development. “There's still room for green products to measure up to the demands of retail space.”
In addition to the need for durability, USGBC spokeswoman Ashley Katz points out that retail environments need more lighting and security and use more energy and water than is common in offices.
And there is room for improvement in some areas: the Boulder parking lot, which predated the new building, is not permeable. There is no gray water system. And the BIPVs, for all their aesthetic appeal, will produce just 2 percent of required energy. The good news is that REI has contracted with Windsource for the other 98 percent and for all its Colorado stores.
Jacobs is optimistic. “We see the Boulder store as a laboratory,” he says. “The industry is changing so rapidly, but the good news is that we're getting more and more products.”