A report released on Oct. 23 by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) estimates that more than 1.2 million people use a LEED-certified retail space daily and that 8,000 retailers participate in LEED globally. LEED in Motion: Retail highlights the retail industry's extensive participation in the green building certification program and the impact of sustainable practices in retail development.

Several international fast-food and quick-service restaurants, such as McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Subway, and Starbucks, have pledged their commitments to sustainable design by participating in the LEED volume program, designed for large-scale companies pursuing LEED certification across a high volume of similar projects. The program is designed to support large retail corporations’ aim for consistency in stores, by allowing for LEED certification of like buildings and spaces as prototype standards without certifying hundreds of individual outlets. The program allows business owners to define the criteria for grouping similar buildings and the specific prototype credits to pursue.

At the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in New Orleans last week, McDonald's sustainability manager of U.S. Restaurant Design John Rockwell, AIA, presented best practices in large-scale retail design and the McDonald's business model for building green restaurants. Rockwell joined one of the nation's largest fast-food chains in 2005 and is a founding member of the the company’s sustainable leadership council. John has also served on the board of directors for USGBC Illinois.

ARCHITECT caught up with Rockwell after his presentation to discuss McDonald’s sustainability efforts and the challenges of building green restaurants and retail stores.

What are the sustainability initiatives that McDonald’s is focusing on in terms of green building?
First of all, we're participating in a LEED volume program. We're continuing to produce more LEED projects. It's not a fast pace when looking at our overall portfolio of 14,000 restaurants across the U.S. The other [initiative] is what we do in our traditional sense, so installing LEDs or focusing water efficiency. Again, we have 14,000 restaurants. We could be building anywhere from two to 500 restaurants in a single year. When you look at that small change and take the multiplier of that, the impact to the environment is pretty great in a positive way.

Data has shown that green buildings have led to cost savings in comparison to conventional buildings. How would you pitch the business case for sustainability to a restaurant owner?
One way is holistically. Another, and probably a more successful, way is to talk about incremental items. As you know, we’re a franchise organization and we have to create a business case for everything that we do—whether we're trying to save energy, water, or waste. Where it's financial or sometimes a more difficult business case would be social value. It’s more difficult only because it doesn’t equate to dollars in a traditional sense. We have to have unison in agreement with leadership. Back to the holistic view, we say, "Well, what’s the business case for LEED?" It's a very complicated answer, because it's not only about energy or water or community-type issues. That’s why it's easier to do a singular, line-item approach.

What is the biggest weakness or area to improve upon in sustainable retail design?
A huge opportunity is finding how sustainability can work based on use factor and connection to the consumer. For the restaurant industry, there's a huge range. If you compare McDonald’s to a fast casual restaurant or a fine-dining restaurant or you could even, in some cases, compare a quick-service restaurant to another quick-service restaurant, say McDonald's to Subway, there are entirely different models. The opportunity there is try to create a baseline that speaks to the industry and the different fluctuations of what each is so you can accurately measure performance.
When you look particularly at the LEED rating system, the model was developed from the commercial office building in the early 2000s. It has evolved with more and more interest for other industries. Retail has struggled as to what that looks like trend-wise. Consumer or user expectation is much different in an office building, where everyone works on a daily basis as their second home, if you will. It's somewhat of a challenge to figure out what the consumer expectation is when going to a retail space for a specific thing to purchase or for a meal. The trends typically are good will–type messaging because that’s the visual that the consumer really faces.

Do you think there will be a time in the future when green building and standard construction will be synonymous?
I think that's happening right now as regulations have changed and they continue to change. The LEED baseline and regulations are intersecting now. However, as USGBC indicates, it is going to continually raise the bar. When the bar is raised, there is a certain amount of opportunity for the commercial office space to adapt. How that plays out in retail, particularly restaurants, is a good question because the energy use of the restaurant industry is so high. There’s only so much that can be done. The question would be: At what point can the industry really not continue to climb?