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PCC Natural Markets Strikes Gold

It doesn’t take deep pockets and a huge infrastructure network to go green. But it does take commitment. And Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets has plenty of it. The company’s store in Redmond, Wash., is the first supermarket in the country to earn the prestigious Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).

“We’ve been building green for a while, and each location has gotten a bit greener. It seemed to make sense this time around to go through the formal process of seeking LEED certification,” said Lori Ross, director of store development, PCC Natural Markets, a retail natural-foods grocery cooperative with eight stores in the Seattle area and annual sales of $110 million.

While more and more retailers are incorporating sustainability into their buildings and operations, only a small minority has opted into the LEED program, due, in a large part, to concerns about the cost of certification and the required paperwork. Ross, however, said neither proved burdensome.

“There was additional paperwork, but we handled it,” she said. “And the added expense for certification was minimal in terms of the overall project budget. I didn’t feel it was a burden. But it [certification] was a learning curve for all parties because none of us had ever been involved in a LEED project before.”

The biggest challenge was working with vendors, suppliers and subcontractors that were unfamiliar with the LEED program.

Greenspeak: LEED

The United States Green Building Program’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification program is a voluntary rating system for building green. Buildings are awarded points in various categories (including site sustainability, energy and atmosphere and water efficiency). Depending on the number of points achieved, buildings can qualify for four levels of certification: certified, silver, gold and platinum (the highest level of certification). LEED certification is obtained after submitting an application documenting compliance with the requirements of the rating system.

“There was a lot of follow-up in terms of their required paperwork,” Ross said.

The retailer plans to seek LEED certification for future locations.

“As we go forward, we think the process should be much easier because we will make sure we have the right information from the get go,” Ross said.

According to Ross, there are several advantages that come with LEED certification, but credibility is foremost.

“The biggest benefit is that we now have the credibility of the LEED program to back up our claims,” she explained. “Also, LEED projects tend to generate awareness and spur conversation, which can encourage green building among others.”

Ground up: PCC’s Redmond store was built green from the ground up. The landlord even lowered the roof by two feet, reducing the amount of inside air that needs to be heated during the winter.

“We incorporated as many environmentally friendly features as possible in the construction and operation of the store,” Ross said.

According to the project architect, there was never any question about the goal in designing the store.

“We wanted it to be an exceptional standout example, well beyond industry standards for energy efficiency and systems performance,” said George Ostrow of Seattle-based VELOCIPIDE architects. “The HVAC system, for example, is 50% more efficient than a standard system.”

Among the store’s many sustainable elements that contributed to its LEED certification are 28 skylights, naturally glazed to block heat but not light, and sensors that detect when the daylight is sufficient for the artificial lighting to be turned off. Ross estimates the skylights will save about 40% on lighting expenses. But their value extends beyond that.

“Yes, the skylights help reduce energy use,” Ross said. “But just as important, the extra daylighting the skylights bring in makes for a much nicer shopping and working environment. It feels good to have the daylight in the store. It really adds to the overall store experience.”

Artificial lighting is provided by a full-spectrum lighting system (a mix of fluorescent and ceramic-metal-halide lamps) that comes in at 1.21 watts per square foot, and performs at a level 39% better than the Washington State Energy Code. Timers automatically turn off accent lighting at closing.

All of the materials used in the store, including the polished concrete floor, were chosen with an eye toward sustainability. The store cabinetry has panels made from 100% recycled fiber. Glass tiles 100% recycled from a local source are featured throughout the space. A healthy indoor quality is enhanced by paints and building products with low VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and mechanical systems that circulate filtered fresh air throughout the store.

The refrigeration system is tied into its hot water and heating system so that waste heat from the coolers can be reused to provide hot water and help warm the store. Looping the refrigeration and heating systems together is expected to provide considerable energy savings.

PCC Nixes Plastic Bags

Sustainability has long been a part of PCC Natural Markets’ operations. In its most recent environmental initiative, the company, as of Oct. 1, stopped offering plastic grocery bags to customers. It is encouraging shoppers to reuse their own bags by offering reusable totes at cost, while continuing to provide paper bags at no charge.

“While this decision to eliminate plastic shopping bags will entail some additional cost, it’s simply the right thing to do, said Tracy Wolpert, chief executive, PCC Natural Markets, Seattle. “We studied the environmental impact of paper vs. plastic and believe that paper is the more sustainable choice, while bag reuse is the best choice of all."

PCC’s decision to ban plastic bags is voluntary, but some stores may soon have no choice in the matter. The city of San Francisco enacted a ban against plastic shopping bags in April, and a host of other cities, including Seattle; Boston; Baltimore; Santa Monica, Calif.; Portland, Ore., and Oakland, Calif., are considering similar actions. At the same time, some chains are giving incentives for customers to cut down on plastic-bag use. IKEA and Shop & Stop are just two of the retailers that now sell reusable shopping bags.

Using local vendors and suppliers and recycling construction waste also played into PCC’s LEED certification. More than 40% of the construction materials were made within 500 miles of the store’s location, and more than 70% of the leftover construction materials were recycled.

From newsletters to its Web site, PCC uses a variety of vehicles to spread the word about its environmental commitment. The company put informational panels in its last few stores, including Redmond, that explain the green-building techniques and measures used at the location. It also has brochures in the stores that enable customers to take a green walking tour around the store.

Despite growing evidence to the contrary, many owners insist that building green carries a heavy price. Ross disagreed, saying that the increase, when there is one, tends to be small.

“We did incur some additional costs in Redmond because we tried to maximize our mechanical and HVAC with a higher-efficiency system,” she added. “But the payback in terms of reduced energy costs will pay for it. Long term, the return is there.”