The rewards of green retailing

Colorado stores in AIA's Earth Day tribute

May 01, 2001 |

Best known for shaving per-square-foot costs to the bone, retail owners have rarely displayed the ingenuity or good will to experiment with "green" building designs or sustainable operating strategies. Two companies prove exceptions to the mark-it-up-and-move-it-out mentality, however, and may spark a rethinking of how great shopping and a healthy environment can coexist.

For their risks and leadership, they have earned recognition from numerous groups, including an Earth Day tribute from the American Institute of Architects. Yet, the reasons the projects break the mold are more about their owners' business philosophies than anything else. For example, BigHorn Home Improvement Center — a supply house with mountain-chalet flavor in the resort town of Silverthorne, Colo. — was inspired by the worldviews of owners Don Sather, Betsy Sather and Charlie Cole.

"My wife and I have had an interest in environmental issues for a long time," says Don Sather, "and we assumed that many of the technologies would be practical to implement." For example, Sather read a newspaper article about a flexible photovoltaic (PV) shingles used on nearby Mount Evans, which inspired a roof solution using PV shingles bonded to a standing-seam metal roof.

Other sustainable features designed by Marketplace Architects, Dillon, Colo., and constructed by Breckenridge, Colo.-based general contractor TCD include: a "solar wall" envelope; natural cross-ventilation with automated window operation; and zoned radiant floor heating. The result is quiet — and bright, as sunlight floods dormers and screened clerestory.

The emphasis on daylighting is now seen as good merchandising. "Some studies suggest that consumers actually purchase more in store areas that are naturally lit," says Sather. Whatever the justification, the owners easily found financing for a business plan with a 20 percent cost premium. Since then, a national spike in energy costs has turned what was a 10-year payback to about a six-year horizon, in part due to a deal letting BigHorn sell power to the utility.

Larger-scale successes

BigHorn's owners actually incorporated some features and materials used by another retailer — Sumner, Wash.-based Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) — that had been making their stores showplaces of sustainable intent.

REI, an outdoor-gear retailer known for its unique business approach and high-concept facilities, has earned honors for its new Denver flagship, adapted from a 1901 tramway powerhouse. The store had to meet the needs of preservationists — and REI's own green ideals.

After electing to recycle the building, an energy-consumption target was set at 30 percent below state requirements, in part through the use of evaporative cooling and extensive daylighting. In an anti-sprawl gesture, parking area was minimized or located under native Colorado landscaping, minimizing impervious surfaces and the "heat-island effect."

Of course, REI's aim never strayed from merchandising outdoor gear. "These stores have to meet a strict return on investment and rigid financial criteria to be successful," says Bert Gregory, CEO of Denver-based project designer Mithun Architects + Partners, which worked with constructor Hensel Phelps Construction Co., of Greeley, Colo.

Still, most store owners would never attempt what REI has done, says Gregory. "It's unusual in the retail world."

The same is true of BigHorn, notes Jerry Dokken, principal of Marketplace Architects: "This is a unique client who's been involved in energy efficiency for years. They get quite a bit of credit for bringing us this array of technology."

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