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Eco-Friendly Face-Lift

April 24, 2008

9 Min Read
Eco-Friendly Face-Lift

Incorporating green design principles and adding environmentally friendly finishes boosted the cost of building Outpost Natural Foods Cooperative's second store by 8 percent. But General Manager Pam Mehnert says the extra expense is paying off so well in public relations—and on the balance sheet—that the 32-year-old co-op will take the same tack when it undertakes a $550,000 remodel of its original, 10,000-square-foot store in downtown Milwaukee later this year.

Eco-friendly finishes are at the moment a bit more expensive than conventional flooring, countertops and wall coverings, but sustainable designers say the payoff in efficiency, health and comfort comes quickly.

"Generally, you might look at spending, when you're building new, 3 percent to 10 percent more overall," says Lyn Falk, president of Retailworks Inc. and designer of the Outpost store. "It isn't that much more when you know it's going to be paid back and that you'll get your money out of it within a few years."

Weekly sales volume of the new suburban Outpost store matched that of the original downtown store after two years, even though the new store is about 1,300 square feet smaller. In a recent customer survey, shoppers reported that they like the ambience of the 2-year-old store. "They really notice how the store feels," Mehnert says. "There is a warm, comfortable feeling inside the store that has a lot to do with some of the green fixtures."

What To Consider
The Outpost is still choosing the materials it will use when it remodels the downtown store. Falk has put together a source list that includes interesting finishes achieved using recycled materials. For example, there are four flooring choices, all of which are made from sustainable virgin or recycled products or a combination thereof:

  • Expanko Cork Co.'s Treadmaster flooring, made from cork and rubber, which runs $5.20 per square foot;

  • Dodge-Regupol Inc.'s EcoSurfaces series of recycled rubber tire flooring, about $2.93 per square foot;

  • Lonseal's LonEco vinyl flooring, which includes recycled content and runs about $4.55 per square foot;

  • To Market's Luxica Envinyl flooring, which is also made from recycled materials and runs about $4.77 per square foot.

These products compare with conventional commercial vinyl flooring used in grocery stores, which Mehnert says runs about $6 per square foot. "The biggest myth is that sustainable design costs a lot more."

The price of finishes—such as countertops, flooring and decorative wall treatments—made from recycled plastic milk jugs, colored glass bottles, pop bottles, tires and sustainable woods is becoming more competitive as more and more products come to market. "There are reasonable options out there," Mehnert says.

Picking a finish, of course, depends on what you wish to achieve with the space, says Falk. "It has to sound good, smell good, feel good, and the textures have to be right," she says. "Is the whole experience of being in the space pleasant? Or is it going to give you a headache in 20 minutes?"

For example, bamboo flooring is one of the most durable materials on the market today and is made from a sustainable wood. But because the wood is so dense, it amplifies the sound of foot traffic, Falk says.

Others worry about formaldehyde off-gassing because bamboo flooring typically is made from strips of wood laminated together, although Cael Kendall, managing director of EcoTimber in San Rafael, Calif., says his company recently rolled out a new line of formaldehyde-free bamboo flooring products available both in solid and prefinished versions.

Sisal floor coverings might be used to absorb sound in a café setting; Falk says there are new, faux sisal products made from nylon that are very durable.

Give And Take
Falk is inclined to include as many natural products as possible in a store design. Still, she acknowledges that there is a balance to be struck. Wood and stone may be lovely, but in food service, you must have surfaces that can be kept clean and that can take heavy traffic, which might be better achieved with a countertop made from recycled milk jugs or a floor made from reclaimed tile clay.

"There's a give and take," she says.

For vertical surfaces, Falk suggests looking at solid-surface materials made by Yemm & Hart Green Materials from recycled plastic bottles in funky, fun colors. Wheat board, a formaldehyde-free version of medium-density fiberboard, can be finished with a water-based urethane or left natural. Crossville Ceramics has a line of ceramic tile made from reclaimed, unfired raw materials that runs about half the price of its high-fired porcelain tile and can be used for floor or wall finishes.

Sustainable materials are also finding their way into shelving. Trade Fixtures/NewLeaf Designs of Little Rock, Ark., offers a line of modular shelving and bulk bins made from sustainable red alder wood finished with a relatively new ultraviolet coating technology. The shelf manufacturers "wanted to reduce those hazardous air pollutants and make the plant as safe as possible for their employees and for the working environment as a whole," says Jennifer Callen, NewLeaf's natural foods category manager.

Alder is a fine-grain hardwood in the birch family that is similar to cherry. "It's a fast-growing, prolific species that takes only about half the time to grow as most conifers," Callen says.

Recycled wood is also an excellent choice for shelving, says Colette George, vice president of marketing for Plexus Pacific Industries in McCloud, Calif. Plexus recycles lumber from industrial demolition products for its Ecowood line of retail display fixtures.

"The old-growth wood holds up," George says. "It doesn't shift."

AsiaRain Jungle Hardwoods imports railroad ties of rosewood, teak, mebau and other exotics from Thailand and remills them into gorgeous flooring impervious to rot and infestation. "It's good because lots of used wood gets diverted out of the waste stream," says Richard McFarland, owner of AsiaRain, which also is located in McCloud. "Also, the quality of old wood is far superior to the wood that is grown now."

Sorting through woodpiles can be painstaking, but "it's a good thing for the planet," George says.

Good Thing For Milwaukee
When Outpost began making plans for a new store in 1997, stakeholders agreed that they should practice what they preached, and decided the $2 million building would use as many earth friendly mechanical systems and finishes as possible. "We decided that sustainable design would be part of what makes us walk our talk," Mehnert says. "The store is a living, breathing thing. We've done everything we could do to make it green."

Located in a bustling, redeveloping business district in Wauwatosa, one of Milwaukee's oldest suburbs, the new co-op building is constructed of blocks made mostly of recycled content. The mechanical system is engineered to provide highly efficient heating and cooling, including capturing heat generated by the compressor system to heat the store or heat water. All of the windows are insulated, low-e glass.

"Of course, they couldn't do everything they wanted to," Falk says. "They picked the areas where you get the biggest bang for the buck. For the second store, they sunk the most money in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and within the first six months, the energy bill was one third of the other store."

The store is lit by 12 4-by-4-foot skylights. "This helps us save on energy costs, because the lighting system is connected to the daylighting," Mehnert says. "On a sunny day, our lighting use is down by a third."

Falk proposed eco-friendly finishes for the new Outpost, including a palate of light paint colors because they are lower in volatile organic compounds than dark colors to begin with. "Low-VOC paints were not that much more expensive per gallon," Mehnert says.

Floors are quarry tile or concrete colored with a water-based stain and waxed; carpeting made from recycled materials covers the office floor. The countertops are clad in recycled laminates. Recycled glass is used on some of the specialty fixtures, including lane markers at the checkout stands.

And in a nod to local history, the Outpost salvaged wood paneling from a nearby tavern, The Knotty Pine, and used it to build aisle markers.

"It looks really cool," Mehnert says.

Additional reporting by Viki Psihoyos.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 8/p. 12, 14-15

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 8/p. 15

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