It's Easy Being Green

June 18, 2007
By Clyde E. Witt It takes a lot of energy to construct a building, and significantly more energy is consumed during its life for heating, cooling and

By Clyde E. Witt

It takes a lot of energy to construct a building, and significantly more energy is consumed during its life for heating, cooling and lighting. According to a report issued in March by the United Nations Environment Program's (UNEP) Sustainable Building and Construction Initiative (SBCI), more than 80% of the total energy consumed by a building takes place during use, and 20% during construction.

Such considerations were top of mind when managers at Anixter International (Alsip, Ill., asked ProLogis (Denver, and Heitman Architects (Itasca, Ill., to design its new distribution center on Austin Avenue, just south of Chicago's Midway Airport. The new building, which is leased to Anixter by ProLogis, replaced several nearby buildings previously used by the publicly traded distributor of communication products, wire, cable, fasteners and other small parts.

Driving up to the beige-colored structure, the building is not much different from the office buildings in the industrial area. Newer, maybe, but similar. Then the visitor remembers that it's a distribution center, not an office building. Its streamlined look, with clerestory windows on the northeast and southwest sides of the building, belie the racks, lift trucks and other distribution activities going on inside. These windows spread natural light throughout the facility. Vertical strip windows of frosted glass in the northeast and southwest façades bring in even more natural light.

A canopy structure runs along the front of the building to clearly define where automobile and truck parking is. It also shades windows to reduce the need for air conditioning. A bicycle rack and shower facilities encourage employees to use alternative modes of transportation.

"I figured by providing a better environment for employees, I could also improve operations," says Ken Hagaman, director of real estate services for Anixter.

The new building is pending certification to the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system (See box, "Taking the Lead with LEED," Some of the things Hagaman was looking for in a sustainable building were compatible with LEED criteria, such as a more efficient cubic volume and reduced energy costs. But while LEED certification provides great benchmarking tools, he says that much of the criteria didn't really apply to a distribution facility.

Karl Heitman, AIA, LEED AP, president, Heitman Architects Inc., agrees that the LEED criteria were originally so broad-based that they were more applicable to an office building than a distribution center. "The design for a distribution center already has a lot of the LEED criteria built into it," he says. "The fact that it does not have a lot of wood or metal finishes that aren't locally available, or are not renewable resources."

One of the challenges for such buildings is daylight and access to views. According to LEED criteria, 75% of the occupied space must have access to natural light.

Green from the beginning
In creating a sustainable structure, a company has to begin with the outside envelope in terms of insulation and the use of recyclable and recycled materials. "This building was built with steel that is 100% recycled content. And the major building material is concrete panels that were manufactured locally from locally harvested materials," says Heitman.

Return on investment for specifying more energy-efficient materials is another conversation that must start at the beginning, says Heitman. "People are asking about the material and systems in terms of how much energy costs they'll recoup. There is also the moral issue of how much energy can be saved and what it takes to be a good corporate citizen."

The building in Alsip is Anixter's premier U.S. distribution center for small and unique parts. And it's more than a distribution center. The new design has allowed managers to take on value-added work for customers it could not formerly do. An estimated 35,000 SKUs come from this distribution center.

Worldwide Anixter provides more than 350,000 products and maintains more than $900 million in inventory. It operates 212 warehouses with more than 5.5 million sq. ft. of space in 46 countries.

Measuring ROI
Jay Zwart, senior v.p. North American operations for Anixter, says if you went out on the floor and asked the employees, they probably wouldn't know they're working in a sustainable building. "It's really a corporate-level decision to say you want a sustainable building," he says. "We want to be careful, as an organization, with the resources we use."

What is important, from a culture standpoint, is that managers need to take care of their people, he adds. This starts with a well-lit, clean workspace. The building features 170 skylights along with the side panel windows.

"Take a look at the natural light and the balanced heating; that's the message we send employees, and we're doing things that are good for the environment. When we install motion-sensor systems that turn off the lights to save energy when a person walks out of an office or from an aisle that is not in use, those are all good messages."

"Having the right amount of light over a work area so a person can do his job, perfectly, impacts productivity and how the person feels about the job," he says.

"Natural light is so much more uplifting for the people and we can get that light in without having to open the doors, which would defeat the energy savings we're trying to achieve," he says.

The building, through its ventilation system, also maintains zero air pressure difference with the outside so that when a door opens there is little or no exchange of air or outside pollution. During warm months, the air management system cools the interior at night and helps maintain the temperature during the day without the aid of air conditioning.

At this facility Anixter has little automation. The product mix dictates that manual storage and putaway are most efficient. It uses hand-held and lift truck mounted data-collection devices for radio-frequency directed inventory picking and putaway management.

"Our business model," says Zwart, "is for a lot of odd-shaped products, distributed in a very dynamic market that changes what we sell all the time."

One way that the building designers found to save on energy costs was to reserve indoor storage for products that require it. They designed an outdoor covered space for storage of huge reels of cable, some weighing as much as 20,000 pounds, that are an outdoor product in the first place and do not have to be kept in the building. The canopied yard keeps the weather off of the reels, which are moved into the building as needed to fulfill orders.

The return on investment in this building for Anixter has been encouraging. Dave Shoemaker, v.p. and general manager, says energy costs are close to 25% less than what it spent in its old facility.

"But what's really encouraging," he says, "is that we've also experienced double-digit growth in what we produce from this building in the past two years." Shoemaker attributes much of that productivity gain to being able to re-evaluate and rearrange the workflows in ways that they could not do in the past when they worked out of four buildings that had been joined together. The previous structures added up to nearly 600,000 sq. ft., compared to the 467,000 sq. ft. of the new building. However, says Hagaman, the new building has the same amount of working cube space because of mezzanines and not having to deal with walls that partitioned space in the former structure.

The two-level mezzanine uses grated walkways to aid ventilation and allow light to pass through to the floor level. Small-part picking in the mezzanine areas and floor below are done onto carts rather than onto conveyor belt or other material handling methods more typical of such processes. About 44% of all orders are fulfilled in the mezzanine area.

Another part of the design, says Shoemaker, was to make the exterior more accessible. The old building had not been designed for rail or truck deliveries. "A lot of our product [reels of wire and cable] comes in on flatbed trucks and goes out as less-than-truckload shipments," he says. "We buy it by the mile and sell it by the foot. We've designed the dock areas for energy efficiency with canopies and door seals to prevent loss of heat in winter or excessive heat entering in the summer."

Getting started
For anyone thinking of constructing a sustainable building, the place to start is with the requirements and criteria of the state where the building will be located, says architect Heitman. "Illinois, for example, has special water runoff requirements and other states have energy codes different from ours," he says. "Many of these state and local requirements will also satisfy the LEED certification requirements for sustainable designs." Using local, or native materials, and recycled materials, is another step toward LEED certification.

Anixter had long worked with the small, south-side Chicago suburb of Alsip to do positive things for the local community. "We've been here a lot of years and we want to be a good corporate citizen," says Zwart. "Since we're a supplier to the building trades, we like to bring in our customers and show them what we've done."

He says many of the innovations installed in the new building will be taken to other Anixter locations as the company expands. "We're already installing some of the lighting systems back into other buildings where we're extending leases," he says. Such energy-efficiency investments offer a payback over the time of the leases in those buildings.

Another part of the LEED criteria is to reduce a building's impact on transportation. Along with promoting the use of public transportation and bicycling, employees recently watched a presentation from an organization promoting shared transportation such as car pooling.

In selecting the location for this new building, management created a map of where its 300 people were located to see if some other location might be more advantageous. Because of the tenure of the employees, and other reasons, they decided that it just made good business sense to locate the new building in close proximity to the old.

Shoemaker is rightfully proud of the new distribution center. He frequently gives tours to customers and potential customers and says people are not always prepared for what they see. There is a "Wow!" factor when visitors first step into the well-lighted expanse of concrete and steel, which lacks the standard cavernous feeling. Instead, there's a feeling of openness and organization. Shoemaker says someone once described it as an office with lift trucks driving around in it.

One thing Anixter has done with the improved working conditions is to move floor supervisors' offices out into the shop area. Now, supervisors are within easy access to all employees, and can better manage hour-to-hour activity.

While not directly related to its new building, Zwart says environmental awareness is something he's hearing more about from his customers. "Contractors on building sites are asking if we can deliver the products to them, at the site, with less dunnage. They don't have a way to efficiently dispose of excess packaging material so we get asked to take waste material out of the delivery."

Anixter is able to provide customers this kind of service through a special program that prepares the necessary wiring for entire building floors, before the products leave the distribution center. Zwart says the challenge then becomes how to safely transport the products that last mile, or whatever the distance, without damage.

"We've developed ways to stage the deliveries to the customers' work site," he says. "We'll use a dedicated carrier, for example, to move the products that last short distance to the job site after we've removed the packing material."

When discussing the benefits of an environmentally sustainable building, as Zwart points out, managers should recognize that the benefits will only increase as energy costs continue to rise.

"If we continue to see the kind of energy-cost inflation we've been seeing, your ROI with a green building gets even better. We've been able to justify what we've done with our energy systems, here, on a five-year deal. When you invest in the energy systems, up-front, justified on today's rates, even though those will probably be conservative estimates, you can expect your ROI to improve as energy costs escalate."

The exterior of the Anixter distribution center features canopies for shading windows from excessive heat, and many windows for letting in natural light.

A canopied storage yard, which requires no energy use, was designed to protect reels of wire from the weather.

Take the Lead with LEED
The idea of sustainability in design and construction has been around for a long time. In 2001 the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC,Washington, D.C. put together the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program as a system of measurement, and a way to define efficiency leadership in building structures. The program has been producing quantifiable benefits.

"The thing that was magic about this voluntary rating program was that it became a way to measure the degree of sustainability," says Eric Anderson, director of architecture and executive v.p. of the Facility Design Group, the architectural and engineering design arm of The Facility Group (Atlanta,, and also a LEED accredited professional.

He adds that sustainable building design and construction has become one of the hottest topics in architecture. Buildings can now be certified as having a sustainable design and construction on four levels: certified, silver, gold or platinum. Anderson says the program first took hold in the construction of academic buildings.

"Colleges seemed to be the first to say, ‘this is valuable and the world will be better if we design buildings that are sustainable,' " he says.

The idea was quickly picked up by government institutions and a few commercial developers who saw sustainability as a good public relations move. The movement has now grown to include commercial and logistics facilities around the world.

"What we're seeing now," says Anderson, "is companies asking for consideration of green approaches to construction. Some companies have embraced the idea as part of their corporate culture."

Achieving certification for a building is not free. The requirements, however, can be absorbed in "normal" construction costs. It's getting harder to differentiate between what is special—or sustainable— and what is standard construction. And it's not as costly as it was once was to find companies familiar with sustainable construction.

"The ROI is changing because, for example, probably 75% of the projects we do are now for LEED certification," says Anderson. "We used to be asked the difference between components or credits that lead to certification. Now, we start by determining which credits the clients would like to have—because they're sustainable, not because they're easy credits to achieve."

What it takes to be sustainable
The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC, Washington, D.C. LEED program promotes improved construction practices in:

  • Site selection and development;
  • Water and energy use;
  • Environmentally preferred construction products;
  • Waste system management;
  • Indoor environmental quality;
  • Innovation in sustainable design and construction.

Each of the above areas receives points toward certification. For example, sustainable site selection includes:

  • Develop only appropriate sites;
  • Reuse existing buildings and sites;
  • Protect natural and agricultural areas;
  • Reduce the need for automobile use;
  • Protect and restore natural sites.

A building can receive as many as 14 points in each section if all of these goals are attained. To reach the first level of certification, a building must score between 26-32 points. The highest level, platinum, requires a minimum of 52 points with 69 points being the top.

While the certification process begins at the earliest stages of design, it flows through each aspect of construction and into the human factors of design as well. "Things like establishing good air quality and ensuring thermal comfort can score more points for the building," says Eric Anderson, Facility Design Group, "and, in turn, they can boost productivity when employees are more comfortable with their working environment."

Anderson says the certification program is still new enough that some education of the client is necessary. Mostly it's to educate them on the various requirements of different levels of certification, not the concept of sustainable construction.

"A lot of clients are gravitating toward the silver level [33 to 38 points] because it shows a solid respect for environmental responsibility," he says. "They're making a conscious decision that they'll spend a bit more money up front in their project in order to have a building that will not require higher energy use in the future, and will provide a better working environment for their people."

Inside the building, two major issues are to increase natural lighting and decrease volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Cleansing a building of VOCs before people move in is easier when the choice of paint, wall coverings and carpets excludes those chemicals in the first place. "Natural light can be introduced through skylights and large windows," says Anderson. "Another part of the natural light issue, however, is that the employees have the ability to see what's going on outside the building—that they will have views."

To understand the need for more sustainable construction, Anderson says one thing every manager can relate to is the cost of energy. Energy systems, like solar voltaic energy cells and wind turbines, that used to be financially out of the question, are now becoming part of many projects. "We all know what our energy sources are and how vulnerable they are," he says. "What we're seeing, now, is more people hedging their bets by designing sustainable structures."

Designing for LEED certification begs some interesting questions for the material handling industry. For example, one of the ways to score more points toward certification is to lessen the "footprint" of the building. Anderson says a building that is multi-storied, thus using less space, is more desirable than a sprawling, single-level structure. The question then becomes how will the flow of material change from a horizontal layout to a more vertical approach? Since less pavement and parking are also desirable outcomes of sustainable design, this may require better scheduling of yard operations to reduce trailer parking and more efficient employee working schedules to lessen motor traffic.