Until fairly recently, green buildings were dismissed as impractical—a noble gesture toward the environment, but not a serious solution for the material handling community. But, that rigid mindset has changed dramatically.
If it wasn’t necessarily concern over global warming, what certainly seized the attention of many within the industry were volatile swings in the price of raw materials. Over the last year, that turmoil created a groundswell of interest in more sustainable, or green, construction—developing facilities that balance style and function with an emphasis on preserving the environment and its natural resources.
“The biggest issue right now is the risk for energy prices,” says Jay Richardson, a former project manager at Ford Motor Co.’s landmark green renovation project in Dearborn, Mich. Richardson now serves as technical director at Professional Supply Inc., a consulting firm for green initiatives in Fremont, Ohio. “That’s the name of the game. A year ago, it was up. Now, it’s down. There’s nothing that says that both gasoline and electric won’t go up again substantially. But, one of the things you can do with a building with a green design is mitigate some of that risk by reducing your consumption.”
Of the 2,122 commercial developments certified as “sustainable” through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program administered by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), only 124 fall under the category of light industrial, which encompasses warehouses, bottling centers, facilities, plants and distribution centers (DCs). But that number is expected to rise dramatically over the next several years, as 1,060 more facilities are registered for certification and many more projects are retrofitted with devices that curtail energy consumption and carbon emissions.
One of the most aggressive companies leading that movement is Denver-based ProLogis, billed as the world’s largest warehouse developer. According to Sarah Martinez, the company’s sustainability manager, only four projects have achieved LEED certification. But, another 31 projects are already registered with the USGBC and a handful more are in development.
In 2006, ProLogis adopted a series of sustainability goals to be achieved by 2010, including the use of 20% recycled content (by cost) in all new developments; installation of renewable energy resources with a global capacity of more than 25 million kilowatt-hours annually; reducing potable water use for landscape irrigation by 50%; and diverting 75% of its construction debris from landfills to incinerators. In fact, the company announced last year its intent to develop all new U.S. warehouses to LEED standards.
This ambitious goal required reassessing the way ProLogis constructed its buildings, from the way it wired its systems, to the materials and techniques it used during construction. Some of those goals required sophisticated technology, such as photovoltaic solar panels and wind turbines, low-energy
heating and cooling systems and landscaping irrigation incorporating recycled rainwater. But, ProLogis also found that using more natural light and simply replacing incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent fixtures can significantly cut electrical use.
“What we found was, by far, the biggest user of energy in our warehouses is lighting,” says Martinez. “Lighting consumption can be more than half the cost. So, we found that simply installing windows and skylights and using highefficiency, florescent lighting makes a huge difference.”
When the U.S. Postal Service decided to renovate and expand its DCs in Royal Oak, Mich., and Greenville, S.C., it looked through a long-term lens.
The cost would be significant. But, when the short-term savings in energy and natural resources are compounded over the course of 20 years, the long-range windfall is staggering.
“This building is going to be 23% better than where the USGBC says we have to be,” says Paul Todd Merrill, director of sustainable construction at St. Louis-based Clayco, the design-builder of the facility. “It costs more money to build something better than the norm, but when you look at it over 20 years, there’s a huge payback.”
All lighting in the facility will be automated with sensors, while the heating and cooling will run through a highly efficient HVAC system. Even the bathrooms are designed with fixtures that save on water and energy.
“I did a calculation once just on changing the water use in a building,” says Dan Deter, project manager for Clayco. “One of the biggest things you want to reduce is water consumption. It costs $5,000 to change the fixtures in the bathroom to a 1.6 gallon toilet and one-gallon urinals and sensor sinks. But, you end up saving 40,000 gallons a year.”
Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), a retail outlet for outdoor gear and clothing, significantly lowered its energy bills and attained LEED credits when it built a 525,000-square foot DC several years ago in Bedford, Pa.
REI earned points for using FSCcertified wood, hosting an on-site concrete mixing plant (rather than burning fuel to truck in the heavy concrete) and running construction equipment on biodiesel.
The DC used low-toxicity paint and carpets and installed skylights that not only cut down on electricity use but also brighten the inside of the facility.
Warehouses and DCs, often tucked away in far-flung industrial parks or ports, hardly seem as glamorous as trophy office buildings. But, Ford Motor Co.’s Rouge Center in Dearborn, Mich., appears to be the very model of sustainable building strategy.
The Rouge Center underwent a dramatic renovation five years ago and has won LEED Gold certification. It is best known for its rooftop storm-water management system, which features sedum, a drought-resistant perennial groundcover, which spans 10.4 acres.
The plant life helps diminish stormwater runoff and also doubles the life of the roof, providing insulation, reducing cooling and heating demands by 5% and absorbing carbon dioxide to reduce greenhouse gases.
Living roofs aside, much of the technology is down to earth. A porous pavement parking lot, storm-water swales (low tracts of land that manage water runoff) and retention ponds are used to regulate water flow, evaporation and improve storm-water management.
According to Richardson, former project manager at the Rouge Center, a combination of technologies can vastly reduce energy consumption at warehouse facilities around the country. He cites air handlers with variable frequency drives, along with rapid-roll (as opposed to steel) doors and docking sensors. When combined with an efficient HVAC system, these improvements can make a significant dent in energy bills.
“Direct fire burners and heat pumps are good ways to heat these spaces,” he says. “Ground-source geothermal can work well. Many of these facilities have a very large parking area adjacent to them, sometimes on both sides. At 12 feet underground, you can put in a ground-source geothermal system, and that’s a good source for both heating and cooling the facility through a coil.”
ProLogis has turned to installing high-reflectance roof membranes. Traditionally, warehouses have been built with EPDM (ethylene propylene diene M-class rubber) roofing membranes, which absorb heat and sunlight. White thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO) roofing offers the same performance at a similar cost. And, it comes with the added benefit of reducing the load on a building’s cooling system.
Taking the Next Step
If American policy is only a few footsteps behind that of Europe, it’s only a question of time before more companies are forced to invest in green facilities. All signs points to an industry-wide
migration. Individual governments across Europe have implemented new, environmentally friendly building regulations that have stemmed from the Kyoto Protocol, a multi-national agreement designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a predetermined, targeted percentage in 2012.
Even in the U.S., proactive states such as California, Oregon and New Jersey are enacting their own aggressive global-warming laws and policies.
“When you look at the legislative agenda and what cap-and-trade legislation did in Europe, carbon footprint is going to become important in virtually every industrial sector,” says Richardson. “The generation of carbon dioxide is either directly or indirectly going to cost businesses a lot of money. If you get in front of that curve, your business is probably going to be a lot better off.”