Going Green in a Big Way

In the past decade, sustainable design has gone from catchphrase to prerequisite for property and building owners. The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system has spurred conversations on “greening the project” in planning and construction meetings nationwide. Its ubiquity is evident by the number of universities, municipalities and office properties touting their latest LEED-certified buildings. Due to its monumental and vital role in national and worldwide trade, industrial real estate has significant impact on the environment. 

Though some people thought “industrial” and “sustainable design” would never appear in the same sentence, the unique nature of projects in this market presents substantial green opportunities. By stepping back from the buildings and rethinking the role of distribution centers in the supply chain, we can build projects that are arguably good for the environment. While LEED has helped us come a long way to creating green buildings, at the end of the day, we need to remember sustainability is not about points, but about the environmental, economical and community benefits. 

Location, Location, Location

The industrial market’s greatest opportunity for environmental responsibility is through strategic site selection. Warehouses have the unique attribute of being more than just independent buildings: Each project is a point in a large-scale supply chain. To maximize the lifespan and minimize the environmental impact of warehouses, we must consider two key factors in the site selection process: (1) the places and people they will serve; (2) the places and people that will serve them. 

Selecting sites at or adjacent to the ports where the goods will be transported automatically reduces the overall journey of the goods from arrival to distribution and the associated carbon emissions. Commercial trucks account for more than half the soot and a quarter of the smog-causing pollution generated on highways, and consume more than one-tenth of the country’s oil. Every gallon of diesel fuel roughly emits 22.2 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Since the average truck gets about 6 miles per gallon, reductions in transportation distances equate to reductions in carbon emissions. For every 10 miles trucks don’t have to travel, we use 1.7 fewer gallons of diesel and prevent 38 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. 

To put into perspective the environmental impact of trucking distance, let’s look at the case of a 100,000 sf warehouse in the Mid-Atlantic region. A modern-day warehouse, with typical lighting and heating conditions and a significant equipment energy load, consumes about 6,600 mmBTUs per year. A diesel truck consumes about 23 BTUs per mile. If the 100,000 sf warehouse is serviced by 20 trucks per day, 260 days a year, and we can reduce the length of each truck trip by 55 miles, then we will have saved enough energy to run the warehouse for the entire year. Furthermore, if the trucks have a common starting and going point, such as a highway interchange, then the required reduction distance can be cut in half; i.e., locating the warehouse 28 miles closer to the interchange will save enough energy to power the warehouse for the entire year. 

It is important to note that the word “port” does not only refer to the traditional seaport. Although they are not coastal cities, Dallas and Chicago are thriving “inland ports” that are primary points of service in the national supply chain. Chicago, serviced by five federal highways, six major railroads, and two airports, is the link for the country’s inland river system and the Great Lakes. Dallas, serviced by five interstates, two airports, and rail service, has designated foreign trade zone areas and signed strategic agreements with the port of Houston, four Mexican ports, and the Panama Canal. Dallas and Chicago use the benefits from intermodal facilities–the consequence and instigator for their comprehensive railroad, highway, and airport infrastructure–to develop strategic plans for becoming and maintaining their roles as integral port cities. Many of the nation’s largest distribution centers are in their suburbs. 

Smart Industrial Anywhere

The lack of immediate port access for reasons such as limited availability or cost does not preclude projects or their sites from being sustainable. However, it does require more careful consideration of local and regional planning. 

Suburban Cranbury, N.J., is an example of how planning and execution has led to a successful sustainable, yet suburban, site development. Adjacent to Interchange 8A of the New Jersey Turnpike, 30 miles from Port Newark, the Township of Cranbury considered and promoted warehouse development through a carefully crafted and reworked zoning ordinance. The ordinance created industrial zones that were located close to the Turnpike, reducing travel time and impact from truck traffic, and established a mechanism for an improved roadway infrastructure that will more efficiently direct traffic to the turnpike. Furthermore, the township purchased open greenspace and preserved farmland with the additional revenue the “upzoned” industrial district generated. 

The Importance of Urban Industrial

The Cranbury case study illustrates smart industrial design can occur anywhere. Even greater gains in sustainability can be realized when warehouses are located in an urban setting. Urban industrial sites are not only located close to where goods are arriving, but they are also closer to their final destination–the consumers. 

Urban site selection leads to another significant and unique environmental opportunity: the ability to develop former industrial sites, brownfields, and landfills, and restore industrial economic infrastructure to former industrial cities. These sites, many of which have become underutilized, contaminated or abandoned, are near established communities and an available workforce, and can provide a source of revenue for communities. Much of the infrastructure, such as truck routes, railroad or even dock access, that supported the former industry often remains and can continue to support modern distribution. 

As a new industry, distribution centers also offer unique opportunities for the cities that house them. At the edges of urban centers, large-scale flat roofs offer the opportunity for power generation; as a rule of thumb, every million square feet of solar panels on a roof can potentially produce one megawatt of electrical energy. The centers can also offer opportunities to reconnect cities to a lost waterfront through integrated greenscape and stormwater management facilities. 

In this new vision of urban industrial development, industry no longer drains resources, but provides them. It no longer damages the environment, but cleans it. It provides employment opportunities rather than forcing residents to commute away from home. This vision is in practice now. One such project is near the Pulaski Skyway in Jersey City, N.J., developed by AMB Property Corporation and designed by KSS Architects. 

Sustainable Warehouse Buildings

Site planning and response to an urban opportunity and industrial heritage are sustainable design aspects distinctive of distribution centers. These criteria define the context of warehouse development. 

The design of the actual building can further contribute to the project’s sustainability and energy savings. Code requires only minimal thermal performance. However, insulation systems exist in wall and roof construction that have high environmental impact. Lighting makes up an enormous percentage of overall energy usage in a warehouse. Replacing high-intensity discharge (HID) fixtures with fluorescent fixtures and incorporating occupancy sensors can significantly reduce energy usage and have early paybacks. The incorporation of daylighting strategies, which also improve the quality of the internal environment, also helps. 

Warehouse structures have enormous potential for using recycled and locally produced materials, with high percentages of concrete and steel in the overall construction. Relative to overall investment, the design can easily incorporate showers, dedicated parking spaces for hybrid vehicles, and bike racks in support of a sustainably minded workforce. Outlets at dock doors to support shore power systems in trucks can reduce fuel-wasteful idling. 

For roof systems, a white thermoplastic olefin (TPO) membrane instead of the conventional EPDM roofing can help reduce cooling costs, particularly in areas receiving long periods of sunlight throughout the year. In a building where the roof square footage is large, the change in materials has a great impact. The roofs, often expansive and flat, also provide an opportunity to capture large amounts of rainwater, which can be recycled and reused for gray water irrigation, toilet flushing, and custodial uses. 

By improving the energy efficiency of these individual building aspects, we can significantly surpass LEED-CS standards because of the innate sustainable opportunities that arise from warehouses, their sizes, and usage patterns. 

Where to go from here?

The U.S. Green Building Council has effectively promoted sustainability in buildings on the office and classroom scale, though applying LEED to industrial buildings and distribution centers has been difficult. Due to differences in program, simply scaling LEED energy assumptions from office to warehouse sizes, which often exceed 1 million sf, results in models that complicate and even negate the intention of LEED. Yet the holistic approach it advocates gives rise to many of the sustainable ideas presented here. 

Companies looking to build sustainable warehouses and industrial buildings often ask, “Does pursuing LEED make sense for this project?” KSS Architects is working with the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP) and USGBC to make the question more applicable to the industrial real estate market by creating a set of LEED guidelines specifically for distribution centers. Meanwhile, developers can actively create their own sustainable approach by adapting LEED guidelines so they are suitable for our industrial projects? 

Sustainable distribution centers and warehouses can also have a positive impact on government regulations. State and local governments can advocate sustainable building methods through land and toll incentives. For example, government regulators can concentrate industrial land use by reducing highway toll charges for trucks at the specific interchanges the distribution parks are located. Municipalities are also exploring zoning regulations that permit larger lot coverages for distribution centers located within a certain radius of a turnpike exit. These methods are innovative ways to promote sustainable commercial buildings and also encourage cooperation between towns and developers. 

Emphasize Sustainability

The mission of green industrial architectural design is to create places that really benefit the environment and nearby communities. Strictly interpreted, LEED guidelines are difficult to apply to modern industrial and commercial buildings. However, the lack of direct correlation doesn’t mean sustainable design and warehouses don’t mix. By sharing ideas, following a holistic methodology, and supporting our approach with effective modeling, we as an industry can initiate and implement effective sustainable practices. 

Tom Johnson contributed to this article.