Fast Food Restaurants Go Green from the Outside In

Fast Food Restaurants Go Green from the Outside In

A new McDonald's restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, shows that the green-building model can work for the tens of thousands of of fast-food restaurants nationwide. Lori Hall Steele reports for QSR Magazine.

At a glance, there's not much different about the McDonald's restaurant in Savannah, Georgia -- except maybe that white roof.

But look a little closer, and you'll see subtle signs that this particular McDonald's is a little unusual -- revolutionary, in fact -- in the quick-serve world.

There are lots and lots of windows, for starters, along with bike racks and parking lot signs that give low-emission vehicles preferred spaces.

The standalone McDonald's and a nearby Panera's outlet are part of one of the nation's first green-certified shopping centers, Savannah's Abercorn Common, an environmentally friendly development where stormwater seeps through porous pavement into soil, rooftops reflect heat to keep things cool inside, and the sun serves as primary lighting most days.

"It's a beautiful McDonald's," says owner Gary Dodd, who operates 12 McDonald's in the Savannah area. "And this one, because it's green -- it's special. And it's going to save us some energy costs as well."

Dodd had the option of relocating an existing restaurant or becoming part of Abercorn's green-built reconstruction, and he decided to stay put.

"We wanted to be part of the entire concept," Dodd says. "I would be open to another green store anywhere. It's almost like you're in the right location at the right time. If I had an opportunity to do it again, yes, I'd do it again.

"You have to make a business decision," he says. "Most of the costs were very comparable. And if all things were equal, why not go green?"

The Birth of Green

The term "green building" was coined in the late 1980s to signify homes, offices, and commercial structures designed to be resource efficient and environmentally sensitive. The more recycled materials, the merrier. The less energy use, the better.

"It's just taking the resources and the land and everything that goes into building and doing it smartly and doing it in a way that has the least impact on the land and on your resources [using] a few new technologies," says Taryn Holowka, spokeswoman for U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C. "These buildings are really high performing, using less energy and fewer resources."

The green building movement began gaining steam in the 1990s, particularly on the East and West coasts and in Austin, Texas, home to the nation's first green home-building program.

Corporate America, notably Ford Motor Co. and Steelcase, led by architect William McDonough, soon jumped aboard. Ford's much-ballyhooed 10-acre living roof -- the world's largest -- drew international eco-ovations when millions of sedums were planted in 1999, during renovation of Dearborn's Rouge Center. (These long-lasting roofs are flourishing in Europe and some American cities because they're long lasting, highly insulating, and can provide habitat or garden space.)

Though groups like the U.S. Green Building Council have been around for decades, it wasn't until 2000 that certification began, and today there are 669 green-certified commercial structures in the nation, including Abercorn Common in Savannah. Another 4,912 projects are under construction and registered for certification.

"There's 42 million square feet of building space going green," Holowka says. "It's a new way of doing building, but we think it's a better way of doing building."

Municipalities seem to think so, too. In recent years, federal departments and universities, along with at least 20 states and 60 cities and counties, have adopted green building requirements for public facilities. And they're not stopping with publicly owned buildings.

At least 20 communities and four states are requiring or encouraging green building for commercial structures. Some cities, for instance, will fast-track building permits for structures meeting green standards, as defined by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council. Others allow higher density for green-certified projects. Maryland, New York, Nevada, and Oregon give green projects tax credits.

Green Elements

Most green-building elements aren't quite as radical as Ford's 10-acre living roof was when it was unveiled. Close proximity to public transportation, using Energy Star-rated appliances and certified wood products are all part of green building.

The U.S. Green Building Council uses a 69-item checklist for its certification system (which they call LEED, for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). To qualify for certification, projects must get at least 26 points.

Locating a building so the sunshine can be used to light and heat the store, for instance, gets you points for passive solar use, just as using solar panels or your own windmill would. Using local building materials, sidestepping wetlands, and choosing paint that doesn't slowly emit toxins also garners points.

The council breaks down its ratings into five categories, all of which aim to protect the environment, reduce energy consumption, and safeguard human health. Water efficiency, energy use, and emissions (no polluting!), savvy use of materials, and indoor environmental quality are additional items on the checklist that will resonate with green-conscious customers.

Does Green=Green?

Since opening his green McDonald's in late 2005, Dodd has experienced noticeable savings on water and utility bills. The restaurant's roof drains rainwater back into a landscape irrigation system, so there's no need for municipal water. Daylight that reaches 75 percent of the restaurant's interior has cut electric bills substantially.

"Given the reduction we've seen so far, I'm going to be very pleased over the next 20 years," Dodd says, though he declined to give specific savings numbers. Holowka says savings derived from green building vary tremendously by project, but, in general, green buildings save their owners 20 to 50 percent on utility bills. The U.S. Green Building Council estimates that standard energy-saving devices, which cut consumption by 30 percent, can save owners 50 cents per square foot per year.

The Green Building Council also estimates that an upfront investment of 2 percent in green-design elements will net, over 20 years, a 20 percent return on total costs. That means if $20,000 is spent on green elements for a $1 million project, owners will see a return of $200,000 over 20 years.

"It makes economic sense," Holowka says "These buildings are saving energy, therefore the utility bills are lower. The people inside the buildings are healthier and more productive. People costs are really the highest costs -- so if you can save more money on people costs, with less absenteeism, less turnover, why wouldn't you?"

Employee-related savings are a little-heralded benefit of green building, but the Green Building Council has been gathering more data and focusing more and more on this side effect.

Green interior elements -- natural lighting, good ventilation, no paint or carpets that off-gas toxins -- leads to increased performance and retention of workers, the council claims. Various studies support people-related reasons for adopting green building elements, particularly indoors. Findings in that regard include:
  • Employees at green-certified buildings are 2 to 16 percent more productive.
  • Students who took tests in natural light finished 20 to 26 percent faster than peers who took tests under electric lights, according to a study conducted for the California Board for Energy Efficiency.
  • A study of 108 stores in a retail chain showed sales were 40 percent higher at day lit stores than those lighted by fluorescent or other electric lighting, according to a study by the Heschong Mahone Group.
Back at Abercorn

Savannah's Abercorn Common is a 180,000-square-foot development that's still in progress. It is being developed by Melaver Inc., a family-owned construction company. Why'd they go green?

"That really stemmed back many years to the Melaver family's beliefs and way of living personally," says project manager Randy Peacock, noting that the family's matriarch once forbid the removal of old-growth oaks in a shopping mall parking lot, back in the 1970s when the modus operandi for construction was to bulldoze and pave.

"It was just the right thing to do," Peacock says of the trees. "We'd been doing things green for years for other properties, and when we first learned about the U.S. Green Building Council, it worked to our advantage to implement the certification."

The shopping center uses energy-efficient heating-cooling systems, reflective roofs that deflect heat, and a porous concrete that allows stormwater to drain into the soil. The center is highly insulated, and developers stayed away from synthetic stucco. Some 5.5 million gallons of rainwater is captured off rooftops and used to irrigate the center's landscaping.

All stores were designed to allow sunlight as the primary source of illumination in daytime. "The effect is the tenants don't need to operate lights in daylight hours," Peacock said.

The total added cost for all the green elements at Abercorn Common?

"It's not a tremendous amount," Peacock says. "Not even 1 percent of construction." The U.S. Green Building Council estimates that most efforts add 2 percent to construction.

Construction continues at Abercorn Common. Next up is an outbuilding, with 10,000 square feet of sedum on the rooftop and solar panels to heat water, eliminating associated electrical costs. "We wanted to try something different," Peacock says, "and we didn't see why it couldn't work."

That sentiment is echoed by Dodd, operator of the green McDonald's

"We're trying to make a statement to the public that you can go green without spending too much green," Dodd says.

Sidebar: Building Green

The U.S. Green Building Council certifies buildings that get at least 26 points on its 69-item environmentally friendly checklist. Got a bike rack? You're already on your way.

Green building is broken down into six categories, including:

Sustainable Sites: You can tally up to 14 points here by locating in high-density areas, near public transportation or on brownfields and by adding bike racks and lights that shine down (not up) in parking lots.

Water Efficiency: Landscaping that uses little or no irrigation scores here, along with efforts that reduce other water use by 20 percent or more, for up to five total points.

Energy and Atmosphere: You can gain the most points (17) in this category through using various energy-efficient appliances and on-site renewable energy, such as solar panels.

Materials and Resources: Tally up to 13 points by reusing materials or buildings, reducing construction waste, or using recycled materials in construction. Using regional products, certified wood, or rapidly renewable materials (think bamboo) also gets you gold stars.

Indoor Environmental Quality: Let the sun shine: You'll get good marks for daylight and views, along with use of low-emitting paints, carpets,and sealants. Good ventilation, controllable lighting, and thermal systems also snare points.

Innovation and Design Process: Get creative for up to five points for originality.

For a complete guide to this 69-item checklist, visit USGBC.org or call the council at (202) 828-7422.