December 7, 2006

Outdoor Retailer Sees Green Inside and Out
REI’s Boulder store celebrates sustainability and community

by Heather Livingston
Contributing Editor

How do you . . . expand an existing retail building in a sustainable way and stay true to the client’s ideals?

Summary: Boulder, Colo., is the setting for the newest adventure for Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI). Opened on October 5, the LEED®-registered prototype store for the outdoor gear and apparel retail cooperative was designed by Gensler. Key to the company’s commitment to protecting nature and natural areas, REI began introducing sustainable elements into their building designs with the 1996 opening of their Seattle flagship store. The company’s Boulder store was designed to be a working laboratory to test and analyze the performance of sustainable features and new retail concepts.

Totaling 42,000 square feet, the Boulder REI is a renovation and expansion of its existing location. Previously encompassing approximately 22,000 square feet, according to Karen Skillin, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, Gensler’s project architect and project manager, the expanded store assumed the additional space from a former Old Navy. The redesigned store is expected to achieve LEED-Silver for either Commercial Interiors or New Construction. In addition, the store also is registered in the LEED for Retail pilot program.

Sustainable features
The most significant sustainable strategies for the store are solar-based. To reduce energy consumption, the design employs passive solar, solar thermal, and solar electric technologies. The passive solar approach uses Solatubes, highly reflective funnel-shaped tubes that channel daylight from the roof throughout the store. The Solatubes were installed throughout the building allowing the bulk of the artificial lighting to remain off throughout the day. “There’s a sensor system with the lighting in the store so that [artificial lighting is] turned on and off according to the natural light level,” explains Skillin.

Additional solar features include a centrally located glass atrium skylight that lets in sunlight while monitoring and capturing the heliacal energy to power the store through building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). “It is photovoltaic cells in a glass sandwich on the roof of the light monitor, which provide energy for the store,” says Skillin. She notes that PV panels on the roof also power the solar thermal hot water system. The combined strategies are expected to save about 20 percent in its energy costs over standard retail facilities, or the equivalent of powering up to three homes for a year.

Ted Jacobs, design director, also notes that the daylighting features go beyond providing energy benefits. “There has been study after study that shows the effect of natural daylight on shopping,” he says. “It’s been proven that you get better sales under natural daylight. People like to shop under natural daylight … and sales associates who are in the store for eight hours at a time are going to be much happier under natural daylight.” Jacobs notes that the Solatubes bring natural daylight not only onto the retail floor and dressing rooms, but also into back-of-house spaces like offices, stockrooms, associates lounges, and restrooms. “It’s a very simple technology, and its benefit far outweighs the cost,” he says.

Additional sustainable strategies include low-flow fixtures in the staff and customer facilities; use of bamboo, cork, and recycled rubber in the floors, perimeter walls, fixtures, displays, benches, and tabletops; reuse and recycling of previous store fixtures; and use of low-VOC and local materials whenever possible. According to the REI Web site, the Boulder store aligns the cooperative’s mission and core values with its commitment to reduce their environmental footprint. The overall design goal was to increase energy efficiency, water conservation, and indoor air quality. In addition, the company notes that it is working toward creating zero waste by 2020. In tandem with using sustainable building practices, REI also actively encourages its employees to recycle all cardboard, plastic, aluminum, glass, and paper in the store and to compost items from break rooms and cafes.

New retail concepts
“REI has an immense amount of product and product diversity, so you can get everything from a PowerBar to hard-core climbing equipment, all within the context of a 40,000-50,000-square-foot store,” says Jacobs. “From a store layout design and way-finding systems standpoint, it has to be incredibly intuitive in order for it to work.”

Jacobs says that the first several months of the design process were entirely non-design work, meaning no sketching took place. What Gensler learned in those early meetings was the importance of the REI community. “They have a very loyal following, and people who have been shopping at REI for decades now are incredibly passionate about the company and the brand,” Jacobs explains. “We felt, as well as the REI team, that that was something we could leverage further.”

The way they leveraged that loyalty and passion was with the creation of a nearly 2,000-square-foot community center located in the heart of the store. The community center was conceived as a way for REI to give back to its community and is designated as a resource area to learn about the outdoors and opportunities to protect shared natural spaces. It will also serve as a venue for events, presentations, and demonstrations by REI and its community partners.

“This notion of creating a community center in the absolute center of the store became a working idea, so our layout and plans started to articulate how this hearth or community area became very important to the rest of the way that the store operated,” recalls Jacobs. “The notion of the community center was important in that it is an area for people to gather and share ideas, whether it’s about product, a [forum for showing] great slides of a trek through Patagonia, or for community groups to come in and have lectures and so forth.”

Located adjacent to the book, map, and travel center, the elevated glass-enclosed community center is visually tied to the rest of the store, but allows acoustic privacy for talks and other events. When no store or community events are scheduled, the space is open for small, informal gatherings. REI “green vest” experts will staff the center to answer questions ranging from where to find local trails to how to schedule a travel expedition to where to volunteer for environmental preservation projects.

On the result of the project, REI’s Director of Store Development Dean Iwata said, “REI and Gensler worked together to create a store that embodies the values that make REI unique: community involvement, environmental stewardship, and a commitment to serve as a gateway to the outdoors.”


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