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7 trends in sustainable design

Our warehouse/DC engineer examines how you can transform your traditional warehouse environment and implement sustainable strategies that benefit your business, your customers and the planet.

Incorporating sustainability initiatives into warehouse and distribution center design is proving to be a win-win proposition. It mitigates harmful effects to the environment, encourages worker safety and comfort, while winning the respect of your customers and community. But from a more critical business perspective, it also lowers operating costs, ultimately improving a company’s financial performance.

“We believe it’s the right thing to do,” says Dana Schneider, senior vice president and practice lead for energy and sustainability services for Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) Americas, a real estate services firm. “But at the end the day, my team will always be focused on creating a business case for implementing sustainability, primarily for energy efficiency because that’s where the payback is.” 

While energy savings is key, there’s also that additional lure of incentives, particularly in new construction. “These incentives offer money to companies to relocate, but in return companies may need to build to certain environmental compliance standards,” says Schneider.

The “green” advantage doesn’t stop there. “Sustainable, high-performing facilities do not have to cost more,” says Rod Oathout, principal at DLR Group, a global architecture and engineering firm. “A holistic approach to design that harnesses natural resources can elevate the performance of a building and provide a more productive work environment. There are also many options through partnerships with renewable energy companies to implement renewable energy at no additional cost to the project.”

With all it has going for it, it’s no surprise why more companies are pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). “What LEED offers is an objective way to quantify the sustainability of a project that is recognized in the market,” explains Ed Klimek, partner at KSS Architects. “If you’re a developer and you want to establish a value for your sustainability, LEED gives you a mechanism by which to do that. In fact, USGBC reports how LEED-certified buildings continue to command the highest rents.”
In 2013, USGBC will be releasing a new version of its LEED system that will include a checklist geared specifically for new construction of warehouses and DCs. Klimek, who worked on this new LEED release, says it better addresses some of the more unique characteristics of warehouses.

According to Klimek, even older trends are being given a fresh look, incorporating newer technologies and innovative techniques. Modern spoke to some experts to find out how you can transform your traditional warehouse environment to help build sustainable strategies that benefit your business, your customers, and your planet. And while we can’t possibly mention them all, here are seven of the more popular trends gaining momentum in the sustainable design of warehouses and DCs.

1. Location, location, location
According to Klimek, the primary energy use in a DC is actually not the building itself, but rather the transportation that services the building. With this in mind, he suggests putting distribution centers where it makes sense primarily in terms of the logistics model. “That is your greatest impact on sustainability,” says Klimek.

Companies are turning to network studies to investigate moving their distribution facilities closer to inbound ports or closer to customers to save local transportation energy consumption—and subsequently reduce environmental emissions. The latest modeling tools literally calculate a company’s supply chain carbon footprint for its plants, its warehouses, and its different modes of transportation.

“This is then factored into the decision-making process for locating DCs in an optimized, more energy-efficient distribution network,” says Klimek. To make an even bigger dent on costs and your carbon footprint, experts suggest optimizing truck capacity and developing more efficient transportation routes.

2. Better lighting
Sustainability in lighting has always been one of the most popular initiatives; that’s because the percentage of energy attributed to lighting a facility is quite high.

“It represents typically about 30% of the energy use in a DC,” says Klimek, adding that one of the more popular lighting strategies is ‘daylighting.’ “We just recently completed a building for Coca-Cola where we integrated daylight tubes as well as clear story glass to bring light into the distribution center.” He adds that light fixtures with daylighting sensors were installed in this facility so that the building can often operate without any artificial lighting.

Brenton Kapelski, architectural department manager, and Louise Schlatter, master architect from the SSOE Group, a global engineering, procurement, and construction management firm, report several studies that have shown an increase in employee productivity and attendance when working in an environment with natural light. They suggest leveraging this further by complementing artificial lighting with occupancy sensors. “Artificial lighting can be turned off in parts of the warehouse that are not being used,” says Kapelski.

James Yerke, engineering supervisor for SSOE, suggests using energy-efficient fluorescent fixtures (such as T5s) with these occupancy sensors. “Due to the instantaneous strike time of a T5, they can be turned on and off providing lighting on demand,” says Yerke. “By contrast, a high pressure sodium fixture needs about 10 minutes to warm up to full illumination and must cool about 15 minutes before they will restrike, making it not suitable for intermittent operation.” 

3. Recycling
Be it in the planning phase, construction phase or in day-to-day operations, the trends of “recycling, reusing and repurposing” remain one of the most popular in sustainable design.

Even before construction, our green experts see opportunities for sustainability and significant costs savings in land use—or reuse. Instead of new facilities, they propose redeveloping vacant buildings that are currently in abundance as a result of the difficult economy. Better yet, they suggest developing on land that has previously been developed or contaminated. If building a new DC, reduce construction costs by using precast concrete and steel with high-recycled content.

Once the DC is operational, recycling is now fairly common practice for today’s DCs. Why not take it a step further? Use returnable plastic containers (RPCs) in internal captive pools designed specifically for a particular operation, or external shared pools with standardized designs that enable supply chain-wide efficiencies. Hillary Femal, director of strategic market development for IFCO systems, an international RPC provider, reports how their RPC pools have minimized their customers’ operating costs with greater than 90% waste reduction.

4. Going for net-zero
A net-zero building is one that generates as much energy as it uses over a year, thus “net”-ting zero energy requirements to the local power grid. DLR’s Oathout describes the design of a net-zero building as an iterative process where the building function and energy footprint are evaluated to optimize performance.

“Once optimal building energy performance is determined, a renewable energy strategy is formulated,” says Oathout, adding how some DCs vast rooftops make them excellent locations for solar panels.

KSS Architects recently designed a net-zero facility for Somerset Tire Service (STS) in Bridgewater, N.J., deploying a roof-mounted, 1.2 megawatt photovoltaic array that met the demands of the company’s entire corporate campus with a less than five year payback. “Ironically it was not important to them to obtain a LEED rating,” says KSS’ Klimek, “but it is probably one of the most sustainable buildings we’ve ever done.”

5. Smarter buildings
Buildings are not only getting greener; they’re getting smarter. It’s now best practice for new construction to have some form of smart building or energy management systems that uses “submetering” to give building managers visibility into equipment energy use and performance.

Submetering involves installing physical measuring devices onto machinery and equipment to monitor usage of electricity, gas, water, and other utilities. This data is then sent to Web-based building management software for analysis and to identify opportunities for energy and cost savings.

“It involves understanding energy loads and where they’re being used,” says JLL’s Schneider. “If something goes wrong with any piece of equipment anywhere in the building, these kinds of systems will immediately give you an alarm.” She cites how an outside air damper could be stuck open and you could be heating 20-degree air all winter long. With an intelligent building management system, you could quickly pinpoint the problem and deploy an engineer immediately to fix it.

6. HVLS (high-volume, low-speed) fans
Even during triple-digit summers in Forth Worth, Texas, a leading retailer’s one-million-square foot DC hardly taps into its air-conditioning system. That’s because the company installed an integrated fan control system that uses 26 high-volume, low-speed (HVLS) networked warehouse fans with 24-foot diameters to cool indoor temperatures.

Designed to move massive columns of air at low speeds, HVLS fans can help regulate a facility’s temperature year-round from floor to ceiling. “It permits facilities to increase or decrease thermostat temperature settings between 3 degrees and 5 degrees without realizing any negative temperature changes,” says Dan Linder, HVLS sales manager at 4Front Engineered Solutions, a warehouse solutions provider.

By networking the fans, adds Linger, they can be easily controlled and monitored from a centralized location. Savings can range from 12% to 50% in cooling and heating costs, while providing employees with a more comfortable work environment.

7. Define goals first
With so many initiatives to choose from, Klimek suggests first defining your goals: “Why are you pursuing sustainability? Is it to reduce energy costs or is it to make a statement that’s consistent with your company goals?” 

Schneider advises to never rule out an initiative because you have a preconceived notion that it might cost too much money. “A lot of times the incremental cost is not as much as people think it’s going to be,” says Schneider. “In addition, if it makes your building more energy efficient, then there is very likely an incentive for it—especially in New York and New Jersey.”

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About the Author

Maida Napolitano's avatar
Maida Napolitano
Maida Napolitano has worked as a Senior Engineer for various consulting companies specializing in supply chain, logistics, and physical distribution since 1990. She’s is the principal author for the following publications: Using Modeling to Solve Warehousing Problems (WERC); Making the Move to Cross Docking (WERC); The Time, Space & Cost Guide to Better Warehouse Design (Distribution Group); and Pick This! A Compendium of Piece-Pick Process Alternatives (WERC). She has worked for clients in the food, health care, retail, chemical, manufacturing and cosmetics industries, primarily in the field of facility layout and planning, simulation, ergonomics, and statistic analysis. She holds BS and MS degrees in Industrial Engineering from the University of the Philippines and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, respectively. She can be reached at [email protected].
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