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SHORT REPORT: LEED: Points To Ponder

LEED’s the current buzz and the right thing to do. So what’s the business case, and which LEED points offer tangible payback?

By: Brian Ward

08/01/2012

If you had to pick the most popular buzzword in the foodservice-equipment industry today, chances are good it would be “LEED.” The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program has been around for more than a decade and has remained a hot foodservice topic for several years.

By now, everyone knows the LEED certification program focuses on sustainable buildings and operations. And who isn’t in favor of sustainability?

But what else do you know, really? How does the program work, and what are the payoffs? Those who’ve pursued LEED certification know its ins and outs; they also realize LEED is a continuing-education process that makes you more knowledgeable about every part of your job. But for many of the uninitiated, LEED is still a haze on the horizon, a foggy outline. Coffee-break conversations, like mosaic pieces, are just fragments. It’s hard to get a feel for how the bits fit together. A little bit of macro helps make sense of the micro, and vice versa.

 

The Origins Of LEED

To put things in perspective: Back in 2000, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) first unveiled to the public its LEED certification program. At the time, the program focused on sustainability and utility efficiency in just two categories: commercial office space and residential construction. These areas were two biggies in terms of cubic footage, materials, energy consumption and sheer numbers of buildings and, therefore, were a good place to start.

Since then, LEED has evolved. The most recent 2009 edition offers nine different certification programs for nine types of projects across a wide swath of industries and functions. LEED features programs for Schools, Healthcare and Homes as well as for Neighborhood Development, which, just as it sounds, is a different concept. Commercial-building options include New Construction & Major Renovations, Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance, Commercial Interiors, Core & Shell and Retail (which is split into Commercial Interiors and New Construction & Major Renovations).

Each of the nine categories has its own distinctive needs and characteristics, obviously, so each also gets its own set of scoring criteria, weighted differently depending on what’s relevant in each category. But all nine are scored on a possible 100-point scale, with 10 possible bonus points available under certain circumstances. In any case, if your project meets all prerequisites and earns at least 40 points, the USGBC will grant LEED certification. More points are commensurate with a better rating; Silver, Gold and Platinum certifications are obtainable.

 

Foodservice Finds its Niche

“Foodservice fits under Retail,” says Kal Wellman, LEED AP O+M (which is the abbreviation for LEED Accredited Professional, Operations & Maintenance), account manager, USGBC. So whether you’re looking at certification for new construction, a major renovation or a more limited interiors project, Retail is your section.

The fit, admittedly, has been a little awkward at times. During the early years, LEED critics within the foodservice industry noted that the Retail standards and points allocations didn’t align with either the enormous process loads—both energy and water—used in food production or the impact of process heat on HVAC, etc. The areas in which foodservice operations could save a lot of energy and the areas in which plenty of LEED points could be had weren’t always the same.

There have been other complications for the foodservice industry as well. One is economy of scale. Like mom-and-pop retailers, foodservice outlets tend to be relatively small. And multiunit foodservice organizations would require a lot more infrastructure per dollar of revenue to catch up to the big-box retailers. The average domestic Best Buy, for example, is about 31,500 sq. ft. (under one roof, utilizing one HVAC system, no cooking, etc.) and garners $25 million in revenue per year. Twenty-five million dollars in foodservice revenue would necessitate multiple locations with a great deal of structure, equipment and utilities. LEED, so far, has not been cost-effective for the typical foodservice unit.

But that’s changing. A new version of LEED, originally dubbed “LEED 2012” and scheduled to be released this year, will open for its fifth public comment period Oct. 2 through Dec. 10. Recently rescheduled to go to ballot June 1, 2013—and, as such, renamed “LEED v4”—the updated version will address more foodservice issues.

“I think our users and stakeholders are excited about the next iteration of LEED,” Wellman says. Wellman is especially aware of the particulars of the hospitality industry because that’s where he’s been putting in much of his time recently. “LEED v4 isn’t easier, but it’s more usable. And it has adapted credits to be more segment-specific. I think we’re headed in the right direction, and people are excited.”

In the meantime, a new LEED Volume Program for multiunit ops now offers certification for multiple builds of a single design, greatly reducing the time, effort and money involved in certifying multiple facilities.

“Subway just recently joined the LEED Volume Program,” Wellman notes. “Subway’s in it for commercial interiors, the retail version.” He adds that McDonald’s and Starbucks also are participating in the Volume Program.

 

Points vs. Payback

Sustainability obviously is a great attribute, and in the long run, it’s clearly the way to go. But in the here-and-now, how do you sell the concept to the folks at the top of the organizational chart? How can LEED certification benefit your business? Where’s the payback?

“The true value of LEED is increased asset value and lower operating cost,” Wellman says. “And the way the public perceives you is a value.” There’s a lot to be said for public perception, and several big names have jumped at the opportunity, including McDonald’s and Starbucks, of course, as well as Chipotle, Darden, multiple Yum! brands and quite a few others. Positive news exposure is hard to monetize, but it affects everything from traffic to stock price. And some market segments—universities leap to mind—are extremely sensitive to environmental priorities.

As for the things that are easier to flag on a spreadsheet? If you’re looking at LEED for Retail: New Construction & Major Renovations, credits are awarded in seven categories covering areas such as site sustainability, water, energy and atmosphere, indoor-air quality and materials and resources among others. In each of the categories are subgroups, every one with its own points potential.

Some areas, like materials and resources, offer points for utilizing various innovations, such as recycled building materials, locally produced materials, etc. Instituting recycling programs also are good for points. Waste management earns points and can save the operation hauling costs. Projects can earn indoor-environmental-quality points by using environmentally friendly materials, such as low-VOC paints and low-emitting adhesives. All of these techniques can help put your project on the “green” path to sustainability; they might cost or save a little up front, but they aren’t big payback items.   

 

Show Me The Money

“Reducing energy consumption can translate into big financial savings for operators,” says Tarah Schroeder, LEED AP, director of sustainability, Colorado-based Ricca Newmark Design. “You can definitely see a payback by lowering water use and waste to landfill, but energy typically has the quickest return on investment.”

Zeroing in on energy not only saves operational costs: Energy efficiency also can earn up to 35 points toward LEED certification. However, points in this category are not gimmes. One energy-and-atmosphere prerequisite for LEED for Retail: New Construction & Major Renovations involves beating a target baseline building-performance rating by 10% for new construction and 5% for renovations to existing buildings. If your concept’s typical unit improves energy efficiency by more than 10% or 5% respectively, you’ve got a head start and your proposed improvements are just that much better. But if your numbers are than the baseline, you have your work cut out for you. Still, anything you can do to reduce utility costs is a plus; that’s a gift that keeps on giving. Either way, you have to keep your eye on two things: points <i>and<i> dollars saved on utility consumption. If you’re doing one, and doing it scientifically, you might as well do both and reap all of the benefits.

What are the big payoffs? Schroeder recites a list of potential areas for improvement: “Lighting is a low-hanging fruit,” she says. “But operators also should think about the higher ticket items, such as ventilation and foodservice equipment, which together account for about 60% of overall kitchen energy use.” Carefully considering the best options and strategies for these two categories can result in significant savings.

“By looking at high-efficiency hoods and on-demand controls, reviewing hood placement and equipment under the hood and even identifying spaces that don't need hoods, operators can reduce ventilation energy needs,” she says.

Target the biggest energy users first, Schroeder advises. “Be selective on the biggest energy users to choose equipment that will balance operational efficiency with energy efficiency.” This includes dishmachines, fryers, steamers, ice machines, ovens and griddles. And don’t forget charbroilers. As Schroeder points out, that charbroiler load hits twice—in the energy to operate the charbroiler and the energy to vent the heat it generates.

 

Think About Process

Going for the most efficient equipment is a prime strategy, of course. But it’s not the only way to save utility costs and gain LEED points. “Process design is another part of [evaluating efficiency],” says Richard Young, senior engineer and director of education with Fisher-Nickel Inc., operator of Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s Food Service Technology Center (FSTC) in San Ramon, Calif. “Reconsider the process. One example is switching a broiler to a thermostatic grill if your menu allows.”

“You can go from doing refried beans in the stockpot to doing them in a steam kettle or some other more efficient equipment,” says Dave Zabrowski, director of engineering at the FSTC. Don’t pass up the opportunity to evaluate redundancies, he notes. “Do you really need some of your backup equipment, and do you need to be running it?” Again, the energy load doesn’t just come from the cooking equipment. The more equipment you operate, the higher the HVAC load, too.

 

Allow Time For Modeling

One of the challenges in the LEED certification process is defining and documenting your project’s starting condition and the resulting improvements; documentation involves modeling.

“What burdens people is that they have to do an entire energy model and include the whole facility,” Zabrowski acknowledges. It’s a lot of documentation, and in the case of foodservice, modeling kitchen energy is difficult. “The kitchen uses five times more energy per square foot than the rest of the building. So if you want a visual representation of its impact, picture it five times bigger on your floorplan,” he notes.

“People underestimate the time it takes to do the modeling,” says Vern Smith, senior engineer at Fisher-Nickel. “The big unknown is the process load.” Process load varies greatly depending on menu and kitchen setup; even within the same concept it can vary widely based on hours of operation, transactions, weather and operating inefficiencies, by which he means variables in staff procedures from location to location.

Complete enough field measurement to be confident with your project data. Smith says he thinks many operators estimate their process loads too high. Don’t overestimate or underestimate; your data should be accurate within 10% or 15%, he says, for establishing baselines and new performance.

 

Metering for Insights

One of the companies that has put a lot of effort into LEED certification as well as energy and field measurement—including submetering equipment—is Yum! Brands.

“The most efficient piece of equipment is the one you don’t have to use,” says Jonathan Balas, AIA, LEED AP, at Yum! Brands, Louisville, Ky. Therefore, process evaluation is a key. Ask: Is your operation running in the best possible way?

Balas confirms Yum! has discovered certain categories of equipment use big chunks of energy. “Obviously kitchen equipment,” he notes, “and HVAC and lighting.” No surprises there, exactly. But actually submetering in the field does provide insights and surprises. Balas says Yum! notes substantial differences in equipment and HVAC consumption across global markets and varying climates.

Another thing Yum! has realized: “We’ve determined where QSR operators should not be looking [for efficiency gains]. We’re internally load dominated, meaning we create more heat than needed. So the building envelope has to meet minimal efficiencies, yes, but there’s no [payback] benefit to building in technologies for facility insulation or for using certain architectural design techniques.”

“Submetering establishes a baseline and helps us and our teams around the world understand where their utilities are being used,” adds Adam Jarboe, senior energy engineer at Yum!. Apart from the variations you’d expect in different global markets, other surprises emerge as well.

“We’ve come across situations where you get numbers you don’t expect,” Jarboe says. “Some of those have been about water: We’ll tell an operator he’s using [an unexpectedly high amount], but we can’t explain why. Sure enough, on further review, we identify operator behaviors. In some cases, we’ve busted some myths about what operators are doing.”

“We’re positive on LEED,” Balas says. “We’ve done experimental stores and learned new water- and energy-conservation technologies. Something else we like about LEED is the flexibility. It offers the choices we need that make sense for us. And, in the end, it is nice to have the third-party validation.”


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