From the wood floors and energy-efficient dimmers to the natural fibers in the furnishings, the Gabriela Hearst store on Madison Avenue takes sustainability in retail design to a new level.

“She gave me complete license to make the construction as sustainable as possible,” said Zaher Katerji, principal and lead architect of Milan-based Zari Architects. “There were no afterthoughts here. From the first day of the design to the development of the project, from the construction materials to the fabrics, everything we used to build that store was sustainable.”

The 3,500-square-foot store, adjacent to the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, was planned to consume less energy, with motion-detecting dimmers to control the lighting, sensors regulating the air-conditioning and appliances requiring lower energy consumption. There’s extensive use of natural materials including reclaimed oak and wood that is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) approved, meaning it’s from forests where trees are replenished; natural fabrics such as cotton, mohair and cashmere for furniture and interiors, and even the paint is “VOC,” meaning it’s devoid of volatile organic compounds.

“We did not spend more money to make the store more sustainable,” said Katerji. “It just required a lot of planning from the beginning and open-mindedness and support from the client, Gabriela.”

The sustainable Gabriela Hearst store with its reclaimed woods and natural fabrics in the furnishings.  Chun Y Lai Photography

The Gabriela Hearst store is an exception in an industry where sustainability is a growing concern, but generally not the biggest. Efforts often revolve around installing LED (Light Emitting Diode) lighting; solar panels; developing flexible selling-floor formats where fixtures and decor can easily be moved or adapted for merchandise changes, special events and renovations; creating less waste in the construction and taking it to recycling centers rather than landfill, and preserving historic buildings.

“Localization is emerging as a key trend in retail as a whole,” said Kelly Dunne, creative director and partner in the Kramer design firm. “More and more, we’re designing with locally sourced, regionally native materials to reduce carbon footprints and are working with clients to create consumer experiences that encourage shopping locally or picking up online orders in-store to reduce shipping materials.”

One source in the retail design community noted that building retail spaces is less damaging to the environment than apparel production. Nevertheless, “the materials that brands use in their stores could be greener, but most often they chose not to use them. The flooring, the paints, the finishes cost more, are more time-intensive or not the right aesthetic. Chroming, for example, is really bad for the environment, but it’s less expensive than taking stainless steel and polishing it. Even with paint, there are greener, less toxic choices, but they cost more and they have limited color choices. The sustainable process is limited. It requires extended schedules, added costs. Most retail brands are not willing to make the compromise. The top priority is the merchandise they sell.”

“I think sustainability is a choice that very few people pay attention to,” Katerji agreed. “For me, it’s part of my way of designing a real luxury store. It’s not about showing off a store that is impressive. It’s about conscious decisions to build a luxurious but sustainable store. I don’t think luxury and sustainability are two competing concepts. They can go hand-in-hand. Very few brands believe in this. One of the few is Stella McCartney.”

At Shawmut Design and Construction, “We’ve seen retail leaders take a more conscientious global approach to designing and building sustainably, which Shawmut helps support,” said Bahjat Talhouni, retail consultant for Shawmut. “We do things as green as possible. We have a dedicated sustainability team that partners with clients on everything from managing the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification process to developing a bespoke sustainability strategy.”

The $1.4 billion construction firm tackles projects in the hospitality, luxury home, museum and university sectors, as well as retail. Shawmut has successfully delivered more than 100 LEED Certified buildings, including 9 LEED Platinum. Shawmut has more than 50 LEED-accredited staffers and all staff receives some education on green building and LEED.

Shawmut worked on the Coach “House” flagship that opened in 2016 on Fifth Avenue and 54th Street. According to Talhouni, 90 percent of the construction debris (322,640 pounds) including plastic, metals, cardboard and concrete, was recycled instead of ending up in landfill. Years earlier, when Shawmut built the Victoria’s Secret flagship on Fifth Avenue near 51st Street, 84 percent of the debris from the project was recycled, representing 634,000 pounds of waste.

FRCH Design Worldwide is working with a global apparel brand to develop a retail prototype that projects the brand’s priority on sustainability in product development. “In the design of space, we are working with them to create a narrative around sustainability and convey it through graphics and materials,” said Norman Roberts, vice president and managing creative director at FRCH, who declined to mention the brand. “There’s a link between the store’s aesthetics and the brand’s emphasis on sustainability. It’s different from building a sustainable store, but in some ways, it’s more important to talk about the products and how they are manufactured because in many cases, that’s where there’s a greater impact on the environment.”

“True sustainability is so much more than just using eco-friendly materials. We create a 360-degree business strategy for our clients that affects all parts of the product chain,” said Robin Kramer, president of Kramer. “We’re currently working on a brand that’s redefining luxury as a guilt-free shopping experience. We see sustainability as encompassing environmental impact, social impact, and individual wellness, so we’re designing a consumer experience that takes the guesswork out of making sustainable choices. No longer will consumers have to spend their time and energy researching whether or not the brands they’re purchasing are sustainable or ethical. We think it’s going to change the way consumers shop luxury.”

“Sustainability in retail is becoming increasingly a high-profile topic, from sourcing and manufacturing to the operations and to creating experiences,” said Leigh Dennis, executive director and retail sector leader in the London office of CallisonRTKL. “One area of focus is the adaptive reuse of historic and urban-centric properties. The world is moving to rapid urbanization, and adaptive reuse of existing buildings is a key trend among retailers — not just for sustainability but for authenticity, too.”

REI at Uline. (Washington DC)

REI at Uline in Washington, D.C.  © 2016 Aaron Leitz Photography

Dennis cited CallisonRTKL’s design of the 51,000-square-foot REI flagship in Washington, D.C. in the landmark Uline Arena into a “marketplace” for REI’s outdoor gear and apparel. The space includes a bike shop, a ski/snowboard shop, a La Colombe coffee roaster and an outdoor courtyard on the inside of the store. The design celebrates the storied past of the Uline Arena, where The Beatles performed their first U.S. concert in 1964.

Because there wasn’t enough height to display the kayaks and canoes, the entire space was excavated 5 feet down, unearthing the original concrete foundation and exposing the true architectural character. The arena’s basketball court flooring was reused as wall cladding, and the arena’s wood seating is displayed on the walls.

REI has a track record moving into historical structures. In 2011, an REI flagship opened in New York’s Puck Building, and earlier the brand opened shop in the Denver Tramway building, a former Sears Roebuck mail-order store in Boston, and in Bend, Ore., REI moved into a former sawmill powerhouse.

REI at Uline. (Washington DC)

REI in Washington, D.C. converted a former arena.  © 2016 Aaron Leitz Photography

In Amsterdam, CallisonRTKL worked on the opening of 10 Hudson’s Bay stores in 2017, which were updated for sustainability with LED lighting and new windows. “Energy usage in retail is a 50-pound gorilla,” said Dennis. But he noted that all of the buildings received LED illumination. “That was a significant investment, but it brings the quickest and largest return and generates less heat.”

Dennis also said the storefronts were upgraded to current lighting technology, higher-quality acoustic control and improved visibility. There’s maximum transparency to the street and the interior and the new glass retains heat better in the winter and keeps the heat out in the summer. There’s also less noise from the street.

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Hudson’s Bay in Amsterdam.  CHIEL DE NOOYER

Dennis spoke of “disassembly” as an important concept whereby designs can be disassembled and recycled into industrial production, returned to the earth, or reused for renovations. “We don’t stick glass and wood together. It’s not sustainable.”

“The client for sure has to be on board, as does the manufacturer, but it doesn’t typically make (the project) more expensive. The biggest and best retailers are those with tangible strategies to support sustainable goals. There are a number of retailers baking in ideas of cradle-to-cradle design for disability,” he said, lauding Marks & Spencer for having a long-term plan for sustainability.

“In the U.K. and Europe, there is a high level of regulation around energy efficiency,” said Dennis. “Within the next three to five years, carbon neutrality will be an absolute requirement for retailers in Europe and different parts of the world.”

Hudson’s Bay in Amsterdam.  CHIEL DE NOOYER

At Mapos, a small design and architectural firm based in Manhattan’s Chinatown, “Our most recent retail project is Innisfree on Lexington Avenue,” said Colin Brice, cofounder. “It is a flexible program with retail, classroom and lounge. It is also a biophilia design — lots of greenery/plants and a tropical-island-inspired central display table.” Innisfree is a South Korean beauty brand with sustainable products from the volcanic island of Jeju off the coast of South Korea.

Mapos transformed the city’s first YMCA into a retail experience for customers wanting to learn what it means to be green. Called Green Depot, it closed a few years ago. Yet Brice holds out hope: “By far, the latest trends in sustainability fall into our growing awareness, and respect, for the fact that resources are limited and how they can be part of a circular economy. In the last 20 years, we have seen a shift in our attention to where goods and materials come from and who brings them to us. How and where are they farmed, harvested, manufactured and processed? Now we are researching more and more into how the lifespan of these goods and materials can be extended and become resources for another round of beneficial use. What will become of these jeans or this flat-screen TV when I am done with them? Forty percent of food produced in the U.S. is not eaten. It’s thrown away. How can we divert food waste to more useful resource streams?”

Katerji of Zari Architects stressed that conviction is key: “I cannot push a client to do a sustainable store. They have to believe in it as much as I do,” he said. “Once you start talking to luxury brands and discuss investing a half-a-million dollars, they have afterthoughts.”

The architect started collaborating with Italian luxury brand Bottega Veneta on sustainability in its stores in 2010. “Our main focus was to limit energy consumption in the store using more efficient A/C systems and lighting fixtures,” he said.

In 2013, a Bottega Veneta flagship opened in Milan with LED lighting, which Katerji said uses 75 percent less energy than traditional bulbs. In 2016, another flagship opened in Beverly Hills with energy efficient lighting and A/C systems, and this year, a flagship opened in Manhattan, on Madison Avenue by 64th Street, considered the brand’s largest store at 24,000 square feet.
“We wanted to certify this store as LEED Platinum, however the costs were too high. We still wanted to push for making the store as sustainable as possible but at no additional cost to the client. We implemented the LED lighting in the store which cost the same as the traditional lighting fixtures. The other important aspect we managed to implement with the support of the general contractor (Shawmut) was recycling — almost 90 percent of the waste (concrete/masonry, metal, wood and drywall) generated during demolition and construction. By the end of the project we managed to recycle 181 tons or 362.000 pounds of waste, at no additional cost to the client.

“For Gabriela next year, we are planning stores in London and Hong Kong. Our plan is always to take sustainability one step ahead. There are always new things coming out, new ways to build things. For example, more and more stores are becoming paperless. This alone is a huge sustainable move. You don’t have to print receipts anymore if you do everything on iPads. You can manage waste during construction and question suppliers about how they deal with waste and if the way they produce materials is sustainable. Maybe we take our business somewhere else. Today, in cities like New York, London, those bigger cities, you can make the decisions to use clean energy, which maybe comes at a slightly higher cost but this is so minor compared to the impact on the environment. It’s important that fashion brands explain to their employees, their customers about how proud they are of their sustainability efforts. People look up to fashion brands.”

Gabriela Hearst with Zaher Katerji of Zari Architects.