When Sustainable Means Repeatable: Prototypical Architecture for National Retail Rollout Programs


In less than 2 months, a leading retail chain needed to gain admission into the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) volume certification pilot program  — an initiative created to allow companies, especially national organizations, to certify multiple buildings as sustainable through prototypical architecture.


With a fast-approaching deadline, SGA Design Group — a national architecture firm with expertise in retail design and prototypical architecture — helped the retailer quickly gain admission into the USGBC’s volume certification program by the target date. With savings spanning from operating costs to time savings, SGA maximized the value of the retailer’s expenditures while providing guidance through the pilot program’s requirements.

Sustainable Architecture and LEED Certification

Green. It’s a word strewn across a diverse array of industries from transportation to health and wellness. The USGBC created the LEED program to set standards for sustainable architecture. The internationally recognized certification accounts for a variety of factors, including building design, water and energy efficiency and sustainable material choice.

A Leading Architectural Advantage

For many large companies, including some retailers with nationwide locations, sustainable architecture has become increasingly advantageous. A government study on the effects of LEED-rated buildings on employee health and productivity found that “improved indoor environmental quality contributed to reductions in perceived absenteeism and work hours affected by asthma, respiratory allergies, depression, and stress and to self-reported improvements in productivity.” What’s more, the USGBC says research consistently indicates that energy efficient architecture and thoughtful land use provide opportunities to increase savings and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

Certification for Sustainable Architecture Projects En Masse

The USGBC previously required national organizations to certify each individual building design. For owners wishing to pursue LEED for a large portfolio of buildings, this meant more time, dollars and submissions.  LEED volume certification was introduced to streamline the certification process for large organizations wanting to certify multiple buildings that have major elements in common.  The program focuses on similarities in building design and operations, resulting in a set of common credits within a single LEED rating system. With the new process, organizations could precertify an architectural prototype. This would allow them to minimize the expense and documentation required in pursuit of certification across multiple projects. SGA’s retail partner, relying on the national architecture firm’s expertise in prototypical design, sought guidance in navigating the program’s complexities to attain precertification of their prototype — all in less than 60 days.

One Architectural Prototype for All

In three steps, companies can precertify their sustainable architecture building prototype with volume certification. First, prospective participants submit documentation outlining the candidate organization along with the projects they wish to certify. Once admitted, participants attend an orientation, which includes on-site training and reviewing guidance documents.

Next, participants compile the necessary documentation for prototype precertification. To develop standards across the building projects, an architectural prototype — which is not designed for any specific project location — is submitted. Then, Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) analyzes the proposed features and parameters for the volume projects and determines whether the architectural prototype meets all LEED volume certification requirements.

With precertification awarded, individual projects are eligible for certification based on the prototype standards. Once the green light is given in this final step, the architectural prototype can be applied across the organization’s applicable building portfolio.

LEED Volume Program Submittal Guidance and Success

SGA coordinated a multifaceted initiative to complete each step and meet the retailer’s deadline. Initially, program criteria were identified and research responsibilities delegated to relevant subject matter experts within the retail architecture firm. These experts acquired a deep knowledge of requirements and, throughout the process, staff assignments were re-prioritized in an effort to ensure each facet was handled by a subject matter expert. Fittingly, SGA’s retail architects developed a close working relationship with the USGBC staff.

What followed paved the way for future partnership between the retailer and SGA’s retail architects. Significantly, the retailer became the first specialty department store to receive LEED volume precertification of their prototype, despite joining the pilot program last. Best of all, the retailer experienced savings in their certification costs and ultimately operational costs.

Reduced Costs, Improved Retail Design Experience, and Increased Brand Loyalty

For the retailer, the effects of LEED certification were widespread. On average, the certified stores are 32% more energy efficient than baseline stores, use 50% less water for irrigation and see savings of as much as 30% in general water consumption. In addition, the stores reduce fumes through the use of low-emitting materials. The utility cost savings associated with participation in the volume program impacts over 1/3 of their entire building portfolio. Furthermore, the retailer realized an average of 33% time savings on certification reviews.

Apart from savings, volume certification also improved the retail design experience. Kim Limbaugh, Director of Sustainability for SGA Design Group, says, “Improved indoor air quality contributes to a cleaner, more comfortable and healthier environment for the retailer and customers, through the use of paints, carpet, sealants, adhesives, composite wood, insulation, and wall systems with no or low volatile organic compound emissions.”

LEED volume certification also helped build brand loyalty. “This retailer is committed to providing healthy, comfortable, and engaging environments for their customers, associates, and communities,” according to Limbaugh.  As part of that effort they have invested in building and maintaining energy efficient and sustainable buildings by utilizing two of the most widely recognized green building rating and certification programs currently in use: EPA’s DESIGNED TO EARN THE ENERGY STAR and USGBC’s LEED.

Continued Retail Architecture Partnership

SGA’s retail architects provided ongoing assistance to this national retailer on the certification of individual projects, the renewal of prototype pre-certification, as well as additional prototype pre-certifications. The retailer engaged SGA again for LEED Green Associate education and training to key personnel because of the knowledge gained and the success experienced with the program.

Partnership continued in other ways, too. SGA provided ongoing assistance to the retailer in reviewing and evaluating Low-Emitting Materials documentation on 146 projects. SGA was the architect of record on 36 of these LEED certified projects, 12 of which achieved LEED Silver certification.

In the bigger picture, when large national retailers invest in sustainable design, materials, equipment, technologies, components, and practices across their building portfolio, the scale of impact is significant. Over time, these initiatives result in advancements in sustainable and innovative design solutions, and a significant cost reduction within the industry. By 2018, the USGBC says LEED architecture will directly contribute $29.8 billion to U.S. GDP.