Green medal gang

Several levels of the LEED certification program recognizes operators who are making a difference. Environmentally conscious operators speak out about the process.

There are lots of awards to be won in the foodservice industry, though none may have as much significance for the good of the planet than LEED certification, something the U.S. Green Buildings Council is spearheading in industries of all kinds.

There are several levels of certification for LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Foodservice operators have long sought, on their own, to recycle and otherwise reduce their environmental impact, but now a growing number are doing so as part of organzational manadates. You, too, can “take the LEED.”

Taking the LEED

Today operators in all sectors, from schools and colleges to healthcare and corporate locations, are “going green” in ever increasing numbers. Certainly, they’re not lonely in their effort to be good citizens of the planet and conserve as much of our natural resources as possible. Like Kermit, though, you may find it’s not easy being green—at least at the outset—especially if your facility is working toward LEED certification.

The LEED—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—Green Building Rating System has become the nationally accepted standard for green buildings, and was developed by the Washington–based U.S. Green Building Council. There are four levels of certification, based on points that a facility “scores” in meeting LEED components: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum, the highest. Non-commercial operations from New York to Virginia to Colorado to California are taking the council’s standards to heart and embracing a “green” way of life.

Gold for Hearst: In the third floor atrium of the new Gold LEED-certified Hearst Tower in New York, employees can dine in the modern white marble-floored Cafe57, the 350-seat café operated by Restaurant Associates (see Jan. 15, 2007, FSD, p. 54).

Many of the menu ingredients are locally raised, and a high percentage are organic—including grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef from the Hearst Ranch in California. In the seating area, the soaring, glass-enclosed space not only offers a huge expanse of natural light, but the atrium is kept cool by an Ice Fall—a sustainable art fixture which utilizes recycled rainwater.

This mid-town oasis, which opened last May, is the city’s newest jewel, and Charles LaMonica, RA’s senior vice president of operations, couldn’t be more pleased. “Hearst Tower is the city’s first Gold LEED-certified building and our client, Brian Schwagerl, is extremely proud and knowledgeable,” LaMonica reports. “He’s been the advocate within the Hearst organization in pursuing and achieving this LEED certification.”

In addition to the wide array of sustainably raised or grown menu offerings, LaMonica points to the café’s use of biodegradable, naturally based and fully compostable cold drink cups and lids created from resin produced by isolating the starch in corn kernels. Cafe57 also uses biodegradable hot food containers made of tasteless and health-conscious natural fiber such as sugar cane fiber.

These recyclables are available as to-go options, but primary service is on china, notes fsd Julie Sajda. “We’ve trained our line attendants to assume that visitors are staying,” she says. “They automatically get permanent ware. But if they take out disposables, we have recycle bins up on the pantries for plastic, paper and wet garbage. The product we use is a bit higher cost, but we stay in line. Of the approximately 1,100 daily covers, more than half eat in.”

LaMonica admits that costs of these particular biodegradable products are higher since they’re not mainstream. “They’re still in limited supply so you pay a premium for them,” he concedes. “Hearst is looking for a leadership role in that—they will lead the way in making (sustainable) practices mainstream.”

Energy Star premium: Back and front of the house, foodservice consultant Ira Beer of Beer Associates in Lynbrook, NY, worked with the Hearst team and Restaurant Associates from the embryonic stage of the project through completion. Beer is quick to point out that not every piece of foodservice equipment fits the green profile.

“We tried to maximize the equipment we had control of,” Beer says. “Another company oversaw where a substitution to fit the green profile could be made. For example, all reach-in refrigeration equipment had (the Environmental Protection Agency’s) Energy Star rating for electrical consumption. Overall, we have two criteria when we specify equipment: one, that it be energy efficient; and two, we look at functionality. So if it’s energy efficient but very slow, we might choose faster equipment. But when judged for ‘green,’ you have to show that it has the Energy Star rating.”

In specifying commercial dishwashers, Beer chose units with insulated tanks to retain heat. “Since tanks are thermostatically controlled, if the insulation retains the heat it doesn’t require additional heat to retain power,” he explains. “Because it doesn’t have a rating, the LEED consultant can explain this when applying for LEED (certification).”

Beer further notes that insulating tanks in dishwashing machines are expensive and, although not a unique accessory, they are becoming a desirable feature in a green building. Such insulation is sometimes used to reduce noise, but at Hearst it was done primarily for energy conservation.

Recycling focus: Since green buildings are known for recycling, Beer specified pulping equipment to pulp garbage in the dishwashing operation, a procedure that reduces garbage by a factor of five-to-one. “It could be used for compost, but it also takes up less space in the landfill,” he explains.

“Also, especially on conveyor-type dishwashing machines, they just keep running and running, pumping water and soap in an empty machine. We have sensors that will automatically shut down the machine—and that also accrues to the LEED rating.”

Fossil’s Silver: But skyscrapers in  big cities aren’t the only places pursuing LEED. certification. Fossil Ridge High School, part of Poudre School District in Fort Collins, CO, is certified Silver.

It opened in August 2004, and received LEED certification for new construction in July 2005. At the time, there were no LEED for Schools parameters established. The school has an open campus policy and serves about 600 of the 975 students enrolled.

“My predecessor had planned the kitchen and we have a really good planning, design and construction department that worked on getting that certification,” says Christine Rock, foodservice director. “District-wide, we’ve focused on recycling and recently have more recycling stuff than trash.”

Fossil Ridge collaborated with Front Range Community College on the project, and there are two kitchens in the building with some opportunity for shared equipment. “The biggest savings is in heating and ventilation,” notes Stu Reeve, energy manager for Poudre. “Kitchen design is often looked at as a separate entity, but with the LEED philosophy, kitchen design is brought in early and you’re looking at its impact on the whole building, making lighting and HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) systems really come together.”

Reeve and the team designed the building in 2002, and all equipment used was the most energy-efficient available at the time, but he notes that the process pre-dates the EPA Energy Star label that is now more readily available.

Rock points out that hot water use in the kitchen is a huge energy conservation area at Fossil Ridge. “We upgraded the booster heaters that raise the temperature of the water that goes to the dishwasher to 150°F, and rinses at more than 180°F,” she explains.

Elsewhere in Colorado—a state that has put a premium on building green—Foothills Hospital, part of Boulder Community Hospital in Boulder, has also earned its certified LEED Silver rating. Opened in 2003, this 53-bed facility—designed to eventually accommodate more than 200 patients—was the first hospital to earn the Silver rating, having gone through the LEED process before the Green Building Council had detailed it for hospitals.

Square peg: “We were trying to put a square peg in a round hole, but we did our best,” says environmental coordinator Kai Abelkis. “The whole hospital was involved. We looked at indoor air quality, recycling of all construction waste, and material to be purchased that was made close to our community. And we tried to minimize energy use. The fact that we built a green hospital—that whole effort laid the foundation for us to get into the spirit.”

In foodservice—where Aramark’s fsd Glenda Hughes supports the green effort and provides the necessary staff education—recycling efforts now include the collection of food waste for a compost program. (It’s picked up by an outside company to be commercially composted.) Chinaware is used primarily and there’s a five-cent charge (a penalty of sorts) for to-go boxes.

But does it work? “Our dishwasher is saving energy and water, but it’s important to purchase one that also works—that’s what LEED is all about,” Abelkis contends. “In foodservice, if it’s cost-effective, seamless, not cumbersome and works within the day-to-day operation of the kitchen, then they (i.e., the Aramark team) are glad to take it on. We also hired an architectural firm to do our dining room with low (volatile organic compounds) material for healthier air.

“The real success is that working toward LEED certification has captured the imagination of people here,” he adds. “Now they’re asking, ‘What else can we do to make our footprint lighter?’”

The Heilman Center, housing a dining hall, food and auxiliary-related offices, and a post office on the University of Richmond (VA) campus, opened in August 2006. It’s the second renovation on campus that is eligible for LEED certification but the only one with foodservice, notes Dee Hardy, director of dining services. LEED parameters have been targeted in this project, which entailed the construction of a new building onto an older building for an addition of 20,000 square feet.

Reaching for Star: “We did Energy Star–rated refrigeration equipment and (Energy Star) in as many other items as we could,” Hardy reports. “In the dining facility, we used low emanating materials (i.e., low VOC), and in cleaning and storage areas we have separate ventilation and pluming systems. Plus, we installed sky lights, to cut down on energy use, and pulpers.”

On balance, she sees these foodservice-related energy efficiencies—perhaps prompted by the goal of earning LEED certification for the building—as an ongoing commitment. “You have to be able to manage your support systems,” she contends. “You have to have a pulper, but if no one is using it, it doesn’t help you. You have to manage implementation and education so people understand what you’re trying to accomplish and buy into it.”

Currently, only 48 higher education projects are LEED-certified, but that doesn’t mean that other locations haven’t worked hard to be green, as Shawn LaPean, director of Cal Dining at UC-Berkeley, points out. “At public institutions, pursuing LEED certification is an expensive program and very much ‘value engineered’ out—some ‘bells and whistles’ are dropped from the project to save money,” he says.

Instead of seeking LEED certification, LaPean chose to be part of the Bay Area Green Business Program, which includes operations in nearby counties. By the end of this semester, he expects that—working with the county and going unit by unit—all of his four dining halls and seven retail operations will be green-certified.

To his mind, LEED is more about how you build it, whereas he sees the Green Business Program as being more about how you operate it after you open with respect to energy and waste conservation, using chemicals that don’t harm the environment, and aggressive recycling. In his operation that equates to about 70 tons of food waste annually headed for composting.

Cost prohibitive: “We call ourselves a ‘green restaurant’ once we get green-certified, and we’re the only buildings on campus certified as Green Business, although we do have two residence halls that are LEED-certified,” LaPean points out. “We audit how much energy we use for the dishroom machine on a monthly basis, cost per meal. Last year we were down $2.47 per meal—food, labor and utility expenses—on over two million meals. Out of that, about 36 cents per meal was resource conservation.

“We’re audited once a year by the Green Business Program to make sure we haven’t changed anything,” he continues. “We definitely do meet some categories of LEED, but my budget was $5 million—we were keeping the main kitchen intact and only renovating the front of the house. We’re self-supporting and have to fund everything ourselves. Everyone would love to do LEED—but the price tag was just too high. I definitely remember that Excel spreadsheet with 450 line items from LEED for our historic renovation.”

Clearly, green is the color to be and LEED certification is growing in recognition as the most respected route to get there. It’s still “not easy being green”—but those who have gotten there say it’s worth the trip.       

How to Become a Green Building

The core purpose of the U.S. Green Building Council, based in Washington, is “to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life.” This non-profit organization currently includes more than 6,900 organizations from every sector of the building industry aiming to “transform the building marketplace to sustainability.” 

In other words, the objective is to reduce energy use, electricity consumption, greenhouse emissions, raw materials use, waste output and potable water consumption. Such buildings are generally light and bright with cleaner air and aim to contribute to the happiness and health of their occupants.

Added to those objectives is the enticement that LEED-certified projects tend to cost less to operate and maintain; they’re energy and water efficient; and they serve as a highly visible reflection of the values of the organizations that own them.

Points and colors: LEED awards credit points based on five categories of performance: Sustainable Sites, Energy and Atmosphere, Water Efficiency, Indoor Environmental Quality, Materials and Resources. Within each of these areas, a project can earn a certain amount of points. Depending upon the number of points earned, your facility—or the part that is new construction or newly renovated—is awarded a LEED ranking: Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum.

USGBC provides a wide range of educational programs and also awards the LEED Accredited Professional status to individuals who have “demonstrated their ability to serve on a LEED project team and provide detailed knowledge of LEED project certification requirements and processes.” Usually it’s an architect or consultant. You need to be part of the team and remain open to doing what you’re doing in foodservice in a more sustainable, eco-friendly fashion.

No need for LEED? You can still go your own way

Green specialist says that even if you’re not pursuing LEED, there’s a lot you can do to reduce your environmental impact.

Holley Henderson, principal of Atlanta–based H2 Ecodesign, specializes in LEED and helps architectural firms and manufacturers facilitate LEED certification. She’s also a frequent speaker on sustainable design issues. She was a guest lecturer at the Foodservice Consultants Society Intl. conference last year in Louisville, Ky. Currently, H2 Ecodesign is facilitating several international LEED projects, including one in China (awarded LEED Gold at presstime) and another in Thailand.

Henderson is the national LEED-CI (Commercial Interiors) Core Committee Chair, and  spoke with FSD in the hope of encouraging non-commercial foodservice operators who may not be involved in a LEED project to realize that there are some aspects of LEED’s intent that are well within their reach.

“I’m a big proponent of LEED, but I also believe you can still do a little something. For example, in the executive dining room you can choose paper products produced from a high amount of recycled material that meet the requirements for credit.

Waste reduction or recycling of paper and glass, including light bulbs—you get a (LEED) point if you divert or recycle 30% of your total waste stream by weight. So you can read it on-line and even if you’re not pursuing LEED, you can say, ‘Here are some points I can work toward.’ In this way, the LEED concept creates market transformation.

Water use reduction is worth one credit. You specify water-conserving equipment as ‘efficient.” If you beat the code by 20%, you can get one point; two points if it’s more efficient.

I’d look at EPA Energy Star equipment and specify that. Also, you can look at storage rooms and install occupancy sensors to turn off the lights when they’re not in use; also you can specify computers and cash registers to be Energy Star, and refrigerants should be ozone-friendly.

It takes several things to make an in-house recycling system happen: the entire staff has to be trained; there needs to be very specific signage; you need to determine who in the community will pick up recycling waste—if you don’t have enough volume, maybe you can collaborate with another building or tenant so that with greater volume you can bid for recycling. Also, look for creative uses for food waste. Plant nurseries might want it for fertilizer.

Sustainable principles suggest we consider how the table linens are maintained. They (suppliers) will begin to create the dialogue that makes the change. For example, there are toxins in paint and in carpeting. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)—that’s that ‘new car’ smell—are to be avoided at all cost and avoiding them earns points in the LEED system. (For green cleaning products, visit

Until recently the paint industry only had the light colors in low VOC. But now, with increasing demand, the majority are low VOC—and at the same cost and for the same application. So, whomever you’re buying from, ask them for their environmental stance. It begins to impact not just your dining room but also the larger environment.

Your cafeteria needs to educate the public—through signage or your Web site, perhaps—about what it’s doing: ‘Look at these fixtures, they’re energy efficient,’ etc. Historically, an innovation credit has been awarded in the LEED system for educating the public.

I still think it’s worth trying to do something, even if you’re not aiming to achieve LEED certification. I think people in this industry benefit by looking at LEED as the industry standard and an amazing guide for projects—and realizing that basically it says: ‘These are the standards we think are a good threshold; use this as a benchmark.’”

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