Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 39
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
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Want to Live Sustainably? Build ‘Green’? Just Follow Whole Earth Center’s LEED

Matthew Hersh

For 37 years, the Whole Earth Center has espoused the kind of healthy, wholesome wisdom that you might expect to hear from some not-for-profit, environmentally conscious, organization, but certainly not from a local grocer.

Perhaps that’s because Whole Earth is not simply a local grocer, but an institution where customers can embrace the shop’s general philosophies of supporting local food growers, promoting various environmental causes, and just overall healthy living.

So when it was announced last year that the Whole Earth Center would expand into a 2,400-square-foot space previously occupied by Judy’s Flower Shop, it came as little surprise that the expansion would exemplify green, “sustainable” development but the commitment, cost included, was worth it. Susanna Waterman, a founding member of the Whole Earth’s board of trustees explained:

“It takes that willingness to just do it,” she said, while adding slyly that “we can’t go around talking about sustainability and then do an expansion that’s not sustainable!”

The store hired local architect Ron Berlin, of the firm Ronald Berlin Architect P.C. to spearhead the project, aiming for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification on the construction of the renovated space. LEED, a green building rating system devised by the U.S. Green Building Council, provides standards for environmentally sustainable construction.

While Whole Earth’s expansion may resemble any old construction zone, it employs just about every tool in green development, all the way down to materials disposal, where, as of July, Construction Waste Management, the firm brought in by the Whole Earth’s general contractor, Baxter Construction, had recycled or reused nearly 94 percent of the project’s 30-plus tons of waste, diverting the rubble and other materials from landfills.

Also, the old building, which once serviced “they say, an auto dealership,” Mr. Berlin pointed out, was about as un-LEED as it gets. The structure was uninsulated, it had a dark roof absorbing sunlight, and windows not made out of safety glass that “let in too much light,” for energy purposes, Mr. Berlin said.

The new roof will feature a more neutral color that does not absorb heat and tax the HVAC creating what is known as a “heat island” effect where “you get this hot blob that’s hard to cool,” Mr. Berlin said. The new building, he added, will have high efficiency equipment, including air conditioning. The move comes at a cost, but Whole Earth principals are looking toward the long-term, taking the sustainable approach. “If we get the highest efficiency air conditioning available, there’s, of course, going to be a higher initial cost,” Mr. Berlin said. “But the use cost over time is less than it would be with lower efficiency units. So if people would shift their values into that perspective, then it’s worth it.”

According to Whole Earth general manager Jennifer Murray, once construction is completed later this fall, the addition will be used for a new deli and kitchen, creating an ideal space for overall store operations and providing a back-of-the-house area that the store never had before. With two separate kitchens, the store’s bakery will now have its own dedicated kitchen —a plus since nearly all baked goods at the store are made from scratch. “We’ll be able to meet way more demands — the layout is far better,” Ms. Murray said.

Another point not lost on Ms. Murray and the store’s trustees was that while the space increases operational ability, the manner in which the addition is being built will very likely resonate with the type of clientele Whole Earth attracts.

“This is really part of our whole story,” said trustee Herb Mertz, “and it facilitates the interaction with our customers in a big way.”

“That is critically important to us,” Ms. Waterman added quickly.

Store principals, as well as Mr. Berlin, are visibly excited about their project, and with good reason. “Sustainability” has been the buzzword in the Princetons in recent months as the Borough and Township have taken preliminary measures to explore a reduction in resources — like energy and waste — and embark on a planned information campaign that would help residents live a more sustainable lifestyle in their homes. For the more part, sustainability refers to the preservation of current resources (including finances) for future generations. The Princetons, by way of the Princeton Environmental Commission’s Sustainable Princeton initiative, have contracted with the Rutgers-based New Jersey Sustainable State Institute to devise a full-blown plan.

Moreover, Sustainable Princeton’s steering committee, which includes the public schools, Princeton University, and various businesses, also includes the Whole Earth Center, represented by the store’s own Bobbie Parmet.

Thinking along the lines of sustainable operations, however, has long been the modus operandi of the Whole Earth Center.

The store encourages staff to use mass transit, and offers a reimbursement for employees who bus to work, and a credit for those who use the train. Ms. Murray said, adding that one employee, who bikes a long distance to work, is also offered a store credit.

If a customer rides his or her bike to the store, a discount is given on the purchase, or the customer can be given a punch card that after a certain number of uses can be redeemed at Kopp’s Cycle for bike parts. The Whole Earth Center, in fact, will receive one LEED credit for adding a shower that will be installed for employees who bike to work.

“We’re trying to get people to think about alternative forms of transportation,” Ms. Murray said, with Mr. Mertz adding that there will be preferred parking that is closer to the store for customers driving hybrid cars.

Moreover, 25 percent of the store’s power comes from New Jersey Wind, no easy feat, said Fran McManus, a who handles the Whole Earth Center’s marketing and communications. “When you say 25 percent — we have a lot of refrigeration, and it costs us a lot of money — that’s a lot.”

Store energy costs will also come down over time through the photovoltaic solar array on the roof, converting solar radiation into electricity, and low-energy insulated windows, supplied by the Burlington-based Norman’s Glass.

The upfront cost is higher than a standard construction project, Ms. McManus acknowledged, “but over time, the cost comes down for everyone, including the consumer.

“This is the process. You need people to say ‘this is the right thing to do’ and help to build a market for these products.”

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