Department of Design, Interior Design. The Ohio State University Columbus, Ohio, United States
Keywords: sustainable buildings; construction waste reduction; interior finish materials; reclaimed wood; retail design.
Abstract: The building industry is one of the largest product waste contributors with much of this waste generated from interior finish material products. As defined by LEED and other green building standards, a green building project is one that is energy-efficient, water-efficient, and improves indoor air quality and/or engages in material resource conservation. With these guidelines and a desire from designers to create environments that are sustainable but do not compromise aesthetics, many manufactures of interior finish materials have reinvented their product offerings. Though these sustainable design practices have been accepted in certain building segments for quite some time, others such as retail stores are slower to adopt.
As I begin my research, I will be exploring the emotional connection to the finish material itself in an effort to understand how to create product longevity within the built environment. Rather than giving retail stores a face-lift every five to ten years to stay in fashion, I believe that emotionally connecting to the users through thoughtful selection of materials, brands will create a stronger emotional and psychological connection with the users. As such, retail brands will have longer lasting and more sustainable stores. To begin this investigation, I am taking a closer look at the retailers where reclaimed wood products have been implemented into their brand environments. The intent is to initiate a long- range investigation through interviews with designers, retailers, and consumers resulting in the development of case studies around the belief that the emotional connection people have with reclaimed wood products creates longevity for the product within the space and creates a stronger connection to the brand itself.
Accounting for nearly 26 percent of non- industrial waste generated in the U.S alone, the building construction industry is one of the largest product waste contributors. Building construction and demolition debris, much of which is from interior finish material products, continues to accumulate in landfills amassing nearly 160 million tons per year. Approximately only 20-30 percent of that construction waste is recovered for recycling. In addition to concrete and metals, wood is one of the leading materials reclaimed for alternative product uses. 1(Environmental Protection Agency, 2009) With the encouragement of sustainable building and material product rating systems such as LEED, Green Globes, Greenguard, and many others, over the last decade designers, architects, and developers have made a concerted effort to change their practice
and reduce the environmental impact from the building industry. As defined by LEED and other green building standards, a green building project is one that is energy-efficient, water- efficient, and improves indoor air quality and/or engages in material resource conservation.
With material resource conservation as a contributor to green or sustainable buildings, interior material product manufacturers have made great strides to incorporate recycled, reclaimed, and rapidly renewable content into the materials used within building construction. With these guidelines and a desire from designers to create environments that are sustainable but do not compromise aesthetics, many manufactures of interior finish materials have reinvented their product offerings. As a result, material product manufactures have changed the way they produce their products and redefined the makeup of the product itself. No longer are sustainable buildings considered by the general public to be “granola”, but rather seen through the eyes of the users as aesthetically pleasing environments.
In fact the opposite is occurring, there is a desire among building owners to have a stronger connection to the users and communicate a sustainable story. As such, many of the products from the building demolition waste are making their way back into the built environment. One such example is the renovation of an iconic Chicago office tower designed by Mies van de Rohe in 1974. During the renovation of this project, 78 bathrooms were to be demolished and to receive new porcelain tile. Striving to achieve LEED gold, project architects Cannon Design partnered with Crossville, Inc., a porcelain tile product manufacturer, to develop an inspiring idea. They salvaged all of the existing bathroom toilets, lavatories, and tile and turned them into new porcelain tile for the project. Over 200,000 pounds of reclaimed debris was transformed into 57,000 square feet of new tile.2 (Damon, 2014) This closed loop cycle set a standard for manufacturing and has since allowed Crossville to partner with Toto toilets to recycle their discarded products into new Crossville tiles. This and other projects with similar stories being communicated to the building users allows for the users to have a better understanding of the products being installed in the environments in which they live, work, and shop. Through the stories of these products, users connect on a deep emotional level to the product and the environment in which they are installed.
Another such examples the REI SoHo retail store which will be highlighted as one of the case studies in the paper. As the notion of closing the product loop becomes a desire for sustainability, many designers and owners are looking to incorporate material products that originated from the building site. The REI SoHo store utilizes on-site reclaimed wood materials, which allows for a closed loop product cycle within a retail context.
With an overall perception of sustainability as a desired aesthetic and its story as a connection to its users, this notion has begun to infiltrate some of the slowest segmentations to adopt sustainable design practices. In 2011, according to a study conducted by McGraw-Hill Construction of 79 retailers, 30 hotels, and 22 restaurants, only 18 percent of buildings constructed were considered green. By 2013, this number has grown to 38 percent, more than doubling in only two years. This number is expected to reach 52 percent by 2015.3 (Bernstein & Russo, 2013)
Sustainable building rating systems continue to drive many of the interior finish manufactures processes to create material products that include recycled, reclaimed, and rapidly renewable content in their products. Products such as rapidly renewable bamboo flooring or a vinyl flooring product that includes rapidly renewable flax seeds are developed and installed to reduce the environmental footprint of the built environment. However, I believe there is more than just a rating system that should be driving these design decisions.
The REI SoHo project in particular has inspired and set the precedent for my belief that the use of reclaimed wood products creates an emotional connection to the built environment and as such the retail brand itself which allows for an extended product life within the built environment. It is this notion that I will begin exploring in this paper and in the outlined trajectory of my research. As I begin my research, I will be exploring the emotional connection to the finish material itself in an effort to understand how to create product longevity within the built environment. Rather than giving retail stores a face-lift every five to ten years to stay in fashion, I believe that through emotionally connecting to the users with thoughtful selection of materials, brands will relate on an emotional and psychological level. As such, retail brands will have longer lasting and more sustainable stores. To begin this investigation, I am taking a closer look at the retailers where reclaimed wood products have been implemented into their brand environments as part of the branded “kit of parts”.
Reclaimed wood: an emotional connection
Reclaimed interior finish material products, such as TerraMai’s reclaimed wood products, have been installed in inspiring interior spaces for years. Early pioneers in the retail segment who clearly connected the interior finish material product with their brand identity and recognized the connection that their consumers had with the product were brands like Anthropology and Urban Outfitters as well as Starbucks Coffee and Whole Foods Grocery. Over the course of the last three to five years, the implementation of reclaimed wood products has increased dramatically within the retail design segment, specifically within recognized national brands.
Julie Ullrich, a materials expert with 11-plus years specializing in interior finish material products in the retail industry believes that one of the major reasons for this increase is retailers are striving to achieve a perception of sustainability within their consumers. Ullrich states, “Often, the use of reclaimed wood speaks to the individual customer on a personal humanistic level, the product connects to them emotionally and makes the customer feel like the brand is not some large conglomerate but part of their local community. This is seen quite strongly in the strategic design of Starbucks stores.” From our professional experience, Ullrich and I believe that the use of reclaimed wood products not only communicates a connection locally and speaks to sustainability, but it also creates an emotional response that sets the customer at ease. Reclaimed wood is not artificial, it’s genuine, honest and real, and that connects to customers on a human level. Whether conscious or subconscious, the interior material product humanizes the brand and creates a connection between customer, brand, and the natural environment. Ullrich goes on to say, ”Starbucks is a prime example of how reclaimed wood as a finish material product is used to connect the customer to the brand. For years Starbucks has used reclaimed wood at key touch points along the customer’s journey. The customer interacts with the product and it makes them feel connected to the history of the brand, to their philosophy about sustainably and even speaks to their ethics as a company. The single use of the material says so much; it allows the brand to become humanized. It speaks to their neighbourhood approach.”
Kevin Kowal, Regional Director for TerraMai Reclaimed Woods, believes that in addition to the design trend of “localization”, the use of reclaimed wood has become more frequent in retail brands due to four factors: the reduction in cost and becoming more cost competitive; it communicates that the brand cares about the environment and sustainability; the inherent “history” of the product communicates a story about the brand and the material; and it provides and emotional “warmth” that connects to the customer emotionally and creates a sense of permanence.
Kowal notes from his experience “as reclaimed wood products are used within these spaces, the businesses have reduced the frequency and necessity of remodels and have businesses that are continuing to thrive. Despite the recession, reclaimed wood products have continued to be utilised.” I believe, along with Kowal, that the reason behind the longevity of these spaces and thus the longevity of the product is due to the emotional connection people have with reclaimed wood products. With this developing theory, I will be taking a closer look at the retailers where reclaimed wood products have been implemented into the store designs as a major brand component in order to develop a series of case studies that prove this notion.
Creating a case
I will be initiating a long-range investigation to examine the theory that reclaimed wood does indeed connect on an emotional level with consumers, tying them more closely to the retail brand and creating brand loyalty resulting in increased revenue for the brand which in turn creates a longer product life for the interior material itself. Through a series of interviews with retail-focused designers and interior material product experts, national brand retailers, and consumers I will be developing an array of case studies.
Kowal and I have identified four specific brands who have utilized reclaimed wood as a strong brand element within their store environments and whose use of reclaimed wood product emphasizes their brands mission and story: REI Recreational Equipment Incorporated, AT&T, Starbucks Coffee Company, and Lululemon Athletica. In each of these retail brands and store environments, reclaimed wood material products have been identified as part of the brand signature, it is used to communicate a story about the brand mission, evoke a feeling the consumer and to create a connection between the brand, the consumer, and the natural environment.
REI SoHo Flagship, New York City: Immersed in the Brand Story
As New York City continues to transform its urban landscape, infusing more outdoor spaces such as the High Line development, and non- profit groups like Sustainable South Bronx build more urban parks, as well as the ever growing popularity of using bike paths, it’s no surprise that outdoor recreation is one of the top retail segments in New York City. Recreation Equipment Incorporated, REI, had been searching for a perfect location to open its doors to New York for many years. The struggle was to find a site that spoke to the company’s brand soul and had access to outdoor space. Enter the historic 1885 Puck Building, with 39,000 square feet of space to be transformed from what was once a magazine publishing factory into REI’s first New York Store.
In order to transform this historic space into a new and engaging retail store, REI partnered with architecture firm Callison, one of the world’s leading retail design firms. In an interview conducted with David Curtis, Associate Principal for Callison New York, he spoke to why the design of the REI store utilized reclaimed wood to connect the brand to the customer. “Reclaimed wood is an important component of sustainability. One of our major design principles for the REI project was reusing as much of the existing material on site as possible, as well as repurposing material. In areas where this was not possible, we wanted to specify items such as reclaimed wood for the flooring to be consistent with these principles. REI prides itself on their environmentally friendly practices and reclaimed wood fits into this ethos. REI’s customer base is very much aligned with the company brand. The REI mission statement “Our core purpose is to inspire, educate and outfit people for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship” goes right to the heart of those customers.”
In approaching the redesign, Callison teamed up with TerraMai to reclaim as much from the original 1885 building as possible, salvaging existing wood elements and transforming them into new design features for the store experience. Extracting everything from the original wood flooring, wood panelling, and even floor joists, TerraMai hulled away the 125- year-old material and re-milled it into new product to be installed in the redesign. Carving a large atrium into the space, which would feature a grand staircase connecting the three floors (see Figure 1) large solid wood floor joists were extracted and later became the stair treads for the grand staircase (see Figure 2). The existing wood floor and wood panelling was extracted, stripped, and milled down to become a texturally engaging statement wall which features REI members in action (see Figures 3 and 4). The use of reclaimed wood in this key customer journey point emphasises the strategic use of the reclaimed material to connect the customer with the product, which tells the story of the retail experience and the mission of the company. Additional reclaimed material from the TerraMai product line was used as flooring to seamlessly bring together the warmth and natural essence of the space and work cohesively with the other reclaimed material palette (see Figures 5 and 6).
AT&T Chicago: Technology meets Nature
Upon entering the new 10,000-square-foot AT&T store located in the heart of Chicago’s famed Magnificent Mile, the customer is immediately welcomed into a world where technology meets nature. The use of reclaimed wood in the store is immersive, wrapping the entire store in a rich warm teak panelling. The reclaimed wood becomes a contrasting backdrop to the clean white and blue glow of the display fixtures, graphic elements, and most importantly the products and the brand logo (see Figures 7 and 8). With a brand mission to make people’s lives better through technology, the reclaimed wood connects the customer to a material that is comfortable and familiar, warm and welcoming. As Design Principal Alex Shapleigh from Callison states “We wanted to focus on experiences in a way that humanizes technology, in a way that is fun, interactive and approachable.”
Starbucks: Creating a Neighbourhood Connection
At its core, Starbucks outlines it’s mission as creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome, connecting with transparency, dignity and respect. Reclaimed wood as part of the retail store experience takes the customers on a physical journey through the brand mission. As part of the exterior cladding and integrated into the branded signage (see Figure 9 and 10) starts the customers on a journey where reclaimed wood becomes a repetitious material product throughout the entire experience. The warmth of the material permeates the space and speaks to the honest nature of material and company, connecting the customer emotionally to Starbucks beliefs on sustainability and humanity. As reclaimed wood is often regionally sourced, coming from local barns or demolition sites, each store uses various reclaimed wood material products that give the customer the feeling that the store is rooted in the local community.
Lululemon: Local Customization Crafts Individual Identity
The use of reclaimed wood throughout the Lululemon Athletica stores reinforces their brand identity as a progressive, design-centric, environmentally friendly company. With a strong exterior presence, each store is given a unique identity through varying applications of reclaimed wood. Designing and crafting an individual identity for each store location allows the store to connect to the individuality of the brands consumers. It speaks of the company’s individually unique brand ambassadors represented in each store location and connects its customers to a local community of athletic enthusiasts. (see Figure 11 and 12).
To begin this multi-phase research and case study development, I will be conducting qualitative research through a series of consumer insights studies over the course of the next year. Through insights driven interviews, field studies and surveys, I will do a deep dive investigation into how consumers react to the use of reclaimed wood products within the retail environment in these four specific brands and store environments. This research is imperative to gain an in-depth understanding of how and why customers are responding to the use of reclaimed wood as a finish material product. The questions I intend to answer are:
- Do consumers feel more or less connected to the brand because of the use of reclaimed wood as an interior finish material product?
- Do consumers identify the retail brand based on the use of reclaimed wood as part of the store environment?
- What story does the reclaimed wood tell the consumer about the brand?
- Does the use of reclaimed wood create brand loyalty with the customer and as such create returned visits to the store?
- If reclaimed wood as a material product was not used within the store, would the consumer feel as strongly connected to the brand?
In addition to consumer interviews, I will also be conducting field studies and interviews with the store design teams and retailers themselves. Through these investigations, I hope to gain a working knowledge of how reclaimed wood products have been designed to become part of the store environments “kit of parts”. Through this understanding, I hope to identify the opportunities where the use of reclaimed wood products in retail store environments is successful.
I am suggesting that if the use of reclaimed wood as a brand element is successful in creating a truly emotional response and creates a connection between the brand and the consumer, the brand will maintain the material within the store environment, resulting in extending the product lifecycle. Thus advocating, that within the context of the retail store, the reclaimed wood becomes a permanent brand element and that other less impactful brand elements may be switched out. If this can be achieved, using reclaimed wood as a permanent brand element will allow a retail store to reduce the frequency of total store remodelling and as such reduce construction waste.
I would like to thank Kevin Kowal with TerraMai Reclaimed Woods, Julie Ullrich a materials specialist from WD Partners, and David Curtis with Callison.
Bernstein, Harbey, Russo, Michele. McGraw Hill Construction. (2013). Green Retail and Hospitality: Capitalizing on the Growth in Green Building Investments. Smart Market Report, P.6. www.construction.com
Damon, Carole. Tile Contractors’ Association of America. (Winter 2014). 9300 Contractor. Chicago Tile Installation Turns Trash into Sustainable Treasure. P. 6-9.
US Environmental Protection Agency. (2009, April 22). Buildings and the Environment: A Statistical Summary. P7