Chicago’s Restaurant Scene is Going Green

With the launch of LEED for Retail just around the corner, I took the opportunity while in Chicago on other business to see for myself how restaurants are integrating green design into their facilities. This is interesting on several levels, both because restaurants are very energy intensive, and because the greening of design through major restaurant brands poses the opportunity to reach communities and consumers in a new and unique way.

In some ways, green building has been an urban phenomenon, with advocates talking about how office buildings must be green if they still want to be considered Class A space, or about how the greenest buildings are those that are infill developments of existing dense urban areas. While these are all true, a large part of America lives and works in suburban or rural areas, places where the largest buildings around are big box retail and communities are heavily dependent on automobiles. These communities can still benefit from green design, and can be part of the solution to many of our economic and energy challenges.  The Chicago area is unique in that there are many restaurant projects that have registered or are LEED certified.  I traveled to the South Side of Chicago, still within sight of the Sears Tower (which is undergoing its own greening initiative), and passed the empty parking lot of a flea market and pulled into the permeable parking lot of the first LEED Gold certified McDonald’s. This McDonald’s is company owned and operated and serves as somewhat of a testing ground for the green design attributes that they may incorporate into other new restaurants in their franchisee network. The restaurant incorporates many energy efficiency strategies, including skylights, LED interior lighting, heat recovery from the refrigeration units and even LED lights in the parking lot, which will not only save energy but save maintenance costs due to their long life. Additionally, the McDonald’s also incorporated a green roof, low-flow water fixtures, and worked with their décor providers to increase the recycled content of the restaurant seating area materials. Educational signs and a video help educate customers about the green features located throughout the space.

My next stop was a registered Denny’s Restaurant project located just outside the city of Joliet. The greening of this restaurant was led by the local franchisee and restaurateur rather than by the corporate design team, and was built within a standard budget. Located in the end-cap of a small strip center, the Denny’s makes tremendous use of natural daylight, including six large locally made skylights and extensive lighting sensors and controls. The remaining lighting consists of LEDs and high efficiency fluorescents. 

The greening of this restaurant started long before design as the restaurateur sought to find a suitable building and amenable landlord. This location worked out perfectly as the landlord was able to accommodate the request for extra insulation in the foundation and a highly reflective roof to help mitigate heating and cooling costs. Perhaps most importantly, every diner at Denny’s has a way to connect with the green attributes of the restaurant, including a brochure at each table and informative signage on the walls. With 5,000 people served weekly, the opportunity for this one restaurant to educate consumers is significant.

I would have liked to have visited the LEED Platinum Chipotle north of Chicago in Gurnee Mills, IL or the new Pizza Fusion in Naperville, IL, but unfortunately, my time was limited. I’m looking forward to visiting more green restaurants throughout the country which will surely take shape after the LEED for Retail rating system is launch in the fall.