Green Solutions: Let The Sun Shine In

By Anne Cosgrove
Published in the October 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Patagonia, Inc., a designer and distributor of outdoor clothing, sportswear, and accessories, wanted to provide high light levels at its Reno, NV distribution center, while also reducing electricity consumption. In keeping with the company’s earth friendly philosophy, Dave Abeloe, the director of the facility, participated in the selection of a daylighting system that would achieve both objectives.

What is your education?

I attended Ventura College in Ventura, CA. I also have a professional certificate in Material Handling.

What is your position?

I’m the director of the Patagonia distribution center in Reno, NV, a 171,000 square foot facility that operates 12 hours per day. There are 6.5 million items shipped out each year. The center reflects the company’s commitment to earth friendly, green architecture.

How many years have you been in the facility management profession?

I have been with Patagonia for 27 years with 26 of those years in distribution and facilities management.

When and how did you become interested in environmental issues?

This occurred when I joined Patagonia and learned about the company’s commitment to protecting the environment. This commitment ranges from the purchase of organically grown cotton for our products to the environmentally sensitive, green architecture of our buildings.

In 1996, Patagonia switched from the use of conventionally grown cotton to organically grown cotton to avoid the use of chemicals in the traditional process.

In terms of our facilities, whenever we build we look at what can be done to make the structure environmentally sensitive, green, and architecturally sustainable. We look at designs and concepts that make the facility more efficient, more comfortable, and more productive in order to reduce the impact on the environment.

We’ve moved our distribution center many times through the years, and each timewe’d build a better building and learn something new. Right now, we are focused on a 170,000 square foot expansion to the existing distribution center, so we are looking at current designs, concepts, and products in the marketplace to use in the new addition. We are also pursuing LEED certification [from the U.S. Green Building Council] for the next phase.

What sustainable project or vision (aside from your own) has impressed you most?

I am encouraged by the number of businesses showing interest in using renewable power sources. I’m also impressed by the development of updated and emerging technologies that provide renewable power to consumers.

What project best defines the green philosophy your company would like to convey?

Here at the distribution center, it would be the advanced daylighting system from So-Luminaire Daylighting Systems.

How does this project put forth those ideals?

The daylighting system embodies our core purpose of using business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

Why was the decision made to pursue this goal?

We wanted to break from the traditional practice of having minimal lighting that makes many warehouse settings look cavelike. All too typically, warehouse centers reflect minimal thought given to light levels in terms of occupant productivity, safety, and efficiency.

We began operating this distribution center in June 1996. The daylighting was installed from day one. Most of the light in the distribution center is from the skylights, so the artificial lighting is supplemental or it’s used for nighttime illumination.

What was the reaction of upper management to the decision to embrace the principles of sustainable design in this project?

The principles of sustainable design emanate from upper management. We define the quality of our company by the degree to which we can reduce our impact on the environment.

However, this means more than auditing the materials and methods we use for the products we make. It means taking a holistic approach to all aspects of our business, from applying the lessons learned from sourcing lower impact dyes and organic cotton to maintaining our physical plant and using renewable energy.

We generate some renewable power on site for our outlet store located in the warehouse. We have 24 solar [photovoltaic] panels and an inverter, which generates about seven kilowatts of power for the store.

What were some of the (non-economic) sustainable challenges and highlights of this project?

Highlights include benefiting from a very well lighted working area where levels are typically more than 70 footcandles. The light is uniform and scores 100 on the color rendering index, since it’s natural sunlight.

The only challenge was a minor programming glitch in the daylighting units. The program drives a small motor in each unit that adjusts an array of mirrors to track the sun as it moves across the sky. The tracking feature is what enables the units to concentrate and reflect sunlight into the center. A So-Luminaire technician reloaded the program, which solved the glitch.

What was the vendor selection process like? Did you feel limited?

No, I did not feel limited at all. There was only one vendor making the type of daylighting system that would achieve what we wanted to accomplish, so it was an easy decision. This was driven originally by our architects and from the choices made available to us. We looked at pictures of the devices and had spec sheets to review.

We also toured a number of facilities and their installations before deciding to move forward with it. We compared the system to some of the smaller solar tube type of skylights. We looked at buildings with no skylighting, and some with just smoke vents that were used as skylights.

We did that in order to try to see as many different types of designs and systems in the marketplace that were available. I’ve toured other centers and haven’t seen anything that compares to the light output that we have.

Part of the decision making process included trusting our architects to make good choices. Also, in looking at the specs we knew the system made sense for us. If [the system] truly provided the light equivalent in natural daylight versus artificial light, then it would be a no-brainer for us. Ultimately that has absolutely proven to be true.

Have you applied for—or achieved—LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for thisproject?

No, the building was constructed before LEED existed. However, once the new building addition is LEED certified, we will likely pursue LEED-EB [for existing buildings] for the original building.

As a green project, did this project cost more, less, or the same as a standard project of the same size?

It cost more than if standard skylights had been installed, but then the benefits we wanted would not have materialized. We installed a limited number of regular skylights, because code required them as smoke vents. They don’t produce anywhere near the light that the daylighting units do.

What was the anticipated ROI for the sustainable aspects of this project?

Installing the daylighting system cut by two-thirds the number of fluorescent fixtures, lamps, and wiring required to generate the targeted light levels in the picking, packing, and receiving areas. The daylighting system paid for itself in three and a half years.

The units have contributed to a 35% reduction in electricity costs every year. Considering we pay 10.3¢ per kilowatt hour, that’s a significant savings. An energy management system, photo sensors, and motion detectors also contribute to reduced electricity consumption.

Another benefit is that reducing electricity consumption lessens the amount of pollution that otherwise would be produced by generating that electricity.

What has been the reaction to the project inside your organization?

The level and quality of light produced by the daylighting system has improved morale, increased productivity, and reduced errors, because it’s easier to read documents and differentiate colors. It’s a much more comfortable place to work than the cavelike environments of other facilities that have minimal lighting.

How has the community responded to this project?

The community by and large is not aware of this specific project, although it is aware of Patagonia’s commitment to implementing green innovations.

What did you learn from this project?

It makes good business sense to take advantage of sunlight. There are so many benefits to realize when it’s put to work.

Why should facility professionals seriously consider green solutions whenever the opportunity is present?

Conducting business profitably and investing in a sustainable, architecturally improved environment are not mutually exclusive. I can vouch for that in terms of the improved lighting in a distribution environment.

How can facility professionals find out more about the economic implications of sustainable design?

By reading TFM. Also, architects who are very knowledgeable and progressive in their design work are a good resource for new construction or remodeling.

What was the most professionally rewarding aspect of this project?

Seeing is believing. This type of system absolutely works well where the sun shines. It’s a great system to use, because it certainly provides a very comfortable and well lighted environment.

Questions about this project can be sent to