Excellence in commercial sustainable design

06 Oct Excellence in commercial sustainable design

nsi_wf-outside-front01_smlAdmittedly, Brooklyn is not a place I usually call on when I visit New York. However, with its accelerating gentrification and overwhelming arts and creative scene, I knew my trip to New York City would not be complete without paying a visit. Known for its multitude of cultures, tradition of diversity and tolerance, great food and of course vibrant arts scene, I knew Brooklyn would not disappoint.

About 250,000 bricks from an old Newark, NJ building were reused to construct this Whole Foods Market in Brooklyn, NY.

As the largest of New York’s boroughs, Brooklyn itself is made up of multiple neighbourhoods. The neighbourhood that I was particularly interested in visiting, travelling for more than an hour and a half by train, was Gowanus (pronounced Go-ar-nus… and not how you might think!). I was on a mission. I asked numerous people on the Brooklyn-bound train who seemed like they might be ‘in the know’, where in Brooklyn is Gowanus? Nothing! No one had heard of it. I thought that I must have been mispronouncing it or perhaps it was my Australian accent? Nothing! I was on my own…


How cool is it that there is a knife-sharpening station in store?
Christopher Harth of NY Cutlery worked to repurpose timber from nearby
Coney Island Wharf and supplies the store with
hand-made knives and chopping boards.
Read about Christopher’s journey and the birth of NY Cutlery here.

You may be wondering, why I was so keen to visit Gowanus. Well…I was in search of the newly opened Whole Foods Market (where co-incidentally, Christoper Harth spends one day a week sharpening knives for customers and selling his handcrafted wares and Twig Terrariums also feature installations throughout the store. The journey to discover Whole Foods Market was worth every minute.

The Greenest food market in the State

Sure, there are Whole Foods stores right across North America, why specifically go to Gowanus? Whole Foods Brooklyn proudly claims that it is the greenest food market in the whole of New York State! This is a sizeable statement, given New York’s reputation for innovation, especially in the realm of sustainability. What was even more impressive, was this store was built on a former toxic waste site. Crazy, I know! The only way to quell my fascination for such a project, was to see it for myself. And that I did.


The ‘greenest’ supermarket for sure. Unfortunately the canal still looks a little green, from its days as a dumping ground for hazardous waste.
The store opened less than six months ago and is the only Whole Foods Market in all of Brooklyn. I was sure it would have saturated the media or at least had some coverage in the local press. However, upon asking Brooklynites, I was commonly met with indifference and nonchalance “Are those a@#holes in Brooklyn now?” was one response. Like in any gentrification area, there is always a segment that opposes upwardly mobile types into their area, believing the newcomers will drive up house prices and rents. My curiosity was peaked. Why is it that the designers and community architects who worked on the Whole Foods project, all had such glowing things to say, but these locals in particular, didn’t seem engaged?

Tackling the mistakes of the past head on

nsi_bread05_smlBack in Manhattan, during New York Design Week through the American Society of Interior Designers, I had the privilege of attending an intimate talk by designer Natalie Gray. Working directly for Whole Foods, Gray is one of the designers responsible for the design and in some cases, re-design for the chain. During her talk, Gray shared her experiences and challenges of designing the Whole Foods Brooklyn store, which was built on a toxic waste site, doubling allegedly, as a Brooklyn Mafia’s former body dumping ground. “America, the Brave”. That’s all I can say!

Not for the carb-conscious!

nsi_coffee-bar07_smlI learnt that whilst Whole Foods often opens dozens of stores a year, this one in Brooklyn was 10 years in the making because it first had to clean up the Superfund site it sits on. Superfund is the federal government’s program to clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. In some places, contractors had to dig down some 15 feet to remove a century’s worth of contaminated soil from its predecessors: an oil company, auto repair shop and a lumber yard. This project was impregnated with a myriad of issues (Source: Sustainable Business).

Americans love their ‘java’ so it only seems fitting
that shoppers can refuel whilst in-store.

Gray was highly engaging and provoked many questions; “How can you effectively engage the community throughout all stages of such a project?” and the most obvious one, “How do you convince the general population that building a wholesome organic food market on the site of a toxic dump is a good (and safe) idea?!”


L-R: At every turn there are ‘feel-good’ messages aimed to make you, well, feel good about what you are buying. I feel like I should be buying two lots of probiotics and then some for my mum!Positive reinforcements are everywhere.

Using Feng Shui in commercial interior design

Underpinning Gray’s design concept for this Brooklyn store was Feng Shui. Certified in Feng Shui herself, she used its inherent guidelines and aphorisms to design the flow of the store. Gray is passionate about Feng Shui, and believes that it adds another dimension to the store, especially for those who do not like to shop. Feng Shui offers positive energy and encourages shoppers to be more ‘mindful’ when consuming.

Consider the location ‘vibe’ in shop design

In the design planning and preparation stages, Whole Foods underwent a significant amount of research. They examined and analysed the demographic of potential Whole Foods clients. Gray herself, walked and observed the streets of Brooklyn. She visited the neighbourhhoods, taking in everything from the colours of their houses to the way they live. It was a determination to gain a thorough understanding of the community and social fabric that underpins Brooklyn. Subsequently, she overlayed Whole Foods’ core values and quality standards, then going forward attempted to incorporate the Brooklyn neighbourhood with the Whole Foods business and incorporated it into everything they did on the project.


Home to the rooftop bar are specialty crafted beers and a food
menu rich in choice and quality. Open 11am – 11pm daily.

However, the project was not received with complete consent and cooperation. Whole Foods met with some opposition in the local community, particularly since they were building next to one of Brooklyn’s oldest landmark buildings, the Coignet Building. Whole Foods had agreed to fix up the Coignet as part of its deal with the city to be allowed to build its canal-side supermarket. During the build phase, a group of locals became outraged when they believed the Coignet Building was damaged by construction of the food market. It’s a challenging accusation. The landmark building – already in pretty bad shape – was possibly further damaged during the construction of the store. However, whilst Whole Foods are not admitting to this, they are keeping to their word and restoring the building, due to be completed by late 2014.

Sustainability in commercial design

From a sustainable perspective, the project also involved reuse and recycling of materials in a way I have never seen before. For the exterior, Gray says, Whole Foods reused about 250,000 bricks from an old Newark, NJ building, and inside, wood used for paneling and product displays comes from the nearby former Coney Island boardwalk.


Artistic blackboards reclaimed from a local elementary school are brought to life in their new home at Whole Foods.

Blackboards for the store displays were also repurposed after being discarded by a local elementary school, I was told by one staff member. As part of the design process, Gray found companies that would work with Whole Foods to create solutions within this ideal green environment.

Green energy in design

Solar panels and a vertical axis wind turbine are built into the streetlights, which also have a battery that stores energy for illumination at night.

NYC-based Urban Green Energy, which makes the street lights and charging stations, points out that the off-grid street light save money because they don’t require expensive trenching and wiring to be installed.

Solar canopies and wind turbines are used to
power many of the green initiatives on the site.

Furthermore, the 19 LED streetlights and two electric car charging stations (found in the customer car park) produce more than twice the energy than they consume and create a micro-grid that will keep the power going during a blackout. I was completely blown away by all these innovative initiatives.

Sustainable solutions work for business

Upon walking outside to the car park, what immediately struck me was the use of solar solutions. It was definitely hard to miss because the solar canopies cover just about all of the parking lot. The 324 kilowatt (kW) array supplies a third of the store’s electricity. In the bowels of the store is another innovation – a state-of-the-art carbon dioxide refrigeration system powered by a 157 kW combined heat and power (CHP) plant.

nsi_recycling_2_smlRecycling is encouraged throughout the store.

CHP heats the building and generates chilled water that will also keep the building functioning if grid-based power goes out. It captures and then reuses waste heat that operates an absorption chiller, which cools the store. Deployed in only one other US supermarket so far, carbon refrigeration cuts greenhouse gases about 30% by eliminating carbon forcing HFC refrigerants. Daylight and high efficiency lighting also keep energy demand low. By combining this with an extensive water recycling system, these technologies make the store one of the most energy efficient supermarkets in the nation – using 60% less energy than required by building codes. (Source: Sustainable Business).

Produce with literally no air miles

With all this innovation, what got me really excited was when I learned that the Brooklyn store is the first supermarket to source its vegetables directly from its roof!

nsi_gotham-greens-2_27smlThe 20,000 square foot commercial-scale greenhouse is owned by local organic grower Gotham Greens, who will grow produce year-round and sell it to all nine Whole Foods stores in New York City. It was not quite up and running when I went to visit, but is due to be completed in the very near future (I will certainly check it out on my next visit!).

Gotham Greens will provide all nine Whole Foods stores in
NY with their produce – direct from the roof of the Brooklyn store.

Not only do these initiatives provide economic development opportunities in the Brooklyn area, the plan is to also offer educational opportunities to students and local schools to learn about greenhouses, farming and various environmental initiatives. It certainly appears to be a winning formula.

Community engagement pairs with pride

nsi_the-aisles19_smlAs I walked down the aisles, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat nostalgic. There is something quite familiar about the Brooklyn store. Perhaps it took me back to my weekly shopping in Washington DC’s ‘P Street’ store (as it turns out, also designed by Gray).

Walking down the aisles, local products are proudly labelled
as such, making it easy to support local Brooklyn businesses.

However, despite the initial disdain I was faced with from Brooklynites on the train, I could not help but notice the abundance of local shoppers and the way the friendly staff carried themselves with a deep sense of pride for the store and its products. I could really sense the commitment towards Whole Foods and the Brooklyn community.

This commitment is communicated through regular in-store activities; 5% giving days to support local causes, loans and grants to local farmers and suppliers to the store, bike repairs, fresh pressed juices, specialty brewed beers, weekly trivia nights and just last week – water based mani / pedi’s for the kids!



1. Beautiful and friendly staff are only too eager to answer any questions about the store and its products.
2. Whole Foods commitment to the Brooklyn community is impressive: from trivia nights to story-time, tastings to dinners.
3. Giving Days occur 4 times a year where 5% of the day’s profits are given to a local cause. In a store such as Whole Foods, 5% is enough to make a difference to any worthy beneficiary.
4. Fresh juices, squeezed on the spot.

How many other commercial stores in NYC (and I am not referring to farmers markets) are not only committed to creating a community but also sell so many high-quality natural and organic foods sourced from within 10 miles of the store? My guess is…not many!


With so many blends and flavours (and the US does love their flavoured coffee), there’s a blend and flavour for all.


This store is all about personalisation. Cheese sizes cut to order.


Timber for displays were repurposed after their previous life as the Coney Island Boardwalk.


Twig Terrariums. I love these chicks!
If you missed my post on Michelle Inciarrano
and Katy Maslow, you can catch up on it here.

How very Brooklyn…the Record Bar takes Brooklynites back to vinyl.


About Linda Delaney and North Shore Interiors

Linda Delaney is the owner and manager of North Shore Interiors, a company that provides interior design, decorating, styling and project management services to Sydney’s lower north shore and greater Sydney metropolitan area.

Linda has been seen in Habitus, Inside Out, Grand Designs Australia and Money magazines. She is also a regular contributor for leading Australian interior design publications, Home Design and the annual Design & Decoration. Watch out for more of Linda’s work featured in the media.

Contact Linda at  Linda@nsinteriors.com.au or on 0432 716 558.