Influential brands around the world are bringing nature indoors, through the use of wood and other natural materials, all in the effort to attract customers, enhance the buying experience and boost the bottom-line. And they might be on to something: recent research on retail sales suggests “going green” may actually increase the number of greenbacks a customer is willing to part with.
McDonald Looks to “Green” its Golden Arches
In the American Midwest’s largest city, one of the world’s most recognizable brands—McDonald’s—is showcasing how wood can bring value and help express the company’s growing commitment to environmentally conscious choices. For its latest Chicago-based flagship restaurant, the three-quarters-of-a-century-old fast food chain is shaking off its once plastic-clad brightly colored interiors for an exposed timber design, along with more sustainable, naturally hued materials. The choice to use wood came early in the process with the goal: “design authenticity.” As Carol Ross Barney of Ross Barney Architects explains, some durable materials aren’t always authentic and eco-friendly. Mass timber offers durability, resilience and sustainability. And “because you can use CLT like any panelized material, such as precast concrete or steel, it’s a robust, cost-effective and green alternative.”
In addition to the use of cross-laminated timber (CLT), the restaurant features more than 70 trees at ground level, a vegetated roof space and a floating glass garden of ferns and white birch trees. The roofs feature edible plants including apple trees that will be harvested and donated to the Ronald McDonald House. The project signals the fast food giant’s interest in biophilic and eco-friendly design. The iconic burger chain began this shift back in 2016 when it moved away from red and yellow mostly synthetically manufactured interiors in favor of more natural materials and nature-inspired color-palettes. And this year, McDonald’s announced they would be opening two “green concept restaurants” in Canada.
Portland Brands Embrace Their Timber Past
More than 2,000 miles west of the Windy City, is a region whose history is steeped in thick forests and heavy timber. Portland is a city that is quickly becoming an iconic brand onto itself, known for its woodsy, eco-friendly and hipster vibe. This brand is increasingly expressed in Rose City’s retail architecture–characterized by natural materials, timber construction and sustainable design.
And one Portland-based design firm—LEVER Architecture—is leading this trend with projects such as Union Way, a 10,000 square-foot retail renovation project that serves as much a civic function—a pedestrian connection between city blocks—as a retail experience. Reminiscent of Europeans passageways and Middle Eastern bazaars, LEVER put its own unique stamp on the timber-clad arcade that packs nine different retailers/restaurants into a covered galleria including Danner, the iconic Oregon boot brand, California-based retailer All Good and local clothier Bridge & Burn crafts apparel.
The walls are built with sustainably harvested Pacific Albus siding, farm-grown three hours outside of Portland. Twelve skylights reinforce a visual connection that blurs the boundaries between interior and exterior. Historic heavy timber beams were salvaged and incorporated into the structural design. This is architecture as placemaking, elevating the retail experience to evoke inspiration and a connection to nature.
Another example by the same firm is FLEX, a 19,000 square-foot mixed-use commercial retail space built of exposed mass timber, with a warm open loft-like interior. The facility’s open floor plate is divisible into eight, 24’ structural bays, allowing the building to be partitioned for diverse tenants, from a restaurant to small maker spaces.
Biophilic Design a Natural Fit for Canadian Retailers
Biophilic design is also a natural fit for Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC), Canada’s biggest retailer of outdoor gear whose brand and mission are firmly anchored in sustainability and stewardship.
MEC is putting eco-conscious timber-framed architecture front and center in its newest flagship store, located in Vancouver, British Columbia and scheduled to open in early 2020. The three-story mass-timber building constructed using locally sourced CLT and glue-laminated timber (glulam), will make natural, exposed wood central to the shopping experience.
“MEC is setting the precedent here. I think we’re going to see a lot more commercial development with this sort of construction,” said Ron McDougall, a mass timber specialist with Structurlam, the wood fabricator for the project.
He says the wood design of the new store aligns well with MEC’s green-oriented mandate, as well as its purpose as an outdoor apparel and equipment retailer, with their customers “feeling comfortable being in a wood environment.”
In fact, the majority of MEC’s newer stores, as well as its head office, have embraced the use of wood and natural materials, as a reflection of their corporate values. The Vancouver-based headquarters is a spacious open concept plan, maximizing the warmth and beauty of its nail-laminated timber construction.
On the other side of the country in Canada’s mostly French-speaking Québec province is BMR, a series of building supply stores founded in 1967 and with deep roots in wood as a building material. Many BMR stores make an abundant use of regional materials, including wood. In the case of the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu centre, the store features an exposed timber structure made of glulam wood posts, beams and roof decking. In addition to using locally sourced mass timber, a number of stores include a natural living green wall, a design feature that literally brings nature inside, enhancing the retail experience and reportedly purifying the air.
Could Biophilic Design Impact a Brand’s Bottomline?
All of these investments in wood construction and biophilic design look nice, but do customers really care? A recent study conducted by the University of Laval suggests that they do, concluding that exposed structural wood can have a positive impact on customers. A survey of 100 randomly selected customers compared shopping experiences in a wooden building compared with a steel building in three types of stores: a supermarket, a home renovation centre and a furniture store. In all three cases, a higher number of customers expressed greater satisfaction with the aesthetics of the wooden building than with the steel building. And customers were more inclined to describe the wooden building as ecological, healthful and warm.
For a growing number of brands, the choice to use wood and biophilic design is a practical one too, as research is beginning to suggest it could positively impact the bottom line. Influential brands around the world are also following suit, from big tech companies like Amazon and Google to hotel titan Marriott and its Starwood chain of properties.
A recent report on the economics of biophilic design found that participants said they were more inclined to make a purchase if in an environment characterized by views to nature, intermittent greenery, big trees and vegetation. In the same study, participants were willing to pay up to 20% more for practical expenditures (such as a sandwich for lunch) and up to 25% more for general merchandise (for example a new jacket or a watch).
While it is early days for biophilic design and more research is needed, initial findings and anecdotal reports show promising results when it comes to boosting a brand’s value. And undoubtedly, wood can play an important role, making the retail experience more inviting, calming and connected to nature.
 Science-backed Finnish green wall innovation is a quantum step for healthier indoor spaces, NAAVA, 2018, https://www.naava.io/news/science-backed-naava-green-wall-purifies-air
 CecoBois, Construire En Bois, Volume 10, Autumn, 2018, p.7, https://cecobois.com/publications_documents/CECO-11987_Journal_Automne_2018_FINAL_LR.pdf
 Creating the Workplace of the Future Through Biophilic Design, 2017, https://sustainablebrands.com/read/organizational-change/creating-the-workplace-of-the-future-through-biophilic-design
 The Economics of Biophilia, Terrapin Bright Green, 2012, p.20-21 https://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/report/economics-of-biophilia
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