Socially and politically, Springfield, Mo., leans hard to the right.
“This place can be about as conservative as it gets,” said Matt O’Reilly (pictured right), owner of Dynamic Earth, a two-store outdoor specialty operation headquartered in Springfield.
So, it’s a little surprising that this Midwestern city of about 250,000 people is embracing the idea of creating environmentally friendly buildings.
“We recently adopted a policy that all city buildings will be certified at least LEED Silver,” said Dan Chiles, mayor pro tem of Springfield. He told SNEWS® that the person greatly responsible for this is O’Reilly, whose Dynamic Earth store received this year’s SNEWS®/Backpacker Retailer of the Year Award for the sustainable category.
Not only has O’Reilly helped overhaul city building policies, but he's also constructed The Green Circle Shopping Center, a LEED Platinum facility that includes Dynamic Earth and three other businesses. Much more than a shopping center, the Green Circle facility serves as a platform for O’Reilly to demonstrate that eco-friendly structures are not only smart, but also profitable.
“Matt’s such an effective salesman; he’s made it safe for everybody to consider green building,” said Chiles.
A greener shopping center
Dynamic Earth opened seven and a half years ago in a Springfield building that was 2,500 square feet. With his business growing at a fast clip, O’Reilly searched for a bigger structure, but couldn’t find a unique building in town that had character. “I think it’s important for an outdoor store to have some unique character because it helps differentiate the business,” said O’Reilly.
Then, about three years ago, he became interested in green building, though little of it was happening in the Springfield area. At the same time, he and his sister, Lindsey, who owned a yoga and Pilates studio, decided they'd like to house their businesses under the same roof, and benefit from the synergies between their clientele. They also wanted to build a new structure and, with it, become green building leaders in their community.
The result was the Green Circle Shopping Center, a 26,000-square-foot structure that is certified LEED Platinum and houses Dynamic Earth, as well as Mama Jean’s Natural Market, the San Francisco Oven restaurant and the Dynamic Body yoga and Pilates studio.
Employing a wide array of green building techniques, the center is made of steel and aluminum that have a high percentage of recycled content. Also, it has energy-efficient windows that harvest natural daylight so the building can be lit with low-energy electric lights. There’s a rooftop garden, geothermal heating, a highly efficient HVAC system, and a 14,000-gallon reclaimed gas tank that collects rainwater, which is used for toilets. Outside, the pavement is made of porous concrete, which practically eliminates water runoff.
“Next door is a church, and we did a cooperative parking agreement,” said O’Reilly. “They use the parking lot on Sunday, and we use it the rest of the week. That was a green building thing that took no cost; just a little bit of thinking and some leg work. Why build something if you don’t need it?”
Thanks to the advanced construction, Green Circle businesses are already seeing a payoff. O'Reilly said the San Francisco Oven's utility costs for 2009 were $8,000 less than those at the restaurant's other location in a traditional building in another part of the city.
While the Dynamic Earth store at Green Circle is twice as big as the previous location in Springfield, O’Reilly said the utility bill every month is 30 percent less. “We’re saving $600 to $800 a month just on electricity and gas,” he said.
To further illustrate the savings, O’Reilly noted that the utility bills at the 8,000-square-foot Green Circle store are half as much as those at his second Dynamic Earth store, which is only 4,000 square feet, but sits in a Kansas City mall that is not active in environmental friendly practices.
Dynamic Earth has also seen its sales increase significantly since it moved into the Green Circle center. “Since we’ve been here, sales have grown roughly 40 percent,” said Matt Lyons, general manager of Dynamic Earth. “We’re definitely picking up traffic due to sheer exposure from the project.”
Winning hearts and minds
The concept of green building was fairly foreign to Springfield when construction began on the shopping center, O’Reilly told SNEWS. His was the first commercial green building project in the city.
“When we started, contractors just wanted the business and were willing to jump through hoops to get it,” he said. But most builders were skeptical about the future of green building, and he said most of them thought it was just a “flash in the pan.”
However, Springfield builders soon saw the great amount of positive press the shopping center generated, including coverage of a press conference that Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., held on the roof of the Green Circle building. “With all the press, if I were to buy all that time, it would approach $200,000 worth of advertising,” said O’Reilly.
At the same time that the shopping center was going up, the green building movement began to really gain steam throughout the country, and architects, contractors and builders in Springfield began to get the message.
In 2007, O’Reilly helped establish the Ozarks Green Building Coalition, and he and other coalition members began conducting seminars, explaining how green building could be profitable, and that it could give builders in the area a competitive advantage.
“A lot of people have said, ‘I’m all for this green stuff, but I don’t want to spend the money.’ But Matt proved not only can you do it, but you can also turn it into a marketing program,” said Chiles.
Slowly but surely, folks in the Springfield construction business began to realize that green building was not going to disappear, and they could gain a competitive advantage by incorporating it into their skill set and promoting the idea.
“Now they see the marketing value in it, and if they don’t have several people on staff and a LEED AP (Accredited Professional), they’re way behind the ball,” said O’Reilly. “Some who were naysayers at the beginning are showing up at green building meetings and saying, ‘Me too.’ Being able to just build to code is not what a lot of the developers want. There’s an advantage in being able to wear a green building badge on your arm and say that a project is sustainable. There’s a lot of empty buildings out there, and a lot of empty homes and they’re all homogenous. So, how do you make a product that’s different? Well, sustainability is one way.”
Changing minds at city hall
Through the Green Circle building project, O’Reilly realized that the city of Springfield had challenges in reviewing and managing the construction of sustainable buildings. “When I had first approached them, they were scratching their heads, saying, ‘Porous concrete?’”
The Ozarks Green Building Coalition brought in an expert from another community that had a green building program and presented to city officials ideas on changing the building codes. The pitch worked, and the city not only began to change the building codes, but also made the commitment that all city structures would be certified at least LEED Silver.
As a result, the city is now better equipped to handle green building projects, which Chiles said are sure to increase when the economy recovers. “Part of this is due to Matt, because he has been prominent about speaking in public and talking about how we need to streamline our policies about green building,” said Chiles. “We need to encourage builders to do green building, put those projects to the front of the line and educate our inspectors. Those are all minimum steps we can take to encourage green building.”
The Ozarks Green Building Coalition has continued to look for ways for Springfield to be more environmentally friendly, and O’Reilly said the group actually got coal tar banned in the city. “It’s used to seal parking lots, and the stuff is just nasty. It can run off and go into the water supply,” he said. “It’s a biohazard waste product when it comes from the coal plant, and they sell it to sealing companies.”
O’Reilly, an avid climber, said that when he first launched Dynamic Earth many years ago, he merely aimed to make a living doing something connected to his love of the outdoors. Now, he wants his business to serve as a platform for making his community more environmentally friendly.
His latest idea comes from Dynamic Earth’s policy of using only recycled boxes. “We’ve talked about turning that into a cardboard trading network in the city,” said O’Reilly. “Certain businesses receive product every day, and the boxes are the size we need to send things out. We could have all the boxes in a central location for people to trade and pick up. Since boxes are 30 cents a piece, it turns into real savings.”
Dynamic Earth has also become a sort of showcase for green building in Springfield. “We’re drawing a lot of people like school groups and architects who want to see the green features or hear more about it,” said Lyons.
These days, when O’Reilly is not at the store, he’s usually out spreading the gospel of sustainability. “Now I spend a lot of my time traveling around to seminars and talking to real estate groups and students about green building,” he said. “My philanthropy now is all in the realm of sustainable development and green building.”
And he’ll keep going, knowing there are many places where business is driven by the bottom line to the detriment of the environment.
“People say green building is expensive,” he said. “I say having a half-empty shopping center with nothing to talk about is expensive.”
To read about the other ROTY winners from this year and in 2009, click here.