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One Shop’s Journey to LEED Certification

LaFontaine Buick GMC Cadillac takes green practices to an awe-inspiring level—and it pays off big in both the showroom and the body shop.



Neil Tyson

Believe it or not, the LaFontaine family’s flagship GM dealership, in the little-known suburb of Highland, Mich., is a tourist destination. Since it opened in June of 2008, high school and college classes, Boy Scout troops, GM executives and curious customers tour the 63,000-square-foot, $15 million facility every week.

Why would people flock to a car dealership when they’re not even in the market for a car (or so they think)? They come to see the only Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified GM dealership in existence. LEED status, which the U.S. Green Building Council awards to buildings that meet stringent standards for energy efficiency and reduced environmental impact, is eco-lingo for “super green.”

For the dealership and its growing body shop, the building’s roughly $2 million worth of environment-driven features also mean super sales.

“If you gave me $2 million and said ‘Go advertise,’ I couldn’t buy the amount of exposure we got from going green,” says Ryan LaFontaine, general manager of LaFontaine Automotive Group, which has grown into a thriving dealership empire in Michigan during the last quarter century.

With everything from a $600,000, 64-well geothermal heating and cooling system, to using energy-saving fluorescent lights instead of conventional bulbs, the dealership and the body shop have truly undergone a green transformation. (See “Greening A Dealership” for more details on the dealership’s LEED transformation.)

And as extravagant as some of the building’s features might seem, most of the green elements are possible at smaller body shops, says Alan Bloom, president of Bloom General Contracting Inc., a partner in the LaFontaine build. Bloom, who has been involved in numerous dealership builds, says the geothermal system was the only feature that smaller shops might not be able to afford.

“It’s all pretty simple stuff,” he says.

The Body Shop Benefit

The collision center, which at 7,000 square feet was too small for the 125 cars per month it averaged last year, recently expanded, giving it a total of 12,000 square feet. It makes about $3 million a year in revenue and sports a host of its own green features.

Besides being housed in a LEED-certified building, the body shop engages in further green practices, says Todd McCallum, who oversees collision center operations at the Highland facility.

courtesy LaFontaine

It recycles just about everything including carwash water, sprays waterborne, and is lit with natural light for much of the day. Vegetable oil is used in each of the shop’s hydraulic lifts, and all of the facility’s cleaning chemicals are environmentally safe. So is the nontoxic, low-VOC wall paint.

Nitrogen is used to inflate tires for longer life and better mileage, and the shop tries to limit paper use by scanning in any paper documents and filing them on a computer system, McCallum says. Once a document is scanned, all references are made electronically.

McCallum says there’s no doubt that the building’s green renovation has done wonders for the body shop. Here are some of the ways the collision center has been able to capitalize on the dealership’s commitment to green:

• Attract insurance company representatives to the shop. Curious representatives from carriers are among the regular tourists, McCallum says, which has helped net five DRP relationships. It’s looking for more.

• Invite them back for training. Those insurance representatives also visit the shop for continuing education training sessions on hybrid repairs, new regulations and other topics at its purpose-built training facility.

• Create employee ownership of green initiatives. Each of the shop’s 16 employees is trained on the building’s green aspects, how they work and why they’re important. This helps the building’s visitors get quick answers to questions, because every employee is an expert on the facility, McCallum says. “It gives them a sense of ownership and makes them want to take care of it,” he says.

Green Influence

The success of LaFontaine—they are the No. 1 Buick seller in the U.S.—hasn’t gone unnoticed by GM, which has since worked with the dealership’s LEED consultant, Newman Consulting Group, to reduce energy use at its other dealerships.

Roger Young, of the building’s architecture firm Young & Young Architects Inc., says he even convinced GM representatives to ditch their standard of a dealership facelift every seven years, arguing that a greener approach would be to build for longevity. Remodels are now considered every 15 years.

GM applauded the LaFontaine facility after its completion and suggested it wouldn’t be the last of its kind. Susan Docherty, who at the time was vice president of Buick-Pontiac-GMC, said the building tied in with the company’s green-vehicle efforts.

“With the opening of this dealership and those that are sure to follow, our customers can enjoy a 360-degree green car-buying and car-owning experience,” she says.

And the LaFontaines aren’t done. They’ve been adding green elements to their other facilities and they’re working on a new 15,000-square-foot collision center to serve an expanded Chevrolet dealership in Dexter, Mich.

The LaFontaines are seeking LEED certification for that dealership, but not the new shop. That doesn’t mean it won’t be loaded with eco-friendly features, however.

The family’s plan to build sustainably paid off in a big way, and they aren’t going to change what works. Crowds are sure to be gathering at more LaFontaine landmarks in the future.

“This far exceeded anything we could have imagined,” LaFontaine says.

 

Greening A Dealership

 When the LaFontaine family decided to make its facility green, they committed to making it cutting-edge green—as green as it could be. They went full tilt, hiring green-building consultant Newman Consulting Group and a new architecture firm, Young & Young Architects Inc.—even though plans for a less-green dealership redesign were already drawn.

“The footings were in the ground at the time,” recalls architect Roger Young, of Young & Young. “We were called in to quickly re-spec the building.”

The plans the group came up with after collaborating with GM and builder Bloom General Contracting Inc. were revolutionary in the industry and meant to meet LEED standards for energy savings, water efficiency, carbon emissions and other criteria.
The geothermal wells, which capture energy 350 feet beneath the facility, made it into the final design. Other building features and business strategies include:

• Eighty-five skylights that fill the building with natural light;

• Controlled lighting that uses photocells and computer controls to shut off
  electrical light when ample natural light is available, or when no motion is
  detected for 15 minutes;

• A "green board" display describes the dealership's green journey for tourists
  and visitors.

• Fluorescent bulbs that use half the energy of conventional lights;

• Waterborne paint technology;

• A white roof that reduces the building’s heat island effect;

• Not only does the shop spray
  waterborne paint, but walls are also
  painted with low-VOC paint.

• Fluorescent bulbs that use half the
  energy of conventional bulbs light the
  shop.

• A windmill that pumps water from a retention pond for irrigation;

• A carwash that recycles 85 percent of the water wasted by conventional washes;

• A roof storm water retention system that treats water before routing it to the
  retention pond;

• The shop uses green cleaning
  materials.

 

• A 64-well geothermal system, which
  captures energy 350 feet below the
  facility, provides heat and cooling.

• Low-flow toilets for reduced water consumption;

• Recycled and reused building materials supplied by firms within a 500-mile radius;

• Pavement made with crushed concrete;

• Doors made of compressed corn cobs and wheat;

• Low-emitting adhesives, sealants, paints and carpet systems;

• A carwash recycles 85 percent of the
  water wasted by conventional washes.

 

• Eighty-five skylights with magnifying
  prisms fill the building with natural
  light.

• Cups made of recyclable corn-based products;

• Recycling bins for metal, plastic and cardboard;

• Preferred parking for employees who carpool or drive low-emission or
  alternative-fuel vehicles;

• Bicycle storage areas to encourage cycling to work.

Young says making the design modifications to meet LEED standards was challenging. It even required already contracted vendors to change how they sourced materials. But he thinks the extra steps were worth it.

“At the end of the day, it sold cars like never before and it brought bodies into the store like never before,” he says.
One of the building’s best attributes, Young adds, is that none of its green features stand out.

“You wouldn’t know walking into it that it’s a green facility,” he says, “and I think that’s a testament to doing it right.” –JW

 

 

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