A Small Co-op Grows Greener

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When a food co-op builds or remodels its own home, the project rivets the attention and scrutiny of its neighborhood. In the case of Oneota Community Food Co-op in rural Decorah, Iowa, the neighborhood is all of Winneshiek County. As a business famously built on community and run with emphasis on environmental sustainability and social equality, Oneota faced the challenges of not only funding an expansion but also growing respectably into a space sufficiently green. And we had to do it with the interests of 2,600 active member-owners equally in mind.

From the beginning, our mission has been to provide foods that are produced in accordance with organic farming and distribution practices, with an emphasis on supporting local and regional suppliers; whole, bulk, and minimally packaged foods and household items at a reasonable cost; and products and services that reflect a concern for human health and the natural environment and that promote the well-being of workers and communities that produce them.

Oneota had survived growth spurts in the past-four of them. The cooperative started in 1974 in an unheated shack stocked with steel garbage cans containing bags of whole grains. Subsequently, Oneota lived in a second-story office space, then two consecutive storefronts on Decorah’s main thoroughfare.

At each new location, Oneota doubled in size and more than doubled revenue. This led to our most intensive expansion in January 2008-to 5,600 square feet of retail space; 1,800 square feet of commercial kitchen, workspace and storage on the retail level; and almost 2,500 square feet of office, storage, and meeting space in the basement. This move was conservatively estimated to cost more than $1.8 million, 10 times more than the store’s previous move.

Breaking ground

To get started, the co-op formed-you guessed it-a committee to locate and obtain a suitable building, ultimately selecting a nearby storefront that had originally been a grocery store.

Next, a design committee formed, comprised of the store’s co-managers, department buyers, and the newly hired general manager. Charged with formalizing a store layout, the committee soon faced a classic question: whose department warranted preference? The “new” building (built in 1952) seemed the right shape and size, but the egalitarian design process resulted in the layout being repeatedly tabled.

Three months before the date of possession, Oneota hired project manager Terri Mozzone, a local multi-talented design consultant. Says Mozzone, “We went into this process without architectural drawings, finalized materials lists, or even a floor plan-all of which, in hindsight, I heartily recommend be developed initially-but we had a lot of hope and confidence in local talent. The goal was to localize as much of the labor and as many materials as possible, to make the building process less fuel intensive and more supportive of our local economy.” An experienced interior finishes designer, Mozzone also weighed in on Oneota’s choice of general contractors, helping select a company known for flexibility, supportiveness, and skill at communicating details to a variety of personalities.

Making decisions

The project soon started orbiting two priorities: aesthetics (“in a form-follows-function fashion,” says Mozzone) and energy efficiencies. Both emphasized conservation and innovation, an outlook project members had to learn. Says former general co-manager and current community outreach coordinator Liz Rog,” We’d gotten so used to doing some things the hard way-like trundling our deli and baked goods from a separate commercial kitchen-that it was hard to imagine the optimal ways to use the space.”

Mozzone went straight to the co-op’s member-owners with usability questions. “I found that almost everyone preferred that the deli seating area be located at the front of the store adjacent to the run of large windows. That choice dictated that the kitchen be placed nearer the front, rather than the rear of the store as drawn in the earlier floor plan. Further research indicated that abundant natural light significantly enhances worker and customer satisfaction and health-and significantly increases sales revenues.”

The age of the building also informed interior design choices. “It seemed appropriate to honor the integrity of the architecture by retaining some of the original structural/design elements, such as the energy-efficient glass-block windows along one wall and the 12-foot plaster ceiling,” Mozzone says. “The raised ceiling allowed us to gain atmospheric height as well as exposed light from the previously concealed glass block windows. Our electrical contractor helped in choosing simple overhead lighting fixtures that were both affordable and visually consistent with that time period.”

As the renovation unfolded, Mozzone turned to Oneota’s large volunteer corps, thus conserving the project’s investment in labor. “It was exhausting to organize projects that volunteers could handle in the midst of the systems and construction phases, but they worked miracles.” Co-op volunteers, in addition to alleviating other mini-crises, in October completed all the demolition of existing interior structures and parts of the foundation that needed shoring up, painstakingly patched the store’s original 12-foot plaster ceiling (revealed beneath suspended tiles), and painted the entire exterior.

As materials lists, well, materialized, Mozzone and company started researching options with consideration for the lifetime of each product, from creation to installation to removal and potential recyclability. They avoided vinyl and PVC wherever possible, opting for rubber floor trim, for example, and custom countertops that don’t use formica (contains PVC) or formaldehyde. Instead, the store features granite, locally sustainable hardwood, stainless steel, maple butcher block, and a regionally produced composite made from sunflower hulls.

Interior paints and other finishes are low- or zero-VOC (volatile organic compounds), a much less toxic option available at competitive prices. The supplemental cellulose insulation, blown into wall cavities where needed, is made from recycled paper.

Doing the homework

The key to evaluating a product’s environmental merits in relation to its cost, Mozzone says, is research. When contractors told her that PVC piping was the way to go for the store’s many drains, Mozzone sought Leadership for Energy Efficient Design (LEED) advice and eventually confirmed that, though toxic to produce and to incinerate, PVC was best suited for the job: stainless steel drains, alternatively, would have broken the bank.

Having written grants for a regional energy consulting firm, Mozzone knew the store’s biggest energy drains would be its refrigeration/freezer systems (industry-wide, these account for 55 percent of grocery store energy dollars) and its lighting (23 percent). A key selling point for the building was its original “tunnel structure” in the basement, used for piping waste heat from the refrigerator and freezer compressors. In winter, cool outside air is pumped through the tunnel past the series of compressors, which heat it as they work. The heat is then pumped upward to the retail space through ductwork that is LEED-certified to maintain ambient comfort and healthy air intake.

In the summer, the heated air is vented outside-but not before engaging a heat exchanger to bring water to the temperatures needed for the dishwasher, among other hot-water fixtures. To complement this system, the co-op invested in the highest-efficiency refrigerators (in retro red!) and freezers available, anticipating payback within a decade.

For lighting, Oneota features T-8 fluorescents with L.E.D. accents, arranged in a system that allows for area-specific control of brightness. The store is also wired for electronic light sensors-to be installed in the future-that will adjust the ambient light relative to available daylight.

In addition, Oneota recycled fixtures, office furniture, carts, kitchen equipment, table parts, shelving, and tools to minimize costs and avoid the ecological expense of using newly manufactured components.

Even the project’s one major crisis-the unanticipated re-leveling of the store’s retail floor-led to an environmentally sound solution nobody had previously considered and ended up contributing to the long-term sustainability of the store.

“The day we realized that we had to resurface the floor-because it sloped a full seven inches from front to back-was probably the most triumphant moment of the project,” Mozzone explains. “We went from utter despair at having to invest substantially more than we anticipated, to realizing that the concrete we’d need to pour would cover our optimal layout of systems piping and wiring-and it could be polished down to its first layer of gravel, which resulted in a terrazzo-like finish that is virtually maintenance-free.”

In the end, how green is Oneota Community Food Co-op? “We did the best we could,” Mozzone explains, “considering every dollar we spent represented somebody’s energy, and we had to weigh that against our aspiration to use green materials that are sometimes still very expensive.” The project wound up just over one percent above budget-an impressively low figure due largely to the labor, materials, and expertise contributed by Oneota’s wider community, including local craftsmen, volunteers, local financiers, and more.

Like any good building project, the store is still a work in progress, with plans being made for a new, greener roof (possibly sod) that will allow more cellulose insulation, and the installation of solar tubes and/or skylights. Oneota is watching closely the evolution of solar panel technology, waiting for an opportunity to make it work commercially and sustainably.

Stop on by, see www.oneotacoop.com, or call us with questions at 563/382-4666. Co-op staff, management, and members are informed, invested at a new level, and excited to share this organic success.

Green Materials and Resources
Oneota Co-op researched and sourced store components and procedures in the areas listed below. Feel free to contact the co-op for references.

  • Research, consulting resources, and certification requirements
  • Industry-tested design consulting
  • Refrigeration cases and coolers
  • Water filtration systems
  • Energy rebates and products
  • Butcher block countertops
  • Used kitchen equipment
  • Commercial kitchen equipment and supplies
  • Flooring, low- and zero-VOC finishes, and other low-VOC supplies
  • Countertops made from sunflower hulls, wheat and other natural products
  • Concrete surfacing
  • Stainless steel countertops and natural stone countertops
  • High-efficiency doors and windows
See other articles from this issue: #135 March - April - 2008