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Green Design

Green Arches: LEED Honors for McDonald's HQ

Putting together a new office building that meets the U.S. Green Building Council's eco-standards is no snap. So imagine the chore of retrofitting a 1980s headquarters that was never designed to get a green imprimatur in the first place. At McDonald's (MCD), as it's turned out, it wasn't that hard after all. Indeed, the whole effort cost just $150,000.

The fast-food company's head office in Oak Brook, Ill., was awarded the platinum level of the building council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification on Apr. 22. Only 126 buildings worldwide hold this, the highest status, which is based on such factors as energy and water consumption, environmental impact, and indoor conditions. Of them, the council says, just 16 others were retrofits.

LEED certification is more than a beauty-pageant crown for McDonald's. The $23.5 billion company expects to earn back its outlays within a year. "There's a clear return on investment here," notes Joseph Endress, vice-president of facilities and systems, who oversaw the LEED project. "It's sort of a no-brainer to make these investments."

A Head Start, in Retrospect

Refurbishing older buildings to LEED standards can easily cost more than $1 million. Among the labor-intensive expenses: replacing less-efficient lighting and heating and cooling systems.

McDonald's got off cheap because its headquarters already had much of what's on the LEED checklist. The company's heavily wooded 88-acre campus in suburban Chicago includes two creek-fed ponds that supply all the irrigation for landscaping, conserving drinking water. Its three-story main building, which covers 380,000 square feet, has an open floor plan, allowing sunlight from floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights to reach interior cubicles, reducing the need for artificial light.

In addition, the 875-employee headquarters has three levels of underground parking for 950 cars. While the campus has surface parking lots for visitors and for its adjunct buildings—Hamburger University and a Hyatt Hotel are also on the grounds—the garage parking means less storm-water runoff and reflected heat from the summer sun. The LEED judges prefer garages because they lessen impact on the environment.

But to go for platinum, Endress and his team had to do more than rely on the original 1988 design of its campus, by Chicago architect Dirk Lohan of Lohan Associates. The company replaced old fluorescent light fixtures with new ones that are adjustable, so that lights can be dimmed by 50% during sunny days. It also installed ceiling tiles that reflect light better.

Lighting: Choosing LED Over CFL

The remodeling was disruptive: Over six weeks last summer, employees had to work from different areas or from home. But the changes helped cut McDonald's electricity usage by 8% last year.

In updating the office interior, Endress rejected one popular energy-saving device—compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). While these lights last much longer than incandescent bulbs, McDonald's had learned from experiments at its restaurants that LED lighting performs even better, with lifespans of up to 12 years. So Endress decided to skip CFLs and, over the next three years, will swap out incandescent fixtures for LEDs instead. Because LEDs cost more, the upfront expenditures will be greater. But the return on investment should be, too.

Endress also wants to do more to reduce waste. Already, the company turns frying oil from its in-office McDonald's restaurant and test kitchen into biofuel for its shuttle-van service. McDonald's also recycled 31 tons of scrap metal and 128 tons of paper from headquarters in 2008. To curb the outflow, the company took an employee suggestion and has stopped offering throwaway cups on Fridays. Instead, coffee drinkers are urged to use company-issued thermal cups.

McDonald's also issues citations to employees who dump food scraps or other garbage in blue recycle baskets. How many employees have been cited? "Not that many," says Endress. Most everyone, he adds, is into the cause.

Arndt is editor of BusinessWeek's innovation and design coverage, overseeing its Innovation channel as well as the magazine's quarterly IN: Inside Innovation section.

Arndt is editor of Bloomberg Businessweek's innovation and design coverage.

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