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Shearer's eyes more than potato chips inside LEED-Platinum plant

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/16/10 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Green buildings

How did Shearer's-a relatively small player in its field-come to build the first snack manufacturing facility with a LEED-Platinum rating? The answer can be found in the inversion of what Shearer's peers see as an exorbitant but necessary cost of doing business: energy. The reason only three other manufacturers globally have a LEED-Platinum facility is where energy is consumed.

"The lion's share, some 80% of our energy, is used out on the (production) floor," Shearer's Sustainability Manager Scott Weyandt explained to a group wearing hair nets, goggles and Walkman-style audio gear that he was leading past a conveyor belt of tortilla chips to the main attraction: The tortilla oven. It was Shearer's idea to build a new one that could do double duty, both bake the sweet corn masa cakes and capture heat that can be reused to warm the building and the water for boiling corn and potatoes. But that's only part of what explains why Shearer's and not another. It begins with CEO Bob Shearer who was able to invert a big number like 80% into an opportunity.

"These guys just threw every assumption out and said 'we're not going to just get to the minimum necessary," said LEED founder Robert Watson who flew in to attend the Shearer's ribbon cutting. "When they found that the building envelope accounts for only eight percent of their energy, they could have given up right there. But they have a CEO who walks the talk, who sees the giant kettles as space heaters and started from there."

Today's business climate demands nothing less, Watson said, adding that a manufacturer starts the planning of a facility with benchmarks and targets for building performance. "Shearer's did hundreds of pages of energy analysis-they're not going to take all the time and effort and not follow through with what they found."

Still, it did take a creative, iterative process. Shearer's had to fire some suppliers and hire new ones who could make the equipment like the oven, for which the company, IEC, has a patent pending. Shearer states that he will share the ideas behind the new machine with his competition.

The chip fryer's 600 degrees of heat account for 90% of the building's HVAC load. In tandem with a simple design solution-windows in the production room that cut down on lighting needs, the facility uses 30 percent less energy that industry standards, Weyandt said.

What was most gratifying to Shearer?

"Obviously to be the first LEED-Platinum facility, but also to show people it can be done in food manufacturing," Shearer said while walking through a gleaming, daylight filled warehouse where bags of chips were being crated and loaded onto trucks. "Hopefully it will show other manufacturers the way to be more sustainable."

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It's not every day that you have a chance to speak to the founder of LEED. While Rob Watson was in town last week, I asked him to weigh in on the Northeast Ohio U.S. Green Building Council chapter's recent survey of attitudes about green building. The survey found green building adoption lagging here, and lukewarm feelings among the finance, real estate and insurance industries. Watson chalked it up to an attitude of "not invented here," a common refrain, he said, adding that it takes true leadership like that displayed by Bob Shearer to cut through the malaise. "It's wonderful to find someone with real authority. (Shearer) has been working on a variety of sustainable things."

"America is one of the most altruistic countries in the world," he continued. "If we look at that as a benefit, a source of innovation, a way of looking beyond ourselves, that is the story we're seeing here."

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