Nestled in the hills outside Chattanooga, TN squats a large, brand new Volkswagen plant. Fresh and shiny, the collection of buildings houses the people and robots that turn delivered parts and materials into brand-new 2012 Passats, the first of which was just sold to a young man in the tech industry in California. VW is having good success with the sedan, with year-to-date sales up nearly 60 percent over 2010 numbers. But this story isn't about the cars. It's about the building that makes the cars.

VW recently announced that its Chattanooga plant was awarded LEED Platinum certification. Building or retrofitting a building to get LEED status isn't all that difficult, if you're just aiming for a lower-level award. To reach the highest level, Platinum, you need to put in a fair bit of work to score enough points (at least 80) on the United States Green Building Council's (USGBC) rating system. This system (detailed in this PDF) is incredibly complicated. For example, a company can get one point for limiting "disruption and pollution of natural water flows by managing stormwater runoff" or two points for reducing "ozone depletion and support[ing] early compliance with the Montreal Protocol while minimizing direct contributions to climate change." There are 117 pages of this stuff. While planning the plant, Volkwagen's team combed through them to find ways to make sure the plant would be up to snuff.

VW isn't the only automotive player in the LEED game in the U.S. Honda has 11 certified "green buildings" in North America, the most of any automaker, and companies like Audi and Toyota encourage dealers to get the LEED out. But VW can be justifiably proud of the accomplishment in Tennessee, since the facility is the "only automotive manufacturing plant in the world to receive the Platinum certification." The location wasn't always this clean. Not too long ago, the site was home to the Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant and created TNT and other military products that were used in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Today, the former brownfield site holds VW's plant, a park, an Amazon distribution center and other businesses. This is VW's only manufacturing plant in the U.S., so it's understandable that the company wanted to make a good impression. That it went all the way to Platinum makes sense if you know a bit more about local history. After all, Chattanooga was named the most polluted city in the U.S. in 1969 and it is still considered to be the fourth worst city in the U.S. for people with asthma, even though the locals have worked hard to clean up their act. In 2008, VW decided to build its first U.S. plant there, which prompted Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey to say at the time, "Our community has a long-standing focus on sustainable development. Volkswagen is exactly the kind of environmentally conscious company we wanted to attract."

VW's head of factory planning, Jan Spies, said during a recent visit to the plant that the company started from an already clean slate – a "strong set of environmental principles" – that pushes it to be aware of its environmental impact around the world, to use renewable energy when possible, to name just one example. With the Chattanooga plant, VW wanted to challenge itself to be above average. "We think what we do here reflects the image that Volkswagen has," Spies said. This might be more true than many people realize, since the cost to go for LEED certification when starting from VW's already high standard was in the low single digit percentage range.

Judith Webb, the chief marketing officer for the USGBC, called the plant a "huge achievement" and said that LEED Platinum is actually difficult to reach. "The level of achievement here is just breathtaking," she said.

vw leed platinum plant

So, what did VW do to get all blinged out on Platinum status? Spies said the Volkswagen way to LEED is also one of VW's environmental principles: "the conservation of natural resources." This means trying to keep the microclimate stable by redirecting two creeks to the borders of the site instead of running right through the middle. The LED night lights do not emit a lot of light pollution, and there are special parking spaces for EPA-designated "green vehicles," carpoolers and people who ride bicycles. There are big tanks located around the plant that save rain water and use it to water the plants, flush the toilets and for use in the cooling towers (it's the big white tank in the picture below).

vw leed platinum plant

Parts of the plant also have six-inch insulated walls, which is about twice as thick as what's standard. Almost 50 percent of the materials used to make the plant were recycled from previous products, things like carpets and wall tiles. Even better, the designers thought about how to reuse and recycle materials used to make the plant should it ever need to be closed. Spies said VW doesn't have a tradition of closing plants and the LEED certification doesn't really get into how to close a plant, but these factors were considered nonetheless. A more detailed list of work VW did in Chattanooga can be found in this post or this PDF.

Despite all of this, there will be cries that this plant is nothing but greenwashing. Perhaps, but at least VW's claims are backed up by facts on the ground and certification from an outside, independent agency. We were suitably impressed by VW's efforts in Chattanooga, and look forward to seeing how the company keeps its promise to use the Chattanooga plant as a benchmark for future plants. In the end, we know, it matters more what kinds of cars are built than how clean one particular part of the production chain is. Except for in the paint shop, getting LEED certification doesn't affect all that much about how the cars themselves are produced, neither the quality level nor how efficient they are. Still, Platinum is better than nothing, right?


Our travel and lodging for this media event were provided by the manufacturer.


I'm reporting this comment as:

Reported comments and users are reviewed by Autoblog staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate Community Guideline. Accounts are penalized for Community Guidelines violations and serious or repeated violations can lead to account termination.


    • 1 Second Ago
  • 11 Comments
      BipDBo
      • 13 Hours Ago
      "Building or retrofitting a building to get LEED status isn't all that difficult, if you're just aiming for a lower-level award." Actually, even the lower levels of awards are pretty difficult and require that the owner significantly increase the budget. Platinum definately requires a much higher level of commitment, but the lower levels of awards should not be dismissed. I am a mechanical engineer who has been involved in LEED certification.
        pmpjunkie
        • 13 Hours Ago
        @BipDBo
        Different experience here, we actually got to LEED gold on one of our buildings with a ROI over baseline of under one year. It mostly required spending more on design and engineering and about the same on actual construction cost. Most developers just like to squeeze the consultant fees too much to get anywhere without significant extra construction cost.
          BipDBo
          • 13 Hours Ago
          @pmpjunkie
          From the perspective of the consultant engineer, Gold is very difficult. It was reasonable under LEED 2.2, but it is much more difficult with LEED 2009. You are right about there being a lot of squeezing of consultant fees. Owners typically have no appreciation for how much time this certification demands. It's nearly impossible not to loose our shirt doing a LEED project for the fees that are typically asked for. I'm not sure about an ROI of 1 year. That smells a bit like some cooked numbers, personally, unless most of it was somehow paid in subsidies. Five to ten years would be a good goal especially when finance costs are factored in. The best ROI typically comes from high efficiency lighting, which will probably be LED, at least on the exterior of the building. The best ROI you can expect for LED lighting is around 3 to 4 years.
      2 Wheeled Menace
      • 13 Hours Ago
      Pardon the vulgar expression, but.. new saying for the week: "you can't polish a turd, but you can polish a turd factory"
      • 13 Hours Ago
      Good job! Like LetsTakeAWalk said, actions to get an LEED certification is only common sense. But common sense does not mean "easy" or "cheap." Their effots are definitely something to be praised, and which needs to be imitated. Factories are huge energy sinks and efficiency should be a major factor in their design. Cheers! Juan Miguel Ruiz (Going Green) http://www.GreenJoyment.com
      2 Wheeled Menace
      • 13 Hours Ago
      "Our travel and lodging for this media event were provided by the manufacturer." Thank you for being honest, ABG. While this is sort of a PR piece, it's better than the typical ad dressed up as a blog post. So, right on..
      Letstakeawalk
      • 13 Hours Ago
      LEED certification is something that every new building should be designed to achieve - but kudos to VW for going for the highest (platinum) standard. That means they had to earn at least twice as many points as a building that simply met the minimum. http://www.usgbc.org/ShowFile.aspx?DocumentID=8868 I've been involved in LEED planning and construction certification, and to be honest, it all seems like pretty common-sense sort of stuff when you already have a "green" mindset. But the reality is, in order to accommodate as many of the principles and objectives as possible, while still building within a budget, that it's not always the simplest thing to do. So I understand what "Platinum Cert" really means, and I'm very impressed - as should anyone.
        paulwesterberg
        • 13 Hours Ago
        @Letstakeawalk
        They also stand to benefit from reduced operating costs over the life of the building.
          Letstakeawalk
          • 13 Hours Ago
          @paulwesterberg
          True, and a very good point, but there is still the reality that if you can't afford to build something, it doesn't matter how much money you'll save after you build it, because you can't build it. There's plenty of working poor who would be in much better situations if they drove a BEV. They'd no longer have to worry about the fluctuating cost of gasoline. However, the initial purchase price of the BEV is the actual hurdle to entry that they can't get over. So, they'll continue to drive a beater...
      Peter
      • 13 Hours Ago
      First in the world for a US standard... Is VW still adding categories where they do not exist ?
        Letstakeawalk
        • 13 Hours Ago
        @Peter
        Read my post above. "Platinum Cert" is way above/beyond the standard, and VW can rightfully say they're the only ones at this time to have gone that far.