The Happy Feet Plus store on U.S. Highway 19 North in Pinellas County is a green oasis tucked into one of the most congested strips of sprawl in Florida -- eight lanes of traffic-choked concrete and asphalt lined for miles with low-rise, strip-mall stores.
The parking lot at the free-standing store, which sells Birkenstocks, Mephistos, Tevas and other hippie-yuppie footwear, is made of shell and pervious concrete. Unlike asphalt, it doesn't trap heat, it doesn't cause petroleum runoff and water drains right through. The landscaping is all native: Bald cypress and tupelo trees, sand cordgrass and coontie bushes, splashes of wildflowers like wild petunia and tropical sage. Most are watered via a 5,000-gallon cistern system, which also flushes the toilets. Out back, eight solar panels help power the store. Inside, Happy Feet is so well-insulated you can't hear the highway traffic buzzing by just 100 feet away. The store is awash in natural light. It is cool, with ceiling fans spinning under a 50-year metal roof that deflects heat. All building materials were either recycled or from sustainable forests.
"Everybody told us we were crazy" to build green here, says Jane Strong, who owns the store with her partner, Jacob Wurtz. "But everyone said we were crazy back in 1985 for trying to sell Birkenstocks in a fashion mall."
From a kiosk in Tyrone Square Mall in 1985, Wurtz and Strong have built their business to nine Happy Feet stores throughout Tampa Bay. In 2004, the Clearwater Happy Feet store on U.S. 19 became the first retail business in the United States to earn LEED certification. Just as Wurtz and Strong helped move their signature shoe from counterculture to staple, many predict green-building choices are poised to become mainstream in Florida.
Ironically, today's green building champions are careful to avoid the alternative culture from which Wurtz and Strong proudly hail. If you're trying to convince a publicly traded home-building company, a university board of trustees or a county commission to go green, "you can't really walk in with blue jeans and sandals and hugging a tree," says John Toppe, a St. Petersburg architect and founding president of the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.
The builders, architects and engineers touting green building around Florida these days even have a mantra: "No Birkenstocks."
That's fine by Wurtz. The store is achieving its goal of "showing that it can be done and raising consciousness," he says. "If you can build green on Highway 19, you can build green anywhere."
WEB EXCLUSIVE CONTENT
As Trend launches its new website this month, look for new interactive features, including experts who will answer reader questions about stories in our print edition. This month, one of the national leaders in the green field, Charles Kibert, answers questions about green building. Kibert, a building-construction professor at the University of Florida, is the author of "Sustainable Construction: Green Building Design and Delivery."
Send questions for Dr. Kibert to feedback@FloridaTrend.com.
Trend will post his answers at FloridaTrend.com.