vw chattanooga plant robot

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.