HIGHLAND TOWNSHIP, MI – Auto makers today are striving to project a positive image of producing ‘green’ vehicles that achieve higher fuel economy while doing less harm to the environment.

Now dealerships are getting into the game, incorporating the likes of geothermal heating and cooling systems, car washes with recycled water, rainwater collection systems for irrigating landscapes, as well as low-flush toilets in the construction of environmentally friendly facilities.

One example is the LaFontaine Automotive Group, which recently unveiled its $15 million Buick-Pontiac-GMC-Cadillac dealership in Highland Township, MI. The dealer soon will become one of the first in the nation to achieve Gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The General Motors Corp. dealership will be the first LEED-certified car and truck retailer in the state.

Ryan LaFontaine, group general manager, says the 63,000-sq.-ft (5,853 sq.-m) facility here on 24 acres (9.7 ha) incorporates key principles of sustainable design and construction that qualifies it for Gold LEED certification – the Green Building Council’s second-highest award.

The dealer had been planning a new facility since 2000. LaFontaine, which sold more than 4,000 new and used GM vehicles last year at the previous facility, estimates it spent an additional $2 million in the new store’s construction to facilitate the LEED certification.

The $600,000 geothermal heating-and-cooling system helps achieve annual energy savings of up to 54% and willl pay for itself in just five years, the dealer says.

Other features include 85 skylights, photocell and computer-controlled lighting that ensure lights are turned off in unused areas or when there is enough daylight to illuminate the building, a white roof, and greenbelts throughout the dealership grounds that reduce a “heat island” effect.

LaFontaine’s onsite car wash recycles 85% of the water conventional car washes waste, the dealer says. The body shop uses waterborne basecoat paint that dries 20% faster than normal paints. The service department, with 33 bays, uses vegetable oil instead of the normal caustic and difficult-to-dispose-of lubricants in its hydraulic lifts.

LaFontaine mirrors other LEED-certified projects, such as the American Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria; the Bronx Library Center in New York; and the first-ever LEED Gold- certified manufacturing facility in the world, GM’s Lansing (MI) Delta Township Assembly plant that produces the Buick Enclave.

“We actually looked at this with General Motors setting the example with their LEEDS certified plants and the vehicles they are producing,” says Ryan LaFontaine. “We thought it was time for the dealer body to set an example and being a family dealer, it really exemplifies us giving back to our customers and making a statement.”

The dealership applied for 45 points in the LEED certification. It takes 39 points to qualify for a gold designation.

“We should have the certification within 15 days,” says Ryan LaFontaine. “It takes 45-60 days to receive that after (certificate of occupancy), and we moved in June 2. We’ve been in here for 45 days, and last month was a phenomenal month. It shows that if you build a facility like this, they will come.”

Some of the green touches are visible to the consumer. Others aren’t.

“The steel is 70% recycled,” he says. “The asphalt, the concrete and even the base coat – it’s all recycled. The furniture is LEED-certified. Many of the doors are made of agrifiber (compressed corn cobs and wheat), instead of wood materials.”

Outside, the dealership property has a retention pond that gathers runoff water from the roof and parking lots and a windmill that generates energy to pump water for irrigation.

There also is a preferred parking spaces for employees who car pool, as well as bicycle storage areas and changing rooms for those who provide their own horsepower to get to work each day.

“This is a magnificent dealership,” says Susan Docherty, GM’s North American vice president-Buick-Pontiac-GMC channel. “The LaFontaine team has been one of our highest-volume dealers for some time. In June, they were the No.1 BPG dealer in the nation, the same month they moved into this fabulous new green facility.”

Docherty says the idea of being environmentally friendly is a new paradigm in the way GM approaches design and manufacturing vehicles, along with selling and maintaining them.

“We are heavily investing in making cars and trucks impact the environment as little as possible,” she says. “With the opening of this dealership and those that are sure to follow, our customers can enjoy a 360-degree ‘green’ car-buying and car-owning experience.”