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Turning an old building green Amherst office building gets LEED certification after $130,000 upgrade

Can you teach an old building new tricks?

At 45 Earhart Drive in Amherst, the answer is yes. Uniland Development Co., which owns and manages the property, worked with tenant Gerster Trane to make a 23-year-old building more energy efficient and document the results.

The changes made to the property are subtle or even hidden, such as upgraded lighting and a control system that monitors energy needs. The project cost $130,000, an investment expected to be recouped in 6.2 years.

Now it has a green-colored award from the U.S. Green Building Council to go with its upgrades. It is the first Western New York building to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification in a relatively new category, for operation and maintenance of existing buildings. Only three other buildings in the state have earned certification in that category, said Tracie Hall, executive director of the USGBC's New York Upstate chapter.

While LEED is becoming a familiar acronym in real estate, it is mainly associated with brand-new properties, like the BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York complex in downtown Buffalo that debuted in 2007.

Since existing properties vastly outnumber the new ones built each year, LEED advocates hope to make inroads in that category, as well. But it depends on whether the owners of those commercial buildings believe the process is worth their time and money.

Advocates of LEED say the energy efficiency upgrades result in lower operating expenses and a better workplace to attract tenants, while doing less harm to the environment. Employees who work in those settings benefit from better lighting and air quality, Hall said.

Ecology & Environment's Lancaster headquarters has also earned LEED certification, at the highest possible level. The environmental consulting firm made the upgrades to its existing building before the USGBC introduced its new "operations and maintenance" category.

Will more owners of existing buildings pursue LEED certification? "I would expect more of that to occur," said Kevin Neumaier, E&E's president and chief executive officer.

The best argument in favor of pursuing LEED is that it increases the value of a building, and there is some research to back up that point, Neumaier said.

But upgrading a facility can also help with employee retention, he said. "Our employees are something we care a lot about, and what they think about our building matters to us."

Robert Shibley, the University at Buffalo president's senior adviser for campus planning and design, said significant reductions in energy consumption will come when more owners of existing buildings embrace improved energy efficiency.

"It's enormously important that buildings go this way," Shibley said.

Making older buildings energy efficient might be more costly, depending on the scope of the project and the work required, he said. But an owner should consider the long-term payback of such a project, by reducing operating costs for the future, he added.

"We have the technology," Shibley said. "We know what to do."

Uniland's move toward LEED certification at 45 Earhart Drive actually began with improvements the developer made in 2005. Back then, Uniland spent $1.4 million on a total of 13 buildings in its portfolio, upgrading their heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment, as well as their lighting systems.

"That investment brought us to about 75 percent of the way toward LEED certification," said Carl Montante Jr., Uniland's vice president of marketing and strategic initiatives. "After that, Gerster Trane said, 'Let's take it the rest of the way and get this designation.'

Gerster Trane, an energy and environmental services company, has 18 LEED-accredited professionals on its staff, so they were well-equipped to lead the way, Montante said.

Energy efficiency upgrades are key ingredients in LEED certification. But properties also earn "points" for other green-friendly measures such as water conservation, recycling and even employing people who ride the bus to work, thus reducing the carbon footprint.

Certification requires rigorous documentation to prove the results are real. Since the property that houses Gerster Trane has just one other tenant, a call center, compiling data like energy bills was less complicated than in a building with far more tenants, Montante said.

"It takes a significant amount of time and coordination and cooperation to get this kind of designation," he said.

But the work is worth it, Montante said, since Uniland can promote to tenants that they will pay lower energy bills in such space. "That's why chasing environmental sustainability is good practice, both because of moral and ethical reasons, and business reasons."

Neumaier, of E&E, said some property owners might be hesitant about embarking on the LEED process until they have investigated the cost involved and just how much it might take to bring an older building up to the requirements.

Hall, of the USGBC, said that's where educating owners about the process comes in. As for the expense involved, she said, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and National Grid have been helpful in alleviating some of the costs in LEED-related projects. NYSERDA provided a $33,000 grant for the 45 Earhart project.

Peter J. Egloff, energy services engineer with Gerster Trane, said while the upgrades to Gerster Trane's offices might lack "sizzle," they have a meaningful impact.

Take the ceiling lights. They don't look exceptional, but the fixtures contain two lamps instead of four, and they give off more light while using one-third to one-half of the power.

"An added benefit is it actually adds less heat gain to the [office] space," creating less work for the air conditioning system, Egloff said.

Reflectors installed in the fixtures reflect downward the light emitted from the top of the lamps that was otherwise lost.

A building control system manages the temperature in every space. In an area like the training room, a carbon dioxide sensor keeps tabs on how many people are inside. When the training room fills up with 50 people on a Monday morning, more outside air is drawn in to keep them comfortable. When the room is empty, like most of the time, the system adjusts accordingly.

Special films on the training room's windows allow sunlight to pass through while preventing the windows from heating up. Less artificial light is needed to illuminate the room when the sun is shining.

Egloff said the improvements will eventually pay for themselves through lower energy costs.

"It is worth the investment," Egloff said. "Green is good business is really the message. There are solid business reasons to do what we're doing."

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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