Taking a green path: From Watertown to Massena, businesses design to LEED

The new performing arts center at SUNY Potsdam, slated for completion in December, is one of many buildings in the north country that was designed to LEED specifications. The firm Pfeiffer Partners Architects used a special insulation technique to achieve maximal energy efficiency. Melanie Kimbler-Lago/ NNY Business

The new performing arts center at SUNY Potsdam, slated for completion in December, is one of many buildings in the north country that was designed to LEED specifications. The firm Pfeiffer Partners Architects used a special insulation technique to achieve maximal energy efficiency. Melanie Kimbler-Lago/ NNY Business

In recent years, a crop of green buildings has been sprouting up in the north country. From Watertown to Massena, environmentally friendly buildings are incorporating the latest in sustainable technology and achieving Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification in the process.

This designation, established in 1998 by the U.S. Green Building Council, recognizes sustainability and efficient use of resources by building designers and owners. And according to area architects, it’s becoming increasingly common in Northern New York.

“We are definitely seeing more people interested in it,” said Brian A. Jones, LEED-certified architect and partner at Aubertine and Currier in Watertown. “I believe it’s going to be a wave of the future and eventually a requirement for all buildings. Energy’s not going to get cheaper, and it’s going to be more vital to conserve our resources. People are realizing they’re going to have to live and build differently to afford living here.”

Aubertine and Currier’s most recent LEED-certified project was the 7,800-square-foot Land Port of Entry facility at Cannon Corners for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Customs, and Border Protection. This $7.5 million building, located in Mooers Forks, achieved silver certification after it was completed in January 2012. It includes a rain catchment system that collects rainwater for reuse in toilets and washing machines, solar panels that provide energy for hot water heating and a variety of green materials in its construction.

More recently, Aubertine and Currier has begun designing an 8,000-square-foot visitor’s center at the Eisenhower Lock in Massena. The project, which is on track to achieve LEED silver certification, will be designed by the end of the year and will utilize passive solar energy, local steel and wood and many other environmentally friendly components.

“We’re going to have a super insulated building envelope,” Mr. Jones said. “The walls and the ceiling will be above and beyond what a normal building of that type would be made of. That’s where we’ve found the biggest savings: it reduces your heating costs, it reduces the size of the heating equipment. That’s where you can make the most impact.”

Because energy efficiency is worth a significant number of credits in the LEED certification process — not to mention because it saves clients money — many architects are focusing on this aspect of building in their project designs. At SUNY Potsdam, where the new performing arts center is set to be completed by a Dec. 4 ribbon cutting ceremony, the firm Pfeiffer Partners Architects has employed a special insulation technique to achieve energy efficiency.

“The biggest requirement is the total and overall energy consumption in the building,” said Steve Derasmo, a senior project manager at New York-based Pfeiffer Partners. “We’ve worked very hard to have the building exceed the government requirements as well as the LEED requirements for efficiency.”

The performing arts center, which will feature a fireproof, weatherproof mineral wool insulation installed outside the building’s sheetrock, will be faced with a rainscreen façade of terra cotta and resin panels to hide the external insulation. It will also achieve energy efficiency through highly effective mechanical systems, including compact fluorescent lightbulbs and windows positioned to allow maximum daylight in winter and shading in summer.

Other environmentally friendly features of the building include bike racks and dressing rooms to facilitate alternate forms of transportation, customizable lights and thermal controls, a green housekeeping procedure, designated recycling areas, rainfall collection and a metering dashboard and public education programs to inform occupants of energy consumption in the building. Many local and regional materials have been utilized in the construction of the building, including concrete, steel, stone, paint and aluminum finishes all procured within a 500-mile radius.

The performing arts center is on track to receive a minimum of LEED silver certification with a goal of gold certification.

In that way, it’s similar to many federal and state government buildings, more and more of which are being required to meet at least LEED silver certification. This requirement in turn is prompting more architects to design buildings with environmental sustainability in mind.

“We’ve been really focusing on our process for our projects using the LEED criteria,” said Krysta Aten-Schell, intern architect and the LEED administrator for the Bernier, Carr & Associates in Watertown. “We use it at the beginning of almost all of our projects. We go through a process where we identify the energy goals that we want to achieve and we use the LEED criteria as a starting point.”

Although Bernier, Carr does not have any current projects that are seeking LEED certification, their recent work with the Village of Owego’s Waste Water Treatment Plant and the Watertown International Airport has focused heavily on sustainability. As with other environmentally friendly buildings in the north country, Bernier, Carr’s structures include careful attention to building envelopes and insulation in order to make structures as energy efficient as possible.

Bernier, Carr also focuses on utilizing efficient mechanical systems in its designs, including LED light fixtures and state-of-the-art heating and ventilation systems. In recent years, the firm has trained three LEED-accredited professionals and more than a dozen green associates to meet a slowly growing demand for sustainable buildings in the north country.

Despite their environmental and fiscal benefits, LEED-certifiable buildings sometimes pose unique obstacles to architects. The certification process can be costly and time consuming, and the credits used to achieve certification are not always based by region, so an architectural element that might make sense in Texas – a light-colored roof to reduce a building’s sunlight absorption, for example – might not make sense in the north country.

According to Mr. Derasmo at Pfeiffer Partners, another challenge of LEED certification is that it does not always take into account the varying goals of different buildings. In the case of the SUNY Potsdam project, for example, the LEED goal of using as much natural daylight as possible is in direct competition with the goal of black box studios, lighting labs and other performance spaces that require darkness.

Still, north country architects seem confident that more and more clients will begin requesting energy-efficient buildings in years to come. Even with the higher initial costs that some green and LEED-certified buildings pose, Mr. Jones believes that clients can be persuaded to be open to new ideas.

“There’s a lot of challenges,” he said. “You’re trying to convince the owner and the contractor to do it differently than the way they’ve been doing it. You’re trying to educate them on the advantages of doing it a certain way.

“Usually when they see the building, they’re convinced,” he added.

Gabrielle Hovendon is a former Watertown Daily Times reporter and freelance writer. Contact her at ghovendon@gmail.com.