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Infill development: Challenges, opportunities

Wencel contemporary design
Wencel Building: The bridge’s contemporary design links more traditional architectural massing on both sides.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the first part of this article, we looked at the challenges of below-grade construction, what to look for when your property is surrounded by existing structures and how proper planning, paired with the right team, can save you time, money and headaches. In this installment, we’ll look at challenges with site utilities, the ever-evolving energy- efficiency code requirements and the benefits of taking your building green.

It’s what you learn after you know it all that matters.”

– John Wooden

Jeff Dawson, Principal, Studio Architecture, Boulder

Jeff Dawson, Principal, Studio Architecture, Boulder

As cranes and scaffolding have become regular features of our cityscapes, it’s obvious that urban infill development In Colorado is hot right now. And while developers who tackle these projects clearly understand the market, their bottom line could take a hit if they run into unexpected challenges. And those new green building guidelines? Smart developers who embrace them are being rewarded for their investment.

Don’t Short Circuit Transformer Placement

In an urban infill project, where to place the utilities – electrical transformer, gas service, meter banks and water entry – can be a challenge. The associated below-grade connections can also add cost and construction complexity if basements or underground parking structures are present.

“In an urban infill project, there’s just no room to place a transformer,” said Jeff Mullikin, principal at AE Design, a Denver-based integrated lighting and electrical solutions firm. “If you have careful coordination with the utility provider, installation details can be minimized by not placing the transformer over occupied space. For example, in the Wencel Building project we worked on recently in Boulder, we notched the corner of the basement so that the transformer would remain outside of the building footprint. That made a huge difference.”

Aging infrastructure systems in the adjacent building can also cause developers serious headaches, hard costs and project delays. According to Mullikin, when you’re working on a project with aging infrastructure, be prepared for utility system upgrades beyond the boundaries of the project to support the increased demand of the new building.

“What you should do early in the due diligence phase is confirm that existing utility services aren’t undersized for the proposed expansion,” said Mullikin. “Or else the modified use may require expensive upgrades to the primary distribution systems.”

Have a new connection in an already congested alley easement or right of way? Mullikin noted that communication and planning could save you there, as well. He explained that early, detailed discussions with utility providers and the city are a great way to coordinate those connections and avoid any mishaps down the road.


Let The Water Drain, Not Your Budget

Other developer pain points would be the coordination of utility service lines with street trees, shoring and foundation systems, as well as the challenges of planning storm water outfall away from adjacent structures. This can be particularly challenging on urban sites where buildings are directly adjacent to new construction and space is at a premium.

“Identifying drainage issues and adjacent downspout locations in existing buildings can help avoid issues during and after construction,” said Aldo Sebben, design director and principal at Studio Architecture. “Planning outdoor space for building infrastructure, like the electrical and gas meters, backup generators and electrical transformers can be challenging with even the most accommodating sites. Failure to do so will just complicate the design and cost you later.”

Sebben noted that on a recent project, he identified a significant existing storm drainage problem with an adjacent building, designed a solution to correct the problem and was able to get the building owner to address the improvements during construction thereby avoiding future drainage issues and potential water damage to both buildings.


For More Green, be Smart about Energy Efficiency

Those ever-changing energy-efficiency design requirements for buildings can significantly increase the cost and complexity of infill buildings. Although not isolated to these types of projects, the added cost of infill construction makes new energy code requirements an important consideration.

Computer-based energy modeling completed during the building design phase usually reveals that traditionally efficient building envelopes, along with mechanical and electrical systems, are no longer sufficient to comply with more restrictive energy performance standards.

“In some municipalities, such as the city of Boulder, on-site photovoltaic power generation is required to meet more demanding energy code requirements,” said Mullikin. “Light fixtures must include LED lamps in order to meet reduced lighting power density requirements and all lighting will likely need automatic controls, such as occupancy sensors or a time-based lighting control systems.”

“One of our recent buildings that’s on track for LEED Gold certification was designed with a comprehensive lighting control system,” said Sebben. “This system automatically controls the lights by programmed time function and allows the application of advanced control requirements that could be installed during the tenant finish phase.”

More advanced energy codes also require the application of controlled power receptacles. This means that a certain percentage of power receptacles need to be controlled by either occupancy sensors or a time-based function. The reasoning behind controlled receptacles is to kill “vampire” loads that occur, for example, when a phone charger is left plugged in at the office overnight. This can cause the charger to draw a little bit of electricity all night long, which adds up over time. At the building core/shell level, controlled receptacles are not necessarily required, but they may be required when the tenant finish is being completed.


Build it Green and They Will Come

Because of the added costs and additional headaches involved, many developers are choosing not to venture into LEED Core and Shell certification. But, that decision could be shortsighted because LEED-CS is proving to be a sound business decision. For Boulder-based W.W. Reynolds Companies Inc., being green is not only about being globally responsible, but they also know it pays off by making their properties more attractive to potential tenants.

“We’ve been navigating the complex energy compliance rules in Boulder for 40 years,” said Jeff Wingert, president and chief operating officer for W.W. Reynolds. “So, while we understand the demands of the city’s Green Point program, at the same time we want to create sustainable solutions that meet the needs of our clients and customers. They want LEED certification for their building, and we know it will save on operating costs over the life of the building.”

A study by the CoStar Group found that LEED-CS-certified buildings actually outperform their nongreen peers in key areas such as occupancy, sales price and rental rates, sometimes by large margins. According to the study, LEED-CS buildings enjoy rent premiums of $11.33 per square foot over non-LEED peers and have a 4.1 percent higher occupancy. So, while LEED-CS certification may add upfront costs, the benefits of achieving higher rents and occupancy with lower operating costs clearly outweigh the upfront expenses.

According to Wingert, the decision to go for LEED Gold Certification on a recent project was relatively easy since the city of Boulder’s energy code is effectively the same as LEED certification.

“On the Wencel Building, we decided to go for LEED Gold certification because with city compliance we were pretty much there,” said Wingert. “And the Boulder office market responds favorably to that LEED certification.

“What we’re seeing is that many of our tenants are using their buildings to recruit and retain the best people,” said Wingert. “So, it’s very important for our tenants to see that LEED plaque because it’s proof that the building is green and sustainable. For our tenants, and for our business, building green in Boulder just pays off.”

Featured in CREJ’s June 1, 2016, issue

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.