Atlanta energy-efficient building challenge spreads fast

With many construction crews on the sidelines and few major projects on the horizon, city officials are backing an effort to put them back to work by retrofitting Atlanta’s aging office buildings to make them more energy-efficient.

Atlanta’s Better Buildings Challenge was launched about a year ago. Since then, the voluntary program has grown to include about 70 buildings with 48 million square feet of space — that’s about the size of 48 malls — aiming to be more energy-efficient. The goal of the project, organized by the federal Department of Energy, is to reduce energy and water consumption by 20 percent by 2020.

“We’ve got a lot of plumbers and others sitting on the bench waiting for the economy to turn around,” said Rutherford Seydel, a co-owner of the Atlanta Hawks and an environmental attorney. “Putting them back to work is the purpose of the Better Buildings Challenge — and it puts them in position to attract national tenants.”

The effort focuses on a 400-block area in downtown Atlanta and extends far beyond office towers to include government buildings, hospitals and education centers.

Auditors from Georgia Power and other companies working with the program recently completed a first phase of energy and water assessments on 18 buildings involved in the initiative and suggested a host of efficiency upgrades and other changes. Among their findings was enough outdated 4-foot fluorescent light tubes in those buildings to stretch 160 miles.

In all, the cost of implementing all the recommended changes in the 18 buildings totaled about $18 million. But auditors said the moves could save the building owners a combined $4.7 million each year in utility costs.

“Some of the changes are quite easy, with very low or even no cost associated with them. Other changes are more expensive and more complicated,” said Lauren Dufort, who heads the sustainability efforts of Central Atlanta Progress, the downtown industry group. “When you look at all the changes recommended in a building, payback in some cases can be as short as three years.”

Marti Blackstock said Peachtree Center, the 2.5 million-square-foot complex in downtown Atlanta, joined the program because it’s a “win-win for everyone” — the building’s owners, its tenants and the environment.

“Sustainability is no longer an option, but a fact of everyday life,” said Blackstock, the vice president of Parkway Realty Services, a real estate company.

Another property that’s involved in the program is St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, which spent about $150,000 installing new low-flow plumbing fixtures and upgrading the heating and cooling system. Energy auditors estimate it saved roughly $65,000 in annual energy costs as a result of the changes.

The city is clearing the way for financing options, too. Atlanta’s economic development arm voted in April to allow building owners to tap up to $8 million in public dollars to help make their buildings more energy-efficient.

And the agency’s board in October signed off on a plan to create a separate pool of at least $200 million in private funds that downtown building owners can tap to retrofit their properties. Under the plan, which also was approved by the City Council, building owners would voluntarily pay the city extra property taxes in exchange for access to the pool of money to help finance energy-related improvements.

Maria Vargas, who heads the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge, said during a recent visit to Atlanta that the city’s growing effort is “truly a model for the rest of the country.”

“The work that Atlanta is doing with its private sector is really distinguishing Atlanta,” she said.

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