Empire Merchants North – Green Design for the End User

Summer 2010
Merge lanes and a work platform maximizes space around the loading docks. Photos courtesy of BBL Construction Services, LLC

In the midst of last year’s construction downturn, a construction site in the small town of Coxsackie, New York, seemed oblivious to it all. Activity was buzzing on the 21-acre parcel, the future home of a new corporate headquarters and distribution center for Empire Merchants North, an alcohol distributor that is part of the Charmer Sunbelt Group.

What made this project stand apart from other development projects that ground to a halt elsewhere in the nation was simple: It was a build-to-suit project for an owner who needed a building to fulfill a successful business plan.

Leveraging the Location

Twenty-five miles south of Albany, New York, is the headquarters of the Greene County Industrial Development Agency (IDA), an organization that develops shovel-ready sites to attract business and industry to the area. Greene IDA had a vision for making the most of its local resources. Coxsackie’s adjacency to Interstate 87 and proximity to regional airports and the Hudson River could attract distribution activity. While the location would not appeal to everyone, it would certainly appeal to businesses with established distribution networks in the region.

exterior of Empire Merchants North building

Empire Merchants North, one of New York’s largest distributors of wine and distilled beverages, reinforced the roof structure to allow for potential solar panel installation.

Greene IDA had completed the permitting process for several planned business parks, including the 146-acre Kalkberg Commerce Park, just a half mile away from Exit 21B off I-87. The park also falls within Greene County’s Empire Zone, qualifying it for a statewide program to encourage industrial and commercial development in geographical areas needing economic revitalization through tax incentives.

In any economy, businesses must be strategic to succeed. For Empire Merchants North, Kalkberg represented a strategic move. Empire had an established distribution network throughout the Northeast with two existing sites operating in the nearby towns of Kingston and Colonie, New York. Consolidating these sites into one larger and modern facility would increase efficiency and provide a center in which they could grow and expand. They could continue servicing their existing networks and retain their current workforce by staying local.

Empire also had a corporate and cultural value of sustainability. They wanted their new facility to achieve LEED® certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Though sustainable design can require a premium on initial capital costs, "Empire recognized this building was a long-term investment in which they would live and operate for a long time," said Jonathan deForest, LEED AP, vice president of business development at BBL Construction Services.

A New Model for Industrial

Empire Merchants North represented a true departure from the speculative development model prevalent in 2007. They knew what their building required for their specific operations, where they needed it, and when they wanted it—with shipments leaving bays by the end of 2009. As a result, they opted for a design-build approach.

upper lobby of Empire Merchants North building

Glass enclosed walls open up the otherwise tight mezzanine corridors.

A new corporate headquarters and distribution center for Empire kicked off in January 2008. Because Greene IDA had met extensively with local officials and residents to develop the commerce park, the design-build team only needed to engage in the final approvals process and address questions relayed by Greene IDA from the public on clarifications such as views of the new facility from the road. Infrastructure was already in place to link the park with major arteries and I-87.

The site in the business park was not without its challenges. Layers of silty clay were removed and replaced with fill. The timing of the groundbreaking in February 2009 made excavation difficult due to the cold winters New York is prone to experience.

A township line ran through the site, placing three-quarters of the site in Coxsackie with the remainder in the town of New Baltimore. To keep the process moving forward without having to engage in rezoning, the team decided to keep the facility entirely within Coxsackie. The only challenge was the proposed location for the main building entrance. By inverting the building corner, KSS avoided crossing the township line by as little as five feet, creating a point of interest that distinguishes the entrance, and maximizes the building footprint.

Using Nature’s Palette

With building elevations stretching more than 700 feet long, KSS had to ensure the architectural design would complement the site context and support Empire’s sustainability goals. As part of its planning foresight, Greene IDA assigned Tim Albright, a former president of the Coxsackie Area Chamber of Commerce and a designer in his own right, to represent the public’s interest in color and material standards for its business parks. The organization advocates the use of native or adapted species in landscaping, colors that are drawn from the surrounding area’s natural palette, and incorporating natural materials in construction. Residents take pride in the area’s Hudson River blue stone and round field stones found in various shades of gray and occasionally red orange. These stones occur in the area’s vernacular architecture, stone walls and sidewalks.

lower lobby of Empire Merchants North building

The lobby features a stone wall, local slate flooring and FSC-certified wood panels.

The building uses precast wall systems with a custom exposed aggregate finish inspired from the local stone colors and texture. At its entrance, a colonnade of stone piers supports a red steel canopy, reminiscent of post and beam construction. Stone landscape walls and the inverted building corner create an intimate scale to an otherwise large building. At the rear, away from the public view, 25 dock doors are easily accessible from the main driveway.

Decision Making in the Fast Lane

The design-build nature of the project meant decisions were often executed on the construction site as the ink on the drawings was still drying. Though it required meticulous organization and coordination by BBL to ensure work was performed properly and efficiently, the model suited this fast-tracked project. Because of the open dialogue established among the project team members and owner from day one, the design became an "evolving process in which Empire could change things up to the last minute," deForest said.

Empire was selecting and contracting out their own material handling systems, including the material mezzanine and conveying systems. BBL, KSS and their consultants would provide a performance specification that equipment vendors had to meet. The vendors would respond with options and infrastructure requirements, which then required the design-build team to rework their drawings. To keep the project moving forward, construction had to proceed before the material handling systems, which would occupy much of the distribution center, were finalized. KSS, BBL, engineering consultants Harrison-Hamnett, P.C., Hershberg & Hershberg, The Rock Brook Consulting Group and Novus Engineering, P.C. could only predict the size and location of the large scale racking and conveyer systems, the static and dynamic loads they would incur and the utility infrastructure needed.

At times, the simultaneous design and construction invariably led to reworking building components already in place. BBL, anticipating the potential for last-minute changes, had wisely planned for accommodations in budget and schedule. BBL’s contractors also had to coordinate working alongside workers from equipment vendors. After the concrete slab was poured, workers began installing the heavy-duty, large-scale equipment. Meanwhile, BBL’s workers were still placing the remainder of the slab and erecting the wall and roof systems around them.

Empire wanted the project to achieve LEED for New Construction Certification and qualify for energy savings incentives offered by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). Empire was also striving to qualify for tax credits offered by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT). Novus Engineering, P.C., a NYSERDA-certified firm based in Albany, was involved from the start to provide technical consulting on opportunities to improve the project’s energy performance. "We began by looking at the drawings, developing a preliminary model to see how energy efficient the proposed design was, and made recommendations accordingly, noted Novus mechanical engineer Doug Perrins.

One of the key services Novus provided was energy modeling. LEED, NYSERDA and EPACT certification require projects to achieve a minimum percentage of improvement in energy efficiency or energy costs over a baseline model. Using computer software, Novus input the building’s skin, program areas, sizes, estimated occupancy rates and building systems. By experimenting with the size, number, location and type of systems, Novus could quantify energy savings achieved via different design configurations and inform the project’s design.

Customizing Energy Efficiency

Integrating sustainable design early into the project resulted in high-performance design and energy efficiencies for the building core and shell as well as its operating equipment, conveyers and material handling systems, which Novus included in its energy model. "The building’s insulated precast concrete wall systems achieve R-values of R-19 in the office spaces and R-12 in the warehouse," said Novus engineer Cara Martin, P.E. Local building code requires R-13 with a continuous R-3 layer in offices and R-2 in the warehouse. The roofing system, white thermoplastic olefin (TPO) membrane adhered to an insulated roof deck, achieves a rating of R-24 over warehouse spaces and R-28 over offices; a typical roofing system would be more around R-15.

Empire Merchants North's warehouse

The facility’s operational components include an efficient conveyor system, a logistics program to reduce trucking fuel consumption and battery charging stations for warehouse equipment.

Fluorescent lights and occupancy sensors occur in both office spaces and the distribution center. The design team strategically determined locations for occupancy sensors in the distribution center area such that entire portions of the distribution center could be shut down when not in use. For the building’s heating system, Novus determined through its energy model that one air turnover unit could meet the needs for the entire building; two units were installed for redundancy.

By analyzing energy usage early in the design stage, improvements to building performance could be smoothly integrated into construction. For example, "It’s much easier to increase the thickness of the roof insulation during construction than going back and trying to add it later," Perrins said.

Empire Merchants North’s $27.5 million facility is estimated to achieve more than a 34 percent improvement in energy performance over ASHRAE 90.1-2004 or an annual energy savings of 7,281 MMBTUs, the equivalent of taking 293 passenger vehicles off the road. Through incentives and savings in utilities—approximately $200,000 per year—the additional incremental costs Empire Merchants spent for increased energy performance will be effectively paid back in less than two years.

"We achieved a remarkable, state-of-the-art and extremely energy-efficient building customized for the owner’s needs," deForest said. "Where some projects have to sacrifice energy efficiency for custom program requirements, we were able to get both."