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Downtown Atlanta Firm Becomes Global LEED leader

November 11,2011

From www.bizjournals.com

A small architecture firm in downtown Atlanta has become an international leader in the green building world.

The Epsten Group Inc., founded by Dagmar Epsten in 1991, also has developed two out of the 10 LEED Platinum projects in Georgia. Both of them have been for the firm’s own offices along Edgewood Avenue in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward community — just feet away from the Martin Luther King Jr. historic sites.

Platinum is the highest possible designation provided by the U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certifications.

“Platinum is rigorous,” said Leesa Carter, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council – Georgia.

Carter described the Epsten Group as one of the “one of the first LEED consulting groups in metro Atlanta.”

The fact that Epsten now has developed two of the 10 LEED platinum projects in Georgia “is an impressive statistic,” she added. “They have been able to maximize the implementation of the knowledge that they have gained in their own development.”

Green buildings, once considered a novelty in new construction and renovation, have become much more commonplace in Georgia and the rest of the country.

“Georgia is ranked sixth in the number of registered buildings in the country,” Carter said. “You have got a lot of early adopters here with UPS, Emory, Georgia Tech, the Atlanta Public Schools and Woodward Academy.”

There are 3,500 LEED-accredited professionals in Georgia with 2,700 in metro Atlanta. In all, there are 317 LEED-certified projects that have been designated in Georgia: 10 Platinum projects; 137 Gold projects; 107 Silver projects and 63 that are certified (the lowest designation offered).

But those numbers change daily. Currently there are 1,317 projects that have been registered — meaning that they are in the process of being certified.

The Epsten Group has emerged as one of the leading companies in the world that reviews the certification of LEED projects for the Green Building Certification Institute.

“We have done over 5,500 reviews in 50 countries,” Epsten said, attributing much of her firm’s growth to that certification work. “We do the technical reviews. No one else has done the kind of volume that we have. It’s been an exciting adventure.”

The Epsten Group also has been hired as a consultant and architectural firm for companies, developers and institutions seeking to get LEED certification. And as green building practices have become more mainstream, her business has exploded.

Until 2007, Epsten worked out of her house with seven employees. Because the firm needed its own space, she and her husband bought a 2,820-square-foot building at 429 Edgewood Ave., a building that had been constructed in 1946. Even then, the company was breaking new ground, developing the first LEED Platinum building inside the city limits.

But the firm quickly began to outgrow that space with nearly 20 employees by 2009. That’s when it purchased another historic building down the street at 399 Edgewood Ave. for its new headquarters. The $1 million, 9,200-square-foot renovation has just received its LEED Platinum designation from the U.S. Green Building Council. Today, the firm has grown to more than 50 employees, and its business continues to boom.

“We are starting to outgrow this space,” Epsten said of its newest building, adding that she may need to find yet another location for the firm. The firm has just completed a three-year strategic plan, and it envisions that it will have 150 employees by 2020. And by developing its own LEED Platinum buildings, Epsten said that the firm has been able to demonstrate that one can convert small, existing buildings into structures that are efficient and good for the environment.

“It’s very energy efficient,” Epsten said. “We added insulation on the roof. We installed all new windows. We also have photovoltaics on the roof that provides 6 percent of the project’s energy. We also have bought energy certificates so it’s 100 percent offset by renewable energy.”

Epsten went on to list all the various steps they took to make it a more efficient building — waterless urinals, a skylight to bring in natural light, reusing wood already in the building, staining the existing concrete floor, adding overhangs, having plantings on the roof to absorb water and reduce the heat island effect. And unlike its first building, it wasn’t able to install a cistern to capture rainwater. So it had to make up LEED points in other ways.

“When you pursue LEED Platinum, you pretty much have to do everything,” said Epsten, who insists it really did not add greatly to the overall cost. “It just comes down to your architectural approach.”

Because the building is more energy and water efficient, it will save in operating costs over the life of the structure. And Epsten is particularly pleased that her firm has been able to renovate two buildings in one of the most historic districts in Atlanta — and she is pleased to be part of its rebirth.

“The streetcar will come right in front of our front door. And by using existing buildings, we are doing the right thing for the Earth because we don’t need new materials,” she said. “We like to tread lightly on the Earth.”