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From the Ground Up - The Burns Companies — Insights from the World of Real Estate Development, Construction Cost Management, and Cat Herding
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Hidden Treasure in New York

by Andy Burns on October 23, 2012

This is one of my favorite areas…

The hidden treasures of Inwood Hill Park where Manhattan and The Bronx meet — the Tidal Basin and the view of the Henry Hudson Bridge from the park — unseen by the people driving by each day on the Saw Mill River Parkway to Westside Highway route.



Photos by Marni Burns, RLA, MLA.


News from Andy - week ending 9-14

by Andy Burns on September 16, 2012

I’ve been sharing articles over on my LinkedIn profile, and wanted to make sure I sharednews the same information here. I will work on sharing my weekly findings and add some musings when I can.

Here’s what I found interesting last week:

NY TImes: Manhattan, Elusive by Land, Comes Into Focus by Sea

NY Times: Decades Later, a Vision Survives

NY Times: New York Is Lagging as Seas and Risks Rise, Critics Warn

USA Today: Manufacturing index, construction spending weaken

Hope you have a great week coming up.



ps. Are we connected on Linked In?


Introducing our new web site

by Andy Burns on September 19, 2011

We are pleased to introduce a brand new web site for The Burns Companies!

Learn more about our talented team.

Check out our Success Stories for some recent projects we have worked on.  We’ll be adding to this section as often as possible.

Read up on the latest News & Articles that we have come across and feel are important reading for our business.

We hope you like it. We’d love some feedback.



More Sustainability Scrutiny?

by John Downie on August 24, 2011

It seems the discussion around sustainability and its merits continue.  I read an article recently where the author heard about sustainability risk greenimageconcerns in events that occurred both in an academic and professional setting.   The academia side of it was surprising, as they have long been a proponent of sustainable design and architecture.  I want to be clear that I’m not saying sustainable design isn’t an important concept because it is, but the issue lies around the true performance of sustainable design projects and if they are living up to their promise.  More importantly: what promises were made?

The author of the article writes:

I attended a joint conference of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in Vancouver. There, Dr. Raymond J. Cole of the Environmental Research Group at the University of British Columbia contributed to a session on “high-performance building envelope design.” Before Cole — a grand old man of sustainability in Canada — could conclude, he was criticized for encouraging architects to act in ways that could increase their risk of liability claims. His challenger was Chicago construction lawyer and principal of the Alberti Group, Ujjval Vyas, who was speaking the next day on “Going Green: A Cautionary Tale.”

Vyas’ research in his presentation:

…documented numerous claims made by both clients and third parties against architects in relation to the environmental performance of their designs. Some concerned allegations of technical failure of building components or assemblies that may have resulted from environmental-design ambition. It did not seem to me that they were so fundamentally different from technical liability claims already familiar to architects. A second set of allegations charged that buildings, once completed, failed to meet their designers’ predictions of improved environmental performance, or of lowered operating costs. Finally, and most problematic of these, were allegations arising from public statements made by architects about environmental topics, unrelated to specific designs prepared for particular clients.

The bottom line is that this will not be the last we hear about this. As an architect, it’s critical that we present our clients with the best product possible to meet their building goals..for sustainability, energy efficiency, accessibility, etc.   At the same time, we need to be extra careful not to over-promise on performance, especially for new materials and product on the market when they are recommended for use in a project. As in all elements of a design project, client expectations have to be managed, and our collective goals must be clear from the start.

In another article about Green Building that talked about liability and risk for design professionals, it validated some of these concerns:

…one growing area of the green building business is “commissioning,” where architects and engineers fine-tune the system and train building managers in using it or where an outside firm does so. But this also risks “creating a whole new area of liability” for the architect and the commissioning firm, he said.

In addition, Mr. Knise said, architects should be leery of guaranteeing that a building will receive a specific certification under the Washington-based U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program. This is problematic because architects “don’t control a lot of the factors” as to whether a building becomes LEED-certified, including issues such as waste disposal.

Shari Shapiro, an associate with law firm Cozen O’Connor P.C. in Cherry Hill, N.J., said, “You want to have a solid contract, where you’re not over-promising the attributes of your services. If you’re a design professional, for example, you want to make sure that the standard of care is that of a reasonable architect.”

The concept of buildings being more energy-efficient and environmentally responsible is admirable. We must be clear with everyone involved with a project that there’s a level of experimentation and many, many unknowable factors that govern the ultimate performance of a building. Our responsibility is to the client first, but we must also design for our collective future. The liability risks have to be managed so we can fulfill our obligations to all.

Image source


The Facts about Commercial Real Estate Going Green

by John Downie on August 5, 2011

picture-8A colleague of mine happened to send me this article from The Braver Group that highlighted a recent McGraw Hill Construction study about trends in Commercial Real Estate Going Green.  While some of the stats are interesting, I think there is a fine line between what’s hopeful and reality.  It validates and contrasts some of the issues that we outlined in the last post that discusses a presentation Andy Burns and I gave at the Real Estate Bar Association for Massachusetts.

Here’s what I mean:

A green building can be a competitive differentiator, especially one with LEED certification due to the advantages of having independent third-party verification. That “stamp of approval” sets a building apart from others and makes it more attractive.  Educated buyers and tenants are highly interested in buildings that meet stringent requirements because they are as energy efficient, clean, and sustainable as they can be.

This is true, a green building is a differentiator when it comes to attracting tenants and investors.  In a Silver LEED-EB 2.0 project, it was just as important to the property maintenance team and owners to secure this rating.   However, the problem comes with maintaining this rating level after the certification has been achieved.  The challenge is, in most commercial buildings, that you can only really “control” the shared public areas.  All other areas occupied by tenants require that they maintain their requirements on their end.  What this means is that green education becomes a critical success factor for long term success.  It cannot be taken for granted.  In this project, the property manager took this very seriously and sent out quarterly “friendly” reminders about what it means to be “green” and how “they” (the tenants) can make a difference.  One other point: a LEED-certified building gives points to a tenant that is seeking LEED for their interiors project, a valuable asset when trying to attract environmentally conscious tenants.

Green building certification can actually help mitigate risk in a number of ways.  First, third party certification can help provide some protection against lawsuits since green buildings are safer and healthier to inhabit.

While this is also technically true, it’s important to remember that the USGBC is not a federal or state organization, it’s a private, not-for-profit organization.  The amount of backing in a legal case is questionable, and there have been cases already filed to dispute the authority and quality of what a LEED rating really means, especially in relation to a buildings’ energy use.  There are inherent risks in this type of pursuit, and it’s very difficult to promise hard outcomes that are shared in this study:

  • Reduced operating costs in the order of 13.6% for new construction and 8.5% for existing buildings. Consequently, lower operating costs increase the value of buildings significantly– 10.9% for new construction, and 6.8% for existing building projects.

In our experience, making these kinds of promises are challenging and invite more risk to the parties involved.  The folks at Braver note that securing a LEED certification means going beyond building codes, and in some states that includes stretch codes, this is not necessarily true. The stretch code in Massachusetts requires around 30% more energy efficiency over the base requirement for LEED certification. Meeting the stretch code will add points to a buildings’ LEED total. This just adds to the level of variability from state to state. Inconsistency rules, unfortunately.

It’s important to know that LEED certification rates on 6 different criteria that extend beyond the traditional architectural/structural components of a building’s “green-ness”.  For an existing building, it included whole-building cleaning and maintenance issues (including chemical use), recycling programs, exterior maintenance programs, and systems upgrades, but within those categories are things like access to public transportation, and general accessibility that go beyond the nuts and bolts.  These points matter.

One last point I wanted to validate was:

Owners of existing commercial buildings can also aspire to creating a greener structure by having their buildings commissioned to make sure all its major systems are fine tuned and operating at maximum efficiency. Since energy systems are the biggest power wasters, commissioning can make an older building much more sustainable.

This is true.  In the case study I mentioned, we retro-commissioned an energy study in the beginning of the project with Code Green Solutions that helped map out the upgrade process for this building.  We also received assistance from NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research Development Authority) who co-funded this project and helped defray the upgrade process by 25%.  There are incentives available in other states. These are worth looking into.

Overall, I’m glad we had the hands-on experience in securing a LEED Certification for an existing building.  It highlighted the possibilities and the black holes that exist and will help us better assist our clients through the process if they so desire.  It’s important to read between the lines when it comes to assessing the full risk when dealing with the promise of “green” and your clients.


Building Green: Building Energy Codes

by Andy Burns on July 15, 2011

On Wednesday, July 11, 2011, John Downie, AIA, and I had the unique opportunity to give a presentation to the Real Estate Bar Association for Massachusetts.   The topic: the challenges of Building Green and how Building Energy Codes influence the design and implementation process for new construction or existing buildings.  We had a great conversation with the folks who attended.  We discovered there is alot of interest in learning about the USGBC LEED program and where it fits into the big picture. Most people have heard of LEED, but do not really know the details such as:

  • USGBC is a not-for-profit trade organization begun in 1992, not a government agency
  • LEED is a rating program that includes 6 key criteria that measure overall environmental impacts not just energy efficiency
  • Is a time intensive process - in a our case study which achieved a Silver LEED-EB v2.0 Certification for an existing building – the process took 13 months.
  • A dedicated resource to manage the documentation process to facilitate a submission to the USGBC for a LEED certification is essential
  • There are costs associated with the process – however in the case study we just mentioned, we budgeted $175,000 for the project, and with the help of a NYSERDA subsidy the effort ended up costing only $133,000.  There is assistance out there.
  • How do you stay certified?  It’s not easy, especially in occupied office/retail buildings where it is difficult to impose change on tenant behaviors. Educating on living green practices and regular reminders to tenants helps keep the information in front of them, but it’s not a perfect situation.

The other big question that came up during the presentation was the concept of “stretch codes” as it relates to building codes.  Stretch codes are developed by permitting and code personnel at the state level that impose additional requirements layered on top of building codes so buildings have to meet an even higher performance level when it comes to energy conservation, efficiency, and such.  More than 60 cities in the state of Massachusetts have adopted the use of stretch codes.  The underlying challenge to design, construction, and legal professionals, is that stretch codes introduce another level of inconsistency in building code requirements from city to city, state to state.  Unfortunately this is the hard truth.

Here is the presentation we gave at the meeting, feel free to download it/share it.  Let me know if you have any questions, or would like us to give a similar presentation to a group you are affiliated with.

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I know this won’t be the last we hear about this, but I couldn’t resist making a few comments about this timely lawsuit against the USGBC.  In case you missed the hubbub, you can read Shari Shapiro’s summary and opinion of what’s happening.  In a nutshell, the USGBC is being sued by plaintiff Henry Gifford by way of a class action lawsuit citing that the LEED program is a fraud. Of course, there are all the questions whether or not this will actually be class certified and many opinions out there say it will not.  In an email exchange with my colleagues, Chris VanderWeyden of Code Green Solutions questions the credibility of the plaintiff and concurs that there is no harm done to the plaintiff directly:

Mr. Gifford has made 2 accusations/attacks on USGBC’s rating systems now and they have been effective in raising questions and dialogue. His previous attempt was based on USGBC New Construction buildings who had energy model’s completed that in theory determined how efficiency a building would operate. He claimed these buildings were not meeting their efficiency marks and if anything were using more energy. These theorized energy models take into account typical occupant loads, assumed energy loads, and building conditions. They do not take into account if a building leases out space to a data center, or trading floor, or high-energy using floor. They assume operating hours, and typically the building may also exceed these when the building is actually operated.

With all that said, his claims are against new construction properties, whereas Existing Buildings prove their efficiency through actual data and energy bills.

Legally, his class action lawsuit in my own opinion will not succeed because he has little to no standing to file the suit. Mr. Gifford himself has not been personally injured or affected financially by the USGBC.

Personally speaking, we’ve guided some projects through the LEED certification process and while it does set a standard in building protocols and considerations for improving energy efficiency in buildings, there is also a lot of what could be considered superfluous effort put into getting those “points” you need for that coveted rating prize .  The problem is lots of folks out there think the USGBC is misleading people into believing that the LEED rating system will save energy (and parts of it are aimed at that) – but there are other programs out there that promote efficiencies without the marketing hype of the USGBC.  Our first passive “solar” project was completed in 1979 - well before the LEED rating system was invented.

What we do know is that it can be a significant investment to improve energy efficiency ratings in existing buildings, having just completed one recently that received Silver LEED status. Guidelines are important and the LEED program offers that - a guideline to follow.  It’s by no means the final say or approach.   New projects do not have all the retro-fitting problems, but many of the “green” products and approaches are new, and not always fully proven to work as effectively as promised.   It may be that the entire Green industry need to carefully consider ALL the promises they make - as they certainly will be challenged by those who are unhappy with the outcome at some point.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

As I was drafting this blog post, another article about this came by my desk from Greensource.  If nothing else, Gifford is getting lots of attention.  I have to say that I hear lots of grumbling from owners and engineers about the long term value of following the LEED program and process.  I believe energy audits based on the Energy Star program, followed by retro-commissioning for existing buildings, alternative electrical metering devices, etc., may be what most institutional building owners will be looking into for quite a while since new building - especially offices - will be non-existent for the near term.  Agree?


As we know in most parts of the country new retail ground-up construction is frozen and has been since mid-2008.  But that’s not the only option out there.  Renovation and reuse of older structures may offer some hope to the badly depressed construction industry while sparking interest from retailers to expand and upgrade. I wanted to share some pics from a recent project of a 25-year old building that was just upgraded by our team – along with the creative talent of our architects who helped modernize this property for less than a third the cost of a new building of equal size.

The exterior upgrade was prompted by a need to revitalize the tired look of this 26,000 square foot building and make it more attractive from a marketing perspective.

Before renovations

Before renovations

After Renovations


New colored roof panels were added – architectural details were added to the roof lines and cornices - sign areas were increased in size – masonry column enclosures added – lighting enhanced – and new landscaping designed and installed. Now that the construction is completed and the new look is evident,  the number of inquiries by potential tenants has shown a strong uptick.  That’s music to a property owner’s ears.  The strategy here was to get as much bang for the buck as possible.  And, we were able to accomplish that for a fraction of the cost of building something new.

Commercial real estate can’t stay stuck forever.  Renovating may just be the thing to jump start some new projects and get some blood flowing back into the commercial building markets.


Pervious Concrete Pavement with Detention

by Andy Burns on August 31, 2010

One of the things we like to do when possible is try new technologies when it makes sense and our clients agree, especially in the area of  green materials. We recently had the opportunity to install pervious concrete pavement in a new parking area for a client.perviouscement2

The system we installed is comprised of pervious concrete pavement constructed over a clean, coarse aggregate base and an impervious liner for temporary storm-water storage, on a prepared sub-grade. For the duration of its service life, and with minimal maintenance, the finished system will: collect, clean and discharge the storm water; protect the sub-grade, and; carry the traffic for which it was designed.

The concrete is made with controlled amounts of aggregates, water and cementitious materials to create a mass of aggregate particles cover with a thin coating of paste - containing little or no sand making for substantial void content. With sufficient paste to coat and bind the aggregate particles together a system of highly permeable, interconnected voids that drains quickly is created. Typically, between 15% and 25% voids are achieved in the hardened concrete – our installation ranged from 19-25% voids.


After it cures it looks like a giant flat Rice Krispies Treat.

Additional interesting facts:

  • The unit weight of a typical, normal weight concrete would be in the range of about 142 to 150 pcf.  The void content would be about 2 to 7 percent.  The permeability of a typical concrete would be about  1 x 10-6 inch/hour (or 0.000001 inch/hour).
  • The pervious concrete has a unit weight of about 120 to 129 pcf, a void content of 15 to 25% and a permeability of about 50 to 750 inches/hour.

In addition to storm water control these systems help attain LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) credits for reduction of heat island effect, reduced site disturbance, storm-water credit, and improved energy efficiency.

What’s your experience with pervious concrete?

Rice Krispies photo source:


A Feasibility Study that is not so feasible…

by Andy Burns on June 21, 2010

Here’s an interesting view into our world of design and construction – and the painfully devastating effect this “perfect (economic) storm” is having on all who dare to try to stay afloat.

Financial reports.

On about June 2, 2010, The City of Fitchburg Mass sent out a request to designers for proposals to conduct a “Library Feasibility Study/Schematic Design” (download PDF). The scope of work as advertised: “Evaluate existing public library, propose renovations/additions/options for expansion.”

No fee estimate was given – it was marked: “to be negotiated”.

For perspective: A Google search reveals that Fitchburg has a population of about 41,000 (about 1/14th the size of Boston).

So, to do a feasibility study for a relatively small suburban library, we were curious to see just how many firms would respond to the RFP and request further information in the current climate.

Here is the list. Seventy Eight (that’s right, 78) responses. If you look carefully you will see some of the biggest names in design, engineering, and architecture around (both local and as far away as California). Impressive indeed.

Included are: Weidlinger, Sasaki, HKT, ABACUS, Ann Beha (2010 Pritzker Architecture Prize winner!), BSC, Maguire, Holtzman Moss (from NYC!), Winter Street, William Rawn, Wiss Janney Elstner (forensic engineers doing a library feasibility study?) – just to name a few heavy hitters looking for morsels.

Makes you think, no?