RTCC Success Story -- O'Brien/Atkins Associates, PA

Few sights in downtown Raleigh stand as clearer symbols of the future of urban design as Green Square, a 250,000-square-foot complex of buildings housing the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the Nature Research Center and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) headquarters.

Green Square utilizes photovoltaics and hot-water collection to reduce dependence on grid-supplied power. A high-tech monitoring system gathers real-time information on the buildings’ energy usage so that efficiency can be fine tuned instantaneously. The Nature Research Center and DENR offices are nearly 100 percent LED lit, spurring additional cost savings. All Green Square’s fixtures are mercury-free.  

In sketching together their vision for the space, state leaders wanted a showcase for 21st century sustainable design and engineering. By all accounts, they succeeded. Green Square holds the rare designation of being certified LEED Platinum, the highest recognition of best-in-class green building strategies and practices granted by the U.S. Building Council under its “Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design” standards.

In making their vision for Green Square a reality, state leaders worked with O’Brien/Atkins Associates, a full-service architecture and engineering firm that is a top name in sustainable design. Based in Research Triangle Park, O’Brien/Atkins offers architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, master planning and mechanical, electrical, plumbing engineering services to a global market space that spans science and technology, manufacturing and distribution, corporate office environments and public projects.

“Green Square was a premier project for the State of North Carolina,” says Jim Nichols, business development leader for science and technology at O’Brien/Atkins. It tops off the firm’s long list of LEED certified buildings, which includes some of the most iconic recent additions to the region’s urban landscape. The Raleigh Convention Center and the Wake County Justice Center, which now punctuate downtown Raleigh’s fast-changing skyline, contain O’Brien/Atkins’ distinctive thumbprint. Both are certified LEED Silver. So too are the headquarters of the Research Triangle Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Computer Center, both O’Brien/Atkins projects. The firm also was architect-of-record for the $119 million Durham County Courthouse. Completed in 2013, the 11-story structure is LEED Gold certified.   

The firm, which employs about 50 people, maintains staff in India and Saudi Arabia as it supports a global client base. Closer to home O’Brien/Atkins is working with leaders of Chatham Park, the innovative 7,000-acre live-work-play community now on the drawing board in Pittsboro, N.C. “We’re involved in recommending sustainable energy strategies for Chatham Park,” Nichols says.

O’Brien/Atkins joined the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster in 2013. “RTCC helps us align ourselves with firms and prospective clients interested in using clean energy and efficient design,” explains Nick Santore, director of electrical engineering at the firm. Santore arrived at O’Brien/Atkins in 2008 after spending much of his career in northern Virginia working with military and federal government projects. A Raleigh native and graduate of N.C. State University’s College of Engineering, Santore was eager to return home and join the O’Brien/Atkins team.

“There are a lot of A/E firms in the Raleigh area,” Santore says. “What attracted me to O’Brien/Atkins was the wide variety of projects they did.” Having achieved designation as an Accredited Tier Designer (ATD) by the Uptime Institute, Santore is one of an elite cadre of design professionals qualified to work with the world’s most sophisticated, mission-critical facilities – technology-rich data centers, for example.

“Sustainability,” according to Santore, refers to those things that can be repeated. “It’s about more than energy,” he says. “It’s making sure you have a facilities-friendly building the owners can rely on.” Clients expect predictable utility and maintenance costs, for example, and little if any disruption to operations. “All those things go into sustainability,” Santore says.

The firm’s reputation extends well beyond North Carolina borders. O’Brien/Atkins was chosen by Pharmavite, LLC, the California-based maker of Nature Made vitamins and dietary supplements, to design its 350,000-square-foot eastern U.S. manufacturing and distribution center. Opened in 2013, Pharmavite’s $76.5 million facility near Auburn, Alabama, is the nation’s first LEED certified vitamin plant. The new facility is a key part of Pharmavite’s strategy to meet surging global demand for health and wellness products.

Complementing the obvious leadership role O’Brien/Atkins plays in the architecture and engineering fields is the firm’s visible community engagement in the Research Triangle Region and across North Carolina. Co-founder John Atkins is a former chairman of the  NC Chamber, Research Triangle Regional Partnership and the North Carolina Partnership for Economic Development. He currently chairs the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s board of directors and is a longtime vocal advocate for the state’s public universities.

The firm’s involvement in the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster is the latest example of the public spirit at the core of O’Brien/Atkins’ culture. “We work collaboratively to develop creative solutions that bring long-term value to our partners,” says Nichols.

Central to RTCC’s mission is raising awareness about what the region has to offer this nascent industry. “From our perspective, RTCC is helping position this area as a global center in cleantech.” That means capturing the imagination of companies, communities and people all “seeking a smarter way of doing business.”

Given the relationship-driven nature of the A/E profession, participating in RTCC offers value for firms like O’Brien/Atkins, Nick Santore says. “Being part of RTCC builds opportunities for us.”  In showcasing the region’s leadership in sustainable design and building, for example, the Cleantech Cluster is another avenue to highlight the unique expertise of firms here like O’Brien/Atkins, Santore adds. “Our best marketing tool is the work we’ve already done and the services we’ve provided to our clients.”

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