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Freeport's Autowerkes thinks big, green

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Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 9:57 am | Updated: 12:17 pm, Tue Sep 25, 2012.

FREEPORT – When Voit Ritch, the owner of Autowerkes on Route 1 in Freeport, decided to build a new shop, he did it with some style – and a substantial investment.

Ritch, who has owned the shop specializing in repairing European-made cars such as BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, Audi, Mini Cooper and Volvo, for 27 years, the last five in Freeport, built an eye-catching building on Route 1 south.

With its large lot and graceful, curved accents on the outside of the building, the new shop is a dramatic attention-grabber from both Route 1 and Interstate 295, where Autowerkes is clearly visible just off the highway.

But it’s much more than a big expansion for the company. Ritch, who spent nearly $1.5 million on the project, also greatly increased the size of his shop, but he did it with an eye on saving money, putting up an energy-efficient, 14,000-square-foot building that he figures will save him thousands per year in energy costs.

Ritch said he worked on the new building, which opened at the beginning of July, for several years, as he had to acquire the 2-acre-lot and then spend some time designing the new home for his business.

After working about a year to find the right lot, Ritch said, he wanted to make sure that he put up the best shop possible, doing a lot of the initial work himself.

“Once I had a piece of land that had high value with the highway view I figured I really need to do something worthwhile fitting the lot,” he said. “I enjoy architecture and construction. I was the general contractor for the whole project. I did a lot of the engineering for the project. The initial design was my own.”

Sande Updegraph, the executive director of the Freeport Economic Development Corp., said the growth of Ritch’s business is a good thing for Freeport.

“I think it’s a great shot in the arm because it shows that not only do businesses want to come to Freeport, but they can grow and expand here,” she said. “It’s the expansion (of the business) that ensures long-term stability in Freeport.”

Sitting in the customer lobby of Autowerkes last week, Ritch said the new building, which a pre-fabricated steel building constructed by a Canadian firm, has 4-inch foam walls to provide better insulation, special energy-efficient glass on all of the windows and lighting designed with saving energy costs in mind.

“All of the exterior lighting is LED, all the interior lighting is high-efficiency fluorescent,” he said, adding that the cost came in at just under $1.5 million. “That was a pretty good price,” he said.

According to Freeport’s online tax records for the fiscal year ending June 30, the value of Autowerkes’ land on Route 1 is slightly more than $208,000. Tax figures for the building itself were incomplete because the facility opened in July.

And all of that energy efficiency has provided some very real financial benefits.

“One reason I did such a high level of quality and energy efficiency of the building is that we are the tenant,” Ritch said. “Generally, energy-efficient programs don’t help the landowner, they only help the tenant.”

Ritch said his heating bill is estimated to be about $2,400 per year, a huge drop from the $1,800 per month he was paying at his old Freeport location about a mile south on Route 1. Besides the improved building, he credited that drastic drop to a switch in heating fuel, from oil to natural gas.

“We’re talking energy that is a third of the cost,” he said.

And Autowerkes is also going green in other ways.

“We recycle almost everything,” Ritch said. “A lot of these things, like waste oil, are commodities now. Even though we’re not even burning waste oil here, it’s a commodity, it’s salable. All of our scrap metal is salable, we sort it out (and store it) undercover and it’s all sold as recycled material. All of our other fluids are recycled and a lot of them are reused.”

But even with all of the energy-efficient design in the building, it still has to function. And Ritch said he took the time to make sure that he provided the best place possible for his employees to work.

“Two years of engineering went into this building,” Ritch said. “I visited countless shops all over the country. So I really got to see what I liked and what I didn’t like and I got to build the ultimate shop.”

Ritch said the unusual spelling of the name is intended to be German slang to indicate that the company works on European cars.

The gleaming repair shop has eight repair bays, with each of the four technicians having two adjacent repair bays to work in, under high ceilings with plenty of light. And it even has features that are unheard of in most auto repair shops – radiant heat in the floors and air conditioning.

Ritch’s employees say they appreciate the thought that was put into the design of their workspace.

“It’s terrific,” said Matt Powell, who has been at Autowerkes for 2½ years. “This is amazing. It’s five times better (than other shops I’ve worked in).”

“It’s much bigger, it’s much cleaner,” added Bill Card, who has been with the company since last June. “It’s new (and there’s) a lot more room.”

Powell said Ritch was very attuned to his employees’ needs when designing the new shop.

“He went to town,” Powell said. “He took any suggestions (from the technicians) and worked them in if they were valid ones. The lighting is just phenomenal in here compared to other shops. And the spacing, he didn’t jam all of the lifts two feet apart from each other.”

Both Powell and Card also said that having an air-conditioned shop is a rare luxury. “We’ve got the radiant heat, which keeps your feet warm and the air conditioning, which nobody has,” Powell said.

“I’ve been in the industry for 30 years and I’ve never worked in a place with air conditioning,” Card said.

Ritch will be featured on the cover of the trade magazine Shop Owner next month as one of the top shops in the country. Ritch said the magazine is geared at the owners of automotive repair shops.

Ritch said he is proud of the result of all of his hard work.

“There’s a lot of pride,” he said. “And the best thing about it is, I can honestly say I wouldn’t change a thing. Being involved in the whole process from start to finish I got everything just exactly the way I wanted it.”

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