How Green Can You Get? | Feature | Chicago Reader

How Green Can You Get? 

From the succulents growing on the roof to the vegetable oil in the elevator's hydraulic system, the city's new Center for Green Technology is doing everything it can to be nice to Mother Nature--within reason.

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Suppose you wanted to put up a building that could serve for decades as a model for environmentally sound design and construction in Chicago. Wouldn't you make it a point to install the very best energy-conserving windows?

Not necessarily. The design team assigned to turn the building at 445 N. Sacramento into the Chicago Center for Green Technology agonized over this question early in 2000. Everyone at the table wanted to do the greenest thing, but as is often the case when environmental conscience meets the real world, it wasn't obvious what the greenest thing was. They agreed that Visionwall, a Canadian firm, made the most energy-efficient windows available. But buying from Visionwall would have delayed the project, because the company couldn't provide the windows soon enough. And it's located more than 300 miles from Chicago, making its windows more costly to ship than locally purchased ones and their transportation more polluting.

The designers ultimately chose a slightly less efficient window from a closer manufacturer. One kind of environmental virtue had to be weighed against another, and any virtue had to be weighed against the cost of obtaining it.

Seven years ago 445 N. Sacramento was an environmental mess. The previous owner, Sacramento Crushing, had a city permit to recycle construction and road-building debris. But according to Department of Environment officials, the company began taking in more material than it could process, including lower-quality material that's difficult to recycle profitably. By the mid-90s, according to court documents, the 17 acres behind the building contained mountains of construction and road debris that rose as high as 70 feet.

When the Department of Environment took action against Sacramento for violating its recycling permit, the company filed for bankruptcy so it could reorganize. The department then took an unusually aggressive countermeasure--it intervened in the bankruptcy-court proceedings and argued that Sacramento Crushing was in difficulties not because of uncontrollable market forces, but because of mismanagement. The company could have run a profitable business, the city insisted, but instead it had squandered the value of its recycling permit by starting to operate what amounted to an illegal landfill. The judge agreed. Instead of allowing the company to reorganize itself under bankruptcy protection, he made Sacramento's bank the receiver of the property.

The bank spent a year looking for someone to clean up the mess, at which point the city again took aggressive action, returning to court and offering to take over as receiver. David Reynolds, the city's deputy commissioner for brownfields, quotes Mayor Daley: "If the city doesn't take responsibility for brownfield sites like this, no one else will."

The city spent $9 million to clean the property up--a hefty sum, though Reynolds estimates it would have been double that if all the debris had simply been hauled to the landfill. The city saved money by recycling the piles when it could--often doing what Sacramento could have done under the terms of its permit. The city got a deal from the landfill by sorting the construction debris by size--materials between three-quarters of an inch and six inches in diameter, for example, can be used to build roads. And sometimes city workers bypassed the landfill altogether. "We set up our own rock crusher to turn concrete and asphalt into a gravel product," says Reynolds. "We went to other city agencies and contractors and became their gravel supplier. The material went into alleys, roads, sewer projects."

In the meantime, the building at the front of the property--a cream brick two-story in routine 1950s minimalist style--had been stripped. Fortunately, the "informal-sector recyclers" who took its windows and pipes and anything else movable didn't harm the basic structure.

By the middle of 1999 the property had been cleaned up enough that it was appraised at $800,000. But anyone who wanted to buy it at a sheriff's sale would have had to pay back the city for the cost of the cleanup. There were no takers. So, having aggressively enforced its own environmental laws, the city now owned a vacant lot and a derelict building nobody wanted.

The site was only one item on a list of headache-inducing problems piling up on the desk of Bill Abolt, then the city's environment commissioner. Greencorps Chicago, a Department of Environment program in which landscaping trainees assist community gardeners, had outgrown its leased space in a dilapidated industrial building. Spire Solar Chicago, a private firm that assembles and installs photovoltaic systems, wanted to locate in a reclaimed brownfield. The members of the environment committee of AIA Chicago, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, wanted to learn how to build greener buildings by actually building one, but nobody wanted to hire them to do that.

The biggest hassle of all eventually let Abolt turn these problems into opportunities. Commonwealth Edison had failed to keep the promise it made in its 1991 franchise agreement to spend $1 billion over ten years improving its electricity infrastructure. In 1999 the city and Com Ed arrived at a $1.1 billion settlement that included a revised schedule for the infrastructure work and $100 million that the city could put in a fund to be used for renewable energy and energy conservation.

Abolt's plan, once he came up with it, was simple. The city would spend $5 million from the new fund to refit the building under the direction of the green-minded architects, and the building would then house Greencorps, Spire Solar, and a small field office for the Department of Environment. The project would serve as a model for architects, contractors, businesses, landlords, and home owners, demonstrating in the real world how well a green building can work (at its grand opening, on May 4, guided tours will be available from noon to 4 PM). And it would fit in with other actions Mayor Daley's administration has taken recently--building a garden on the roof of City Hall, enacting an energy-conservation code for new and renovated buildings, and heavily subsidizing the photovoltaic solar panels now appearing on public building roofs around town. Last summer Abolt told the Associated Press that the city considered itself in the running to become "the premier environmentally friendly city."

The building at 445 N. Sacramento doesn't look like the kind of place that would further that claim. But Department of Environment officials are confident that, after a year of operation determines how well it works, the Chicago Center for Green Technology will become the second building in the country to receive a "platinum" rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, a nationwide nonprofit coalition of manufacturers, retailers, financiers, environmental groups, and design professionals. If all goes as planned, says the department's deputy commissioner for energy, Steve Walter, the building "should get its platinum rating on its golden anniversary."

Platinum is as good as it gets in the Green Building Council's rating system, called LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design). Ratings start with "registered," then "certified," and rise up through bronze (at least 22 points), silver (27), gold (31), and platinum (36). Points aren't particularly easy to get--a building earns one LEED point, for instance, if 20 percent of the materials used in it were manufactured within 300 miles of it.

In February the project's lead architect, Farr Associates--a 12-year-old firm with a special interest in green building--projected that after its first year the Chicago Center would score 38 LEED points. The only other platinum-rated building on the council's list is the Phillip Merrill Environmental Center in Annapolis, Maryland, which was built from scratch by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Doug Farr of Farr Associates likes the LEED system because it sets a standard. "I spent ten years on the AIA Chicago environment committee," he says. "For ten years we argued about what constitutes a green building. We all had different emphases. There are a lot of different values involved." They saw many possible ways to protect the environment, but had no clear-cut way to compare various choices so as to distinguish a "greenwashed" building from the real thing. It's possible to build an energy-efficient building, for instance, without recycling construction materials and without considering how to deal with the storm water that runs off the parking lot. Farr thinks that putting many items together in a single list, as the LEED system does, is a way of getting people to pay attention to more environmental concerns than they might otherwise. "Now the developer who's mainly interested in lowering energy costs gets dragged through these other issues"--at least if the developer wants a LEED rating.

LEED ratings haven't exactly taken the country by storm. According to its Web site (usgbc.org), as of April 29 the Green Building Council had registered 371 projects and rated only 20. The city of Chicago wants to join this club at the top. Here are some of the ideas the Chicago Center's designers used--and the trade-offs they made--to get the building its projected 38 LEED points.

Roof. About two-thirds of the flat, white roof is covered with Spire Solar photovoltaic panels (the awnings on the south side also hold panels), which provide 20 percent of the building's power; the white color reflects heat and reduces air-conditioning demands. The remaining third of the roof is covered with low-growing sedum plants. "They're succulents," says Reynolds, who is also the center's project director, "almost like cacti." They take up water, so they reduce the amount running off the roof when it rains, which helps reduce storm-sewer flooding, and they don't need to be watered much when it doesn't rain. Evaporation from them also has a small cooling effect. Score: two LEED points for getting 20 percent of the building's power from renewable sources, and the white color and plants contribute to two points for reducing the urban heat-island effect.

Windows. "I was here last summer on a sunny 95-degree day," says the Department of Environment's Walter. "I touched a west-facing window and it was cool!" The windows have a thin metallic coating that reflects heat into the building in the winter and out in the summer, and their two panes are separated by an insulating layer of argon gas. And yes, they could be even more efficient than they are, but at a price the designers deemed too high. From a pure design standpoint, says Farr, windows that face in different directions should have slightly different coatings to get the right balance of light and reflected heat. But then the corners where the windows meet would have looked odd, with one side noticeably darker than the other. "It was not going to be nice," he says, so in this case environmental perfection gave way to aesthetics.

What kind of frame should hold the glass in place? "We did a lot of agonizing over that," says Reynolds. "Vinyl is one possibility. It's locally produced, by Republic, but not very recyclable. Aluminum is less energy efficient and requires lots of energy to make in the first place, but is very recyclable." Ultimately, he says, they made their trade-off based largely on materials. "We wound up using wood frames--renewable--with aluminum cladding on the outside to protect them from decay." Score: contributes to four LEED points for energy efficiency.

Lighting. The Chicago Center has what Reynolds calls "a thin floor plate"--its floor plan is shaped like a T--which means that few of its 34,000 square feet are far from an outside window. That makes the office spaces relatively easy to light but relatively hard to heat, a trade-off the building's original creator probably made with little thought (energy was dirt cheap in the 50s) and one that Reynolds and Farr had to live with.

Despite the floor plate, the building's stairwell gets little natural light. It's one of the darkest spots in the building, and it seems even darker because it opens off the glassed-in, west-facing lobby. Farr knew better than to overilluminate the stairwell with conventional lighting. He wanted to use natural light, which heats up a building less than artificial light and has been found to enhance productivity. But that would require skylights--holes in the painstakingly insulated roof. He chose to give up some energy efficiency to get some natural light, then worked to get the most light from the smallest possible opening. He put two 24-inch-square skylights over the stairs; one directs its light through a narrow shaft that flares out at ceiling level, the other uses a wider shaft containing blades that reflect the daylight and illuminate a bigger area. Score: None, though later versions of the LEED system will give points for natural lighting.

Floors. The city bought no carpeting for the Chicago Center--instead it leased the stuff from Atlanta-based Interface Flooring Systems. The carpet comes in squares, so that as sections wear out they can be replaced individually. Under the terms of the lease, Interface retains ownership of the carpet and takes back worn squares and recycles them into new ones. "The carpet people are very sophisticated," says Farr. "They want to make a finite amount of nylon" and keep on reusing it forever. (He wanted to find a company with a similar philosophy about windows, but couldn't. One company agreed to take back its old windows eventually but couldn't promise to do anything more than put them in the landfill.) Score: contributes to one LEED point for recycled content.

Elevator. The small elevator uses vegetable oil for hydraulic fluid rather than a petroleum product. Score: an attention getter that contributes to one LEED point for innovation.

Parking. The Chicago Center's parking lot is oatmeal colored, not dark, because its pavement is held together by Road Oyl, a by-product of paper pulping, rather than petroleum. "My wife gets tired of my saying it, but they aren't making any more dead dinosaurs," says Reynolds. "When they're gone, they're gone." But even if that day never comes, this parking-lot surface is already cost competitive: "It costs more than asphalt but less than concrete."

A light-colored parking lot will help keep the city from overheating in the summer, but it still won't let rainwater soak straight into the ground. The designers could have done the environment a favor by breaking up the pavement and letting Chicago Center visitors park on gravel. But the trouble with gravel on high-traffic lots, says Farr, is that each vehicle carries a little bit away in its tires and eventually scatters the gravel around the streets of Chicago. "We did use gravel for the truck port by the [Greencorps] solar greenhouse. A couple of trucks a day pose much less of a problem than 20 to 40 vehicles a day." So here the designers chose to trade off environmental perfection for the convenience, durability, and safety of a paved lot, then sought to make the impervious surface behave as much like gravel as possible. The water that runs off the parking lot is directed into a shallow ditch lined with deep-rooted native plants and then into a detention pond. From there, what hasn't soaked into the ground will gradually flow into city sewers, helping to reduce flooding after big rains and giving the plants around the pond time to remove some pollutants from the runoff. Score: one LEED point for surface-runoff filtration and contributes to two points for reducing heat islands and to one for innovation.

Heat pump. Beneath the detention pond the city drilled 28 200-foot-deep holes, each six inches in diameter. Pipes filled with liquid antifreeze run from the wells into the building through a series of thin coils (like a car radiator) that transfer the antifreeze's temperature to the air in the building's heating system, and then back out again in a continuous loop. Because the temperature underground stays at 54 degrees year-round, says Reynolds, "we can use this geothermal field for air-conditioning in the summer instead of a big noisy rooftop unit, and in winter it supplements the furnace heat." This is the first Chicago installation to use the earth, rather than some kind of cooling tower, as a "heat sink" in this way. Farr says the payback time on this particular feature isn't yet known. Score: contributes to four LEED points for energy efficiency.

Cisterns. When rain falls on the portion of the roof not covered by sedum plants, it flows off through downspouts and into four 15-foot-tall cylindrical cisterns half buried around the building. Together they can hold 12,000 gallons, which Greencorps workers will use on their model gardens out back and on the plants in their greenhouse. With the cisterns, the green roof, the vegetated ditch, and the detention pond, Reynolds expects that the Chicago Center will discharge less than half as much water as a conventional development of the same size. (Payback time? It's hard to say. Because Chicago doesn't charge for water according to the amount used, there's little economic benefit from recycling water and therefore little incentive for other property owners to put in such a system.) Score: one LEED point for a water-recovery system.

Reusing old bricks and lumber. One of the building's after-dark glories is a panoramic view of the Loop. When a new window was cut into the lobby's east wall to make this visible from the foot of the stairs, says Reynolds, "we saved the bricks from it and used them elsewhere in the building." The awning at the building's west entrance is built from reclaimed cedar. Score: Good talking points, but zero LEED points because the reused materials don't add up to 5 percent of the building.

Being a reused building in the first place. The decision to use an existing building is generally considered an environmental plus, but that decision does make it harder to heat and cool the structure efficiently. As Farr points out, the main part of the building runs north-south rather than the preferable east-west. Score: two LEED points for "existing building rehabilitation."

Alternative transportation. The building includes racks for bicycles and showers for their riders. Score: two LEED points for making these "alternative transit facilities" available, whether anyone uses them or not.

Mass-transit access. The building is within a quarter mile of the Sacramento and Kedzie buses and within a half mile of Metra's Union Pacific West Line station at Carroll and Kedzie. Score: one LEED point for "efficient building location."

"We don't want every building to be platinum," says the Department of Environment's Walter. "The economics aren't there." And he knows that other clients--city agencies, corporations, individual home owners--may choose to make different trade-offs. "But we would like to change people from thinking only about first cost to thinking about life-cycle cost. These lighting systems [fluorescent lights that automatically dim themselves when sunlight brightens and brighten when the sun goes under a cloud] will pay for themselves in three or four years." And some of the ideas people can take away from the building are all but free--such as using "low-VOC" paints that don't give off obnoxious gases as they dry, and directing downspouts onto the lawn or into a rain barrel rather than directly into the sewer system.

Howard Learner's Environmental Law and Policy Center of the Midwest has been pushing the idea of green offices, focusing on what occupants of rented space in Loop buildings can do. Learner is pleased to see the city expanding on the concept. "The key thing," he says, "is moving the technology to market."

In 1999 the city owned an old building no one else wanted. Now it owns a refurbished building that's greener than anything else in town. But it won't be a success unless its ideas catch on. What are the prospects for that?

"There are shades of green," says Farr. "Everyone you talk to is willing to hear you in some way. There are some free no-brainers that everyone likes, such as low-VOC paints." But in his experience, "surprisingly few people" are willing to pay more money up front, even for conservation measures that have only a three- to seven-year payback.

Maybe energy is still too cheap for people to take conservation very seriously. Farr also suspects that part of the resistance can be traced to banks. "It's clear that a building that costs less to operate is more valuable. Bankers should be willing to lend you the additional money up front, but the calculation doesn't seem to be happening. Bankers say they've been burned too often by buildings that didn't perform as predicted. They want a year or two of operating experience."

The LEED rating system can help deal with that issue. By documenting how various green features have actually worked on similar buildings, it gives money managers some protection against optimistic architects' projections. Of course documentation isn't free, and Farr says "even deep-green, mission-driven clients" are reluctant to pay for it. It costs $1,500 to $2,000 to register a program with LEED and something in excess of $25,000 to fully document a building's performance. The binder on the Chicago Center's performance will be at least six inches thick when it's done.

This may be the final frontier of green building trade-offs: private builders may have to give up something green from the budget in order to pay for the paperwork that will show financiers what it's worth to manage energy and sunlight and water differently. In the long run, Farr's fat binder may be as important a contribution to green construction in Chicago as his skylights and heat pump.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.

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