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The vegetated roof on top of City Hall was already old news when Sustainable Chicago wrote about it for our inaugural issue in the summer of 2008. But we were a new media outlet at the time, focusing on green building efforts in the Chicago market, and there was a lot of ground to make up.

Would there be enough news to write about in this sector? It was a genuine concern at first, what with our niched focus; really a niche wrapped in a recess inside an alcove—sustainability, in the Chicago region, within the architecture and design community.

And yet, we were never at a loss for content. Chicago is a fantastic city in the abstract, but it has few rivals when it comes to architecture. And over the last fifteen years or so, it has helped carry the torch of progressive environmentalism. From city government to non-profit organizations to commercial interests to grass roots community networks, the people of Chicago have shown their dedication to making the built environment more efficient and less deleterious to the planet.

We’ve chronicled the past and reported the contemporary on this site. And while there are plenty of great stories yet to be told, someone else is going to have to tell them. We launched when green building was an anomaly and now it is the norm. There are going to be a lot of exciting developments.

Thank you for your readership. Thank you for your passion for this city. And thank you for your commitment to the environment.


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Mayor Rahm Emanuel has commitment to shift city-owned buildings to 100% renewable energy by 2025. If implemented, Chicago would be the country’s largest city to decarbonize the energy supply of its public buildings.

The city, Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Park District, Chicago Housing Authority and City Colleges of Chicago collectively used nearly 1.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity last year. Equivalent to the power needs of around 295,000 homes, that figure amounts to 8% of all electricity used in Chicago. Approximately 300 wind turbines could generate the annual energy needs of the buildings under these agencies’ purview.

“As the Trump administration pulls back on building a clean energy economy, Chicago is doubling down,” Mayor Emanuel said. “By committing the energy used to power our public buildings to wind and solar energy, we are sending a clear signal that we remain committed to building a 21st century economy here in Chicago.”

The mayor announced this new initiative among the 900 solar panels on the rooftop of Shedd Aquarium, a well-chosen location as the Shedd has itself committed to cutting their energy use in half by 2020. A member of the Retrofit Chicago Energy Challenge, Shedd Aquarium also installed a 60,000 pound, one-megawatt battery on their own property last summer.

The city aims to acquire renewable energy credits and install on-site generation in a one-two punch to achieve 100% clean power usage across its portfolio of buildings. Procurement will begin starting next year. This is merely a continuation of past trends. a dozen CPS schools already have solar array installations and the Park District and City Colleges already procure renewable energy credits. Starting in 2013, the city has also eliminated coal from the 1 billion kilowatt hours plus it purchases annually.

“Today’s action is a historic step forward in establishing Chicago as a clean energy leader,” said Jack Darin, Illinois Sierra Club President. “By moving boldly to repower its public buildings with renewable energy like wind and solar, Chicago is leading by example at a time when local leadership is more important than ever. While President Trump and his administration would reverse America’s progress on climate change and clean energy, Mayor Emanuel is ensuring that Chicago will move forward, and that its residents will benefit from the good jobs and cleaner air that come from renewable energy projects. We look forward to working with the Mayor, community leaders, and the people of Chicago to achieve this bold goal on the path to eventually powering all of Chicago with 100% clean energy.”

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By Linda Seggelke

For the third year in a row, global carbon emissions from the energy sector were flat, according to the International Energy Agency. What’s impressive is that this plateau in emissions comes at a time of economic growth around the world, suggesting that improved energy efficiency, renewable energy production and other factors are driving a decoupling of economic activity and carbon emissions.

However, the current level of energy-related investments needs to double to avoid raising the global average temperature by two degrees Celsius. That benchmark—two degrees Celsius—would still have a substantive effect on climate change, but is a goal preferable to allowing temperatures to climb without restraint. A separate report conducted by the IEA and International Renewable Energy Agency concludes that to avoid that temperature rise, emissions need to peak by 2020 and plummet from current levels by 2050.

Three Years: A Stall

Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions amounted to just over 32 gigatons for 2016, the same as the previous two years. The global economy, meanwhile, grew by 3.1%, according to estimates from the IEA. The United States and China, the planet’s two largest energy consumers, dropped, helping to offset increases in developing countries.

In fact, the biggest cut in emissions was in the United States. Carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by 160 million tons, or 3%, while the economy modestly grew by 1.6%. Increased natural gas supplies account for some of the decline, so this certainly doesn’t signal a total rejection of fossil fuels. That said, renewable power generation did increase, displacing some reliance on coal.

“These three years of flat emissions in a growing global economy signal an emerging trend and that is certainly a cause for optimism, even if it is too soon to say that global emissions have definitely peaked,” said IEA Executive Director Dr. Fatih Birol. “They are also a sign that market dynamics and technological improvements matter. This is especially true in the United States, where abundant shale gas supplies have become a cheap power source.”

Renewables accounted for over half of the world’s growth in electricity demand last year. Half of that growth was in hydropower while global nuclear capacity was at its highest since 1993. The good news is that the demand for coal fell worldwide with the most precipitous drop here in the United States where demand went down by 11%. In fact, natural gas surpassed coal for the first time last year in the United States.
This decoupling of emissions from economic growth was driven primarily by reductions in new technology, concerns about air pollution and climate change and other market forces. While the pause in emissions growth is positive news to improve air pollution, it is not enough to put the world on a path to keep global temperatures from rising above 2°C. In order to take full advantage of the potential of technology improvements and market forces, consistent, transparent and predictable policies are needed worldwide.

Thirty Years: Take Action

According to the IEA/IREA report, global carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced by 70% from today’s levels by 2050 if we are to avoid a two-degree Celsius rise in average temperature. And it won’t be easy; some of the measures they identify could come about in that time by market pressures, but others will take decisive action.

For example, they cite the role that electric vehicles can play, saying that seven out of every ten vehicles sold by 2050 should be electric. The market share for electric vehicles around the world is currently 1%, but trending upwards. China has seen incredible growth in this sector, as electric vehicle market share grew from an almost nonexistent .08% in 2013 to .84% in 2016. That’s still a meager portion, but an order of magnitude increase in only two years and equal to about 130 million more electric vehicles on the road. That said, it pales compared to Norway’s more than 22% market share in 2015.

Drastic transformation in the energy sector, however, will necessitate ambitious change to policy. The report identifies low-carbon solutions, which include renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage of fossil fuels. To truly disrupt the energy sector by 2050, some challenging policies would need to be in place. These include increased carbon taxes, electricity market reform, eradicating fossil fuel subsidies and energy efficiency mandates. The report doesn’t pretend that fossil fuels will leave the marketplace over the next 33 years, but it remains pragmatic as the decline in demand for coal and oil will be offset by a greater decline in fossil fuel production.

One significant obstacle is end use: industry, transportation and the built environment. The report assumes that energy use wouldn’t increase by 2050, which doesn’t track with current trajectories. Growing populations and economies mean that energy efficiency globally would have to improve by 2.5% every year until 2030 in order to maintain our current energy use intensity.

Hopefully, the pause in global carbon emissions over the past three years isn’t an aberration. It could be a flatline, signaling the death of any union between a growing economy and rising emissions. If those two metrics can be decoupled, then market pressures forestalling action on climate change will cease to matter.

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By Brian Imus, USGBC-Illinois Executive Director

The U.S. Navy Bachelor Enlisted Quarters, designed and built by Wight & Co., was the first LEED-certified building to be constructed in Illinois. Since that time some 15 years ago, more than 1,000 LEED-certified spaces have been completed across the state. Today, Illinois is a recognized national leader in green building and sustainability know-how. This leadership is reflected in the advancement of innovative, cutting edge technological firsts, like the Evanston net-zero Walgreens and the recently completed Grainger data center in Lake Forest, the first LEED v4 certification anywhere in the world. Illinois consistently ranks in the top ten every year for the most LEED square footage certified per capita, leading the nation for three years in a row starting in 2013.

As a result of this track record, in places where interest in green building is growing exponentially—places like China, Brazil and India—builders are turning to Chicago-based design, engineering and manufacturing firms. Illinois continues to be a leader in clean energy jobs, with over 100,000 jobs directly tied to the industry sector. The Illinois Small Business Development Center’s International Trade Center has documented the huge potential for job creation in Illinois in these emerging markets.

These achievements and the growth of the sustainability industry wasn’t happenstance. It has been the result of the long-standing commitment Illinois companies and green building advocates have had for decades.

As a membership driven non-profit, the U.S. Green Building Council – Illinois Chapter (USGBC-Illinois) is proud to have been a part of helping foster and grow this vibrant community of green building professionals. The organization was founded in Chicago in 2002 by passionate, sustainability-minded professionals who were inspired by the impact green building could have on our communities and the environment. Many of these founders worked on those first LEED projects, like the Chicago Center for Green Technology, the first LEED Platinum municipal building in the world.

Of course, keeping our green building leadership mantel requires innovation. It isn’t good enough to point to the number of green roofs and LEED buildings.

That’s why the USGBC-Illinois board of directors, reflecting on these achievements, decided it was time for a new epic challenge for the green building community, one that builds on the experience with advancing LEED in Illinois, but will help bring the benefits of sustainability to more buildings and more people who have yet to benefit from the green building revolution.

To achieve that goal, USGBC-Illinois leaders were inspired by Paul Hawken’s new work around carbon drawdown. These strategies are quantitative technologies, building practices or methods that are already in existence. And they are “no regrets” solutions—actions that make sense to take regardless of their environmental value since they have intrinsic benefits to communities and economies. These solutions improve lives, create jobs, restore the environment, generate resilience and advance human health.

To further these strategies in a scale that can make an impact, USGBC-Illinois has launched a new strategic plan, an Epic Challenge for the green building community. Going beyond LEED and new construction, the plan focuses on Chicago neighborhoods, every Chicago neighborhood, implementing these no-regrets carbon drawdown strategies. And just like with LEED, it will require leveraging the robust network of passionate professionals in a way that would bring the benefits of green building to a broader audience.

The Epic Challenge vision is simple: to promote, socialize and implement carbon drawdown strategies in all of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods by 2020. And we’re going to look to our statewide network to build on our work and impact communities across Illinois.

Critical to our success are three strategic goals. First, engage with 3,500 buildings in adopting one or more carbon drawdown strategies. Second, ally with partners in every Chicago community to advance resiliency and livability at neighborhood-scales. Finally, educate and equip 30,000 green building professionals and community members to advance carbon drawdown strategies throughout Chicagoland.

While the goals of this new strategic plan are ambitious, there’s confidence because of the success the green building community has had in the past. 15 years ago, we set out to make LEED the premier green building rating system used in Illinois. Today, USGBC-Illinois has grown into the largest non-profit in the state dedicated to promoting green buildings. It is the diverse and engaged network of individual members, volunteers and industry leaders that make possible nearly 75 educational events each year promoting the latest and greatest in environmental performance, technology and design. With support from industry leaders, there is policy development to expand demand for green building know-how in Illinois. And members give back with thousands of volunteer hours with community engagement initiatives, like the Green Apple Day of Service program to help build green infrastructure in schools around Illinois.

It’s going to take the passion and expertise of the sustainability community to achieve this vision and put Chicago on a path towards a carbon-positive future in a way that improves the health, economy and social well-being of every resident in every neighborhood. You can learn more about the plan at www.usgbc-illinois.org/about/epicplan/ and carbon drawdown strategies at www.drawdown.org.

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By Matt Baker

It’s tempting to assume that a landmarked building like the Rookery has been preserved in architectural amber. But the world-renowned structure isn’t exactly the one that Daniel Burnham and John Root designed in the 1880s. After the turn of the century, Frank Lloyd Wright famously applied a gilded eggshell cladding to the lobby. In the 1930s, William Drummond, formerly a Wright protégé, added Art Deco elements, including bronze elevators etched with birds matching the building’s moniker. The twelfth story was largely rebuilt in the 1990s when Burnham & Root’s original office was restored.

The latest changes to the building have been subtler. Like many other historic office buildings in the central business district, the Rookery has been busy for the last several years implementing sustainable strategies that will allow it to stay relevant for the next century.

One early measure was to take part in ComEd’s retro-commissioning program. This project, which evaluates building systems to identify opportunities for reduced energy consumption, should be familiar to most building owners and operators as it is free to qualifying buildings and results in an average of 5% reduction in baseline peak demand.

As a result of the retro-commissioning, the Rookery changed its economizer system to include enthalpy controls. “We initially had the standard free cooling, where—when the weather permitted—we’d bring in outside air to save on mechanical cooling costs,” said Shawn Freeman, Able Service’s Chief Engineer of the Rookery. Bringing in cooler outside air can be counterproductive if that air is too humid. With the installation of humidification sensors throughout the building, the Rookery can now track the best time to use outside air versus mechanical cooling, “Or, at some points, running the two at the same time which was very foreign to an engineer like myself,” Freeman said. “The data from our verification process assured me, handily, that this system works.”

The Rookery was also an early volunteer in the Retrofit Chicago Energy Challenge, a program that promotes energy efficiency leadership among the city’s building stock. “We expected them to tell us the same things as other energy efficiency companies who have come through with cookie cutter ideas” Freeman said. However, after implementing large-scale measures in response to the retro-commission feedback, the Rookery’s engineering team was able to find small but still very profitable measures after taking part in Retrofit Chicago. For example, an increase in outside air intake as part of the cooling load created pressure issues that resulted in some negative losses in the exhausting system. By finding inefficiencies and identifying fixes that ran the gamut from high capital to low or no cost, the Rookery was able to budget in energy efficient retrofits.

Retrofit Chicago issues a number of awards to further encourage its membership. Last year, the Rookery was inducted into the Mayor’s Leadership Circle. This award is given to facility teams that have reached or exceeded the 20% energy reduction target; the Rookery hit 24%, the equivalent of 1.4 million kWh saved annually. Freemen himself had previously won the Most Valuable Engineer in 2014, which recognizes individuals who have achieved significant energy savings at his or her facility.

More than anything else, a standardized and streamlined energy management operation has been the key to updating the Rookery’s systems. “These processes and procedures that Shawn put together are very common throughout all of Able Engineering’s buildings and it makes it easy to take a building through a process like LEED because a lot of the hard work in documenting procedures is already done,” said Josh Schubert, Director of Energy Engineering at Goby.

Chicago-based Goby was founded as an energy management consulting firm, but has been moving into the technology sector. Their building data management platform, SeaSuite, is used by properties like the Rookery to capture, track and report on building- and portfolio-wide sustainability data.

The Rookery was certified LEED Gold in 2014, but is currently in the midst of a recertification process. “SeaSuite is an ongoing measure that allows us to provide data for things like water usage and energy consumption, which will then be used in the verification process for our LEED certification,” said Freeman, who hopes that the Rookery can attain LEED Platinum. “I see it as achievable with the right implementation.”

“A lot of the time, working with tenants can be a difficult part of getting LEED certification, but the John Buck Company implemented all the measures in a timely manner,” said Schubert. Since taking over management duties at the Rookery in 2009, the John Buck Company have spearheaded a number of sustainable actions, such as tenant surveys, electronics recycling, more efficient restroom fixtures, a bike room and lighting upgrades. “The John Buck Company really ushered through this process, with support of the ownership, to really embrace Goby’s technology and consulting service to make the project happen,” Schubert said.

“But the LEED certification is certainly not the only certification we work on,” Schubert said. “We’ve been tracking the Rookery’s Energy Star rating for years. With a lot of the work that they did prior to engaging on the LEED project, they raised their score by 20 points. It’s a phenomenal achievement.”

Able Engineering has its own controlled set of routines. Their operational measures schedule a variety of tasks, from payroll procedures to verifying infrared testing. “Everything is detailed to make it easy for us to focus on things that provide gains for the building,” Freeman said.

The Rookery’s engineering crew set up a program to disable baseboard heat based on ambient temperature and occupancy, calibrated as part of preventative maintenance. This measure alone allows the Rookery to capture savings approaching those of the air cooling overhaul. “The electric heat in a building can be difficult to achieve substantial savings,” said Freeman. “But we are able to save quite a bit, just using elbow grease and consistent verification.”

Looking forward, the building will continue to implement new measures, such as planned upgrades to the pneumatic system and compressors. “Your sustainable measures don’t just stop when you get your LEED certification,” Schubert said. “It’s three years later, and the building has had a process of continuous improvement. That speaks well to the John Buck Company and the ownership’s commitment to embrace sustainability and utilize Able Engineering’s tools and Goby’s technology to get to where they need to be.”

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Electricity is so integral to our lives, but humanity’s ever-growing need for it is defacing the planet. There are many ideas on how to stop this, but to have an effect, those ideas need to take root in the real world.

By Matt Baker

Four years ago, the Illinois Institute of Technology transformed into an island. The 50+ buildings that make up the Bronzeville campus were put on a microgrid—a network of buildings, batteries and energy sources that can be detached, or “islanded,” from the power grid.

The benefits of a microgrid are numerous. They can function independently when necessary, such as during a power outage. Energy efficiency is another advantage; through the use of solar and wind generation, the IIT microgrid reduces the university’s power consumption by $1 million annually and carbon dioxide emissions are trimmed by 7%. On-site batteries store excess electricity while sensors in and around the campus buildings track energy use for optimal deployment.

“Everything we do at IIT is somehow related to the microgrid,” said Dr. Mohammad Shahidehpour, IIT professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Director of the Galvin Center for Electricity Innovation. According to him, the IIT microgrid has two main functions: “Educate the next generation of students, and create prototypes that get the message out about what modernizing the grid looks like.”

A key partner in bringing the IIT microgrid to life has been the local chapters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers #134 and the Electrical Contractors Association of Chicago. IBEW/NECA helped to install LED streetlights on the campus, a solar-powered farm and other projects. “We are committed to the present and future of renewable energy,” said Harry Ohde, Assistant Director and Renewable Energy Coordinator at IBEW/NECA Technical Institute. “To stay on top of this, we need to have a good partnership with IIT, because they are the institution as far as I am concerned.”

The IBEW/NECA Technical Institute opened a renewable energy training field at their Alsip school back in 2015, the country’s largest outdoor campus of its type. “When we built this new training center,” Ohde said, “our intent was to train not just installers, but also train AHJs [authorities having jurisdiction], code officials, building officials and even people without a clue what solar is.” The facility offers training, simulations and hands-on experience in many different electrical and renewable energy processes. For example, students can remove and reinstall solar panels, make adjustments to a wind generator based on given site requirements and learn battery storage techniques and energy transfer systems. IBEW/NECA also recently started a supplemental online class teaching photovoltaic theory.

“I’ve had a few former IBEW students in my classes,” Shahidehpour said. “These guys have practiced these ideas and installed devices. They have an additional dimension that other students are missing in the classroom.”

More than a hundred years ago, Thomas Edison lost the War of the Currents, the battle between his direct current technology and the alternating current ballyhooed by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse. Direct current failed because the electricity attenuated over long distances, limiting the reach of DC power plants. But thanks to renewable energy and microgrids, Edison may finally see redemption. “Now that we are moving to the point where loads are very close to generation, long distances are not of interest,” said Shahidehpour.

A wind turbine or solar panels, such as the ones on the IIT campus, create DC power which can be served to the end use without the costly equipment of switching current type. “We can reduce a lot of this conversion loss, and reduce cost because you don’t need a lot of the intermediary devices,” Shahidehpour said.

The idea of a microgrid can be refined down to individual buildings, too. Last year, IIT celebrated their new nanogrid, serving the Keating Sports Center. Energy storage and power control systems manage the building’s energy usage on a smaller scale than even the microgrid. This concept can be ported to mission-critical uses like hospitals or police stations.

The project is further evidence that even at a higher education institution, theory is best served when put into practice. “I like to look at our university as not just a place where we have great thoughts, but a place where we actually take our thoughts and implement them and do something meaningful, not just for the university but for the community,” said Alan Cramb, IIT President, at the nanogrid’s ribbon cutting.

The IIT nanogrid is a hybrid system, able to support both AC and DC loads. The roof-mounted solar array directly powers the LED lighting systems and charges the batteries during the day; excess power can be sent to the grid. But the Keating Center is just the first foray; there are plans to convert the university’s data center and other buildings into a nanogrid.

IIT and IBEW/NECA also collaborated on a solar farm. While the sight of agriculture in an urban environment has surged recently, the 5,000 square-foot UFarmIIT is notable for what you can’t see. Sensors embedded in the soil direct the automated irrigation system, giving the plants water only when they need it. The goal is to prototype an intelligent farm that solves the inefficiencies that farmers face, especially those in developing parts of world.

“But to make all that work, you need electricity,” said Jimmy Shah, Project Manager at IIT’s CSMART Lab. “This is a low power application, so why not use solar? Let’s not emit any emissions. If anything, we can create a carbon sink.” Small-scale solar panels power everything on the farm, including water pumps and the soil sensors.

CSMART is a research and development operation created in partnership with ComEd, Silver Spring Networks and West Monroe Partners, dedicated to adapting smart grid technology innovations to a real-world environment. The CSMART Lab is an interdisciplinary space, bringing engineering, architecture, civil and other majors together. Computer science students, for example, wrote algorithms for the farm’s soil sensors based on data gathered by biology students (literally) in the field.

The whole IIT campus, in effect, has been turned into a lab. The streetlights that IBEW/NECA helped to install are more efficient than their predecessors simply because they are LED instead of high pressure sodium; but by using smart sensors installed into the lights, they can be controlled automatically to shave off even more energy usage.

Other applications can enhance student safety. A smartphone app, developed by an IIT student, features a panic button; if activated, the app will send a text message to the public safety department and cause all of the streetlights within five to ten meters of a user to start blinking. If the campus ever needs to be evacuated, the lights can be manipulated to create a path guiding students to safety.

This enterprising thinking can have an effect in unexpected places. For instance, sensors placed around campus can measure the ground temperature and track maintenance crews during a winter storm to optimize snow plow routes, reducing both the amount of fuel and salt they expend.

The main thrust of CSMART is that the research be tied to real-world applications. Retrofitting LED and smart sensors into streetlights is a lot cheaper on the drawing board than on the curbside where an installer has an existing pole and infrastructure to wrangle with. “That’s what makes CSMART a little different than normal research institutes,” Shah said, “because you’re really talking to the facility manager or electrician. And those experiences make you a more well-rounded engineer.”

Last year, ComEd received federal funding as part of the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative to turn all of Bronzeville into a microgrid. Building on what they’ve learned with their own microgrid, IIT will assist in bringing the technology to the surrounding community.

Moving from the scope of a university campus to an entire neighborhood is a natural progression for Chicago in its goal to be a Smart City. The Smart City initiative uses big data to create a resilient and symbiotic urban environment for residents and the environment

“When you talk about smart—smart grid, Smart City, smart phone, anything smart—what makes it smart is the data,” said Shahidehpour. “There is no ‘smartness’ in the grid. The fact that you make the data available to the users or the operators, that allows them to come up with smart decisions. That makes people who are attached to the system to be smart.”

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By Matt Baker

After three straight years at the top, Illinois has fallen to third on an annual ranking of green building projects in the U.S. The per capita list was compiled by the USGBC using U.S. Census data and commercial and institutional green building projects that were LEED-certified throughout 2016. Illinois totaled 151 LEED certifications last year, representing 2.82 square feet of certified space per resident.

“LEED guides our buildings, cities, communities and neighborhoods to become more resource- and energy-efficient, healthier for occupants and more competitive in the marketplace,” said Mahesh Ramanujam, president and CEO of USGBC. “The green building movement continues to evolve with advancements in technology, benchmarking and transparency, and the states on this list are leading the way toward a more sustainable future.”

The 2016 list featured the highest average (2.55) per capita of LEED-certified space since 2010. Illinois and Colorado are the only two states to make the list every year since its inception.

The USGBC calculates the list using per capita figures as a measure of the human element of green building, allowing for a fair comparison of the level of green building taking place among states with significant differences in population and, accordingly, number of overall buildings. Collectively, 1,819 commercial and institutional projects were LEED-certified in the top 10 states last year, representing over 300 million square feet of real estate.

The top ten for 2016 is as follows:

State Projects Certified in 2016 Square Feet Certified in 2016 (millions) Per Capita Square Footage
1 Massachusetts 136 24.4 3.73
2 Colorado 92 15.9 3.17
3 Illinois 151 36.1 2.82
4 New York 211 48.4 2.50
5 California 632 88.9 2.39
6 Nevada 22 6.4 2.37
7 Maryland 104 13.4 2.33
8 Virginia 155 18.4 2.31
9 Washington 105 15.1 2.25
10 Texas 211 41.9 1.67
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By Nadia Balint

Green Apartment Construction Blossoming, Yet Renter Survey Shows $560 Rent Premium is Five Times Higher than Most Would Pay

When it comes to trends in real estate, some are transient, and some are here to stay and shape the industry. Sustainable buildings are proving to be the latter. Their ubiquitous presence all over the country is possibly the best clue that green living is quickly going from niche to mainstream in real estate. Investors, developers, architects and consumers are realizing the importance and benefits of building by standards that meet the needs of present and future generations.

But how eco-friendly is the multifamily sector and what does it mean for renters? New research shows that over 44,000 LEED-certified green units opened last year in large-scale developments across the nation, 13 times more than there were in 2008. In 2016, about 30,000 were open or under construction as of mid-year. Projections indicate that approximately 59,000 green-certified apartments will be completed by the end of this year. These numbers come from a Yardi Matrix national inventory of over 14 million apartment units located in large rental buildings of 50 units or more in 123 U.S. metros.

Energy-efficient construction is encouraged by the latest building codes. But some apartment developers go further than the minimum requirements — they seek LEED certification. LEED is the most widely-used certification system for green buildings, a recognized green standard worldwide. The U.S. Green Building Council’s records show that as of October 2016, there were 3,187 green multifamily residential projects in the U.S. That number includes projects that are LEED-certified or in the process of LEED certification.

A Green Apartment Movement Within the U.S. Marketplace

About 15% of what was built after 2008 in the multifamily sector is sustainable. It may not seem like a lot, but the industry has come a long way since eight years ago, when LEED certification became more widely used for multi-family projects. In 2008, only 2% of large-scale multifamily buildings were green.

At the city level, it’s easier to see difference between green apartments and traditional rentals, especially in how much rent they command in comparison. Chicago has the highest number of green apartment units with 13,800 in 62 large residential buildings. Illinois is the leading state for LEED green building per capita in the U.S. and it currently has 296 green multifamily residential projects. About 34% of all of Chicago’s new large-scale apartment buildings (built since 2009) are green.

Seattle is the only other U.S. city with more than 10,000 green apartments on the market right now, with 11,200 green units in 87 residential buildings (the largest number of green multifamily buildings of any city in the U.S.). About 27% of what has been built since 2009 in the large-scale multifamily segment in Seattle is green.

One of the most forward-thinking cities in the country, Portland, OR currently offers 8,000 green apartments in 68 buildings. What’s even more impressive is that 45% of Portland’s total post-2009 apartment construction is green.

The greenest cities for renters, however, are those that have the most choices for renting green. Factoring in the total number of green apartments in relation to the total population, Cambridge, MA has the best ratio of people to green apartments, with one green rental for every 39 people. Second is Seattle (again!) with 1:61, Alexandria, VA at 1:70, Redmond, WA at 1:77 and, not surprisingly, Portland with a ratio of 1:79. Though it claims the largest number of green units, Chicago’s green apartment to population ratio of 1:197 puts the market into perspective.

Sustainable Rentals: Value and Demand

Yardi Matrix rent data shows that green-certified apartments cost on average an extra $560 per month or 33% more than new, non-green apartments. They are also smaller, offering 73 fewer square feet of space than regular new apartments. More precisely, new, non-green apartment units (built in 2009 or later) average 955 square feet in size and cost $1,700 in rent, nationally. Green units built during the same period of time average 882 square feet in size and $2,260 in rent. The rent differences maintain across all asset classes (high-end, mid-range or affordably-priced apartments).

So how do renters feel about energy-efficient apartments and how much are they willing to pay to live in a green building? A recent RENTCafé survey of 2,631 renters shows that 69% are interested to live in an energy-efficient or green building. However, their actual willingness or ability to pay the cost of renting a green-certified apartment is well below the real price of green apartments. The majority (52%) of those that expressed interest in renting green are willing to pay no more than $100/month extra rent for a green apartment, much less than the rent premium of $560 that green apartments demand. Prices still have a long way to go (down) until they align with what most renters are willing to pay.

Nearly a quarter of respondents wouldn’t pay anything extra in rent to live in a sustainable apartment. Only 10% would pay more than $500/month, approaching the real-world premium that those rentals are demanding.

The interest for green living is evenly distributed across all generations; 34% are millennials, 34% are gen-xers and 32% are baby-boomers. The largest share of those willing to spend more than $500 in additional rent for a green-certified apartment is made of baby-boomers.

The survey also revealed that the most popular green apartment features are “energy-saving appliances and thermostats,” followed by “water-saving plumbing” and “eco-friendly transportation options.”

Although there aren’t many reports on specific long-term energy savings, renting green brings along some savings in terms of energy and maintenance costs, as well as health benefits such as better air quality and temperature comfort, not to mention that priceless “do-good feeling.” But these added benefits come at premium prices, preventing many from leading the sustainable life they desire.

Building Green as Part of a Social Movement

This “eco-minded” social movement is nothing new, as each generation has had its own footprint. Nowadays, we see it in the behavior of the consumer segment coined by sociologists as “cultural creatives.” They are consumers who promote sustainability through their daily habits; they eat healthier, buy organic local produce, drive electric cars, buy fair-trade products. They show a growing interest in using less resources, and they want to live and work in buildings that use materials, finishes and fixtures that have a good impact on the community and the environment. They are more or less the target renters for the green multi-family sector and the real estate market is responding.

The LEED Silver-certified Coast at Lakeshore East is among Chicago’s premier apartment buildings to offer green apartment living. It promotes sustainability by providing its residents with an eco-friendly courtesy shuttle, proximity to neighborhood electric car charging stations and sustainable features such as Energy Star appliances and individually controlled heat and air conditioning. Its exterior architecture combines translucent glass, fritted glass and aluminum materials to harness and maximize natural light and save energy. The price to enjoy this upscale downtown green lifestyle ranges between $1,700 and $4,200 per month.

For a long time, “green” was not a decision factor when choosing a rental apartment, but now for many renters it finally is. The industry has gotten more familiar with green buildings, and it’s getting cheaper and more efficient to build green. So, in theory, green living should become increasingly accessible to more people. While there’s a rising interest in renting green apartments, for the time being rent prices continue to be the drawback for most.

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By Matt Baker

In 2015, Illinois added 11 MW of solar power production, which was a 75% increase over the previous year. While this growth is encouraging, the state remains middle-of-the-pack for overall capacity, ranking 27th in the nation. So what can be done to encourage more solar panel installation?

Part of the answer may be shared renewables. These projects allow multiple energy customers to pool their resources into a small—though still utility-size—renewable energy source. Each household or business then receives a share of the output, offsetting the power they pull down from the grid.

Community Solar

When speaking specifically of solar power generation, these projects are often referred to as “community solar.” A community solar farm is a collection of solar panels installed most often on public or jointly-owned property. They are usually ground-mounted, though they can be affixed on a roofscape under certain conditions.

There are various models for a community solar co-op. Some utilities offer on-bill crediting, wherein residents and businesses buy one or more shares of a renewable farm and receive a credit on their energy bill. Under another model, some utilities allow customers to purchase a set amount of electricity at a fixed rate from a shared facility for a long, multi-year term. Utilities aren’t a prerequisite partner, however; community members can form a special purpose entity to develop a community solar project.

Despite the dropping cost of solar, it remains a cost-prohibitive project for many small businesses and homeowners. But there are other factors that would impel individuals from taking part in a community solar project, aside from cost. Renters and condominium owners don’t have domain over their roof and therefore can’t install solar panels. Even for property owners, the roof may be in the shade or oriented in a way that is not optimal for solar power harvesting. Even if a commercial building avoids those obstacles, it might be exempt because of mechanical equipment occupying too much of the roof real estate.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, there are more than 90 community solar projects up and running across 25 states. There is only one operation in Illinois, in the northwestern community of Elizabeth. The South View Solar Farm is operated by Jo-Carroll Energy, a member of the Touchstone Energy Cooperatives alliance.

Constructed in 2014, South View Solar Farm occupies three-quarters of an acre in Jo Daviess County. The array consists of 456 solar panels and has a capacity of over 125 kW. Subscribers purchased a minimum of one panel for $890, and each panel has a capacity of 275 watts. Subscribers receive around $50 per year per panel in utility credits, with an estimated return on investment of about 18 years.

Mapping Cook County

Thanks to a new, interactive map developed by the Cook County Department of Environmental Control and non-profit organization Elevate Energy, the potential for community solar in the Chicago region can now easily be ascertained. The parcel-level map allows users to do more than search the county by address; filters can fine-tune the information by property type, solar power potential, roof type and municipality or Chicago neighborhood.

Every viable site provides an estimate of the annual electricity generation that a solar array could provide if installed there. As alternative metrics, the site breaks it down to the number of homes an installation could power per year and the carbon offset in tons CO2 emissions.

“I think this project demonstrates the opportunity [for] all the various stakeholders—utilities, local government, developers, community planners and community members themselves—to begin to visualize what their role in a future solar economy might look like,” said Anne Evens, CEO of Elevate Energy.

After gathering the data, it became clear that only a quarter of Cook County households can viably install solar panels. Myriad reasons prevent the majority from doing so. Some rooftops are in the shade of other structures or face to the north. Many residents live in a multi-housing unit where they don’t own the roof or lack the financial means to front a solar installation.

In recognition of this, the Cook County Community Solar Portal is more than a map. It also provides business models, case studies, educational resources and other information on community solar. “The solar developers will tell you that the larger the better. But we’re looking at sites as small as 25 kW,” said Deborah Stone, Director of the Cook County Department of Environmental Control. “That size diversity is what’s going to help community solar succeed in Cook County.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has committed to reducing the County’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by the year 2050. As solar energy would be a critical way of reaching this goal, finding ways to engage all county residents in taking part is significant.

The Cook County Community Solar Portal was made possible with support from the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust. Elevate Energy developed the online resource in partnership with the Cook County Department of Environmental Control, the Environmental Law & Policy Center, and the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus. The community solar site is part of a larger effort to introduce and accelerate community solar installations in the region, a project supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative.

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By Matt Baker

Opening a new design studio requires catering to the needs of the employees while also being attractive to clientele. For Legat Architects, their new Gurnee office was also an opportunity to express the firm’s core values of design, performance and sustainability.

Joe Legat founded the eponymous architecture firm in 1964. Waukegan served as the company’s hub until the opening of a downtown Chicago office. But the Waukegan studio remained, along with others throughout the region, as Legat has employed a multi-studio strategy to better serve clients.


A decision to combine two nearby studios—Crystal Lake and Waukegan—put the firm on the search for a new space in the northern suburbs. The Waukegan studio operated in various spaces over the years, the last of which was a former church. While working within those cloistered walls had its charm, it was clear that any new space would have to be more open.

That search ended in a Gurnee business park. Though constructed in 1999, the 10,000 square feet that Legat decided to lease had never been built out. “When we took it over, there was nothing in it. Literally. Just the slab which was poured,” said Casey Frankiewicz, Principal at Legat. “The stickers were still on the windows. It had no service, no power. Not even any lighting.”

The space was built to the standards of a typical turn-of-the-millennium commercial design—very economically and without the markers of sustainability that are more common today. “Trying to turn that into a LEED-CI project on a modest budget becomes an interesting task,” said Vuk Vujovic, Director of Sustainability & Energy at Legat. “But we had so much experience doing that before that this was an easy role to perform.”

Green certification guidelines like LEED stress the importance of views, which is usually understood to mean views out. But internal views can have an impact too. The Gurnee office has an open floorplan, with all the designers in a bullpen. They have views of the elongated office space, of each other and outside.

The lighting is all LED, but they are offset all through the space by the abundant daylighting—from both the extensive windows and multiple skylights. “People in adjoining spaces within this building come in and find it hard to believe that we are in the same building,” said Frankiewicz. “We have in essence the same parameters, roof and windows, and yet our space is so different, so drastically shifted in terms of quality, lighting and the feel of the space.”

The idea is to create a more collaborative environment and one that better suits the mentoring style of architecture. “We are trained academically in a setting like this,” Frankiewicz said. “When a senior project manager is having a conversation with a consultant, client or contractor, that’s a learning opportunity.”

Despite the openness, there are proper separations. The back-of-the-house operations like accounting and human resources are sequestered in one space; nearby is a large meeting room, foyer and break room. A smaller, more open meeting space serves as a transitional area between the full open studio and the closed spaces.

At the end is the “back yard,” a nod to the studio’s suburban setting. A ping pong table currently anchors the space, but it has flexibility. Employees from other studios can come in for learning sessions and the multi-purpose space is designed to allow for growth opportunity as the firm adds employees.

The break room now has recycling zones, something the previous offices lacked, and low flow fixtures reduce water usage. All of the wood in the office in FSC-certified, including the birch workspaces, which are simply solid core doors cut to length and given legs. A lot of furniture was salvaged from the old studios as well. The filing cabinets were electrostatically painted, both to refresh their look and for homogeneity. “There was such a mish-mosh from one office to the other, but we were able to fit it in and make it seem cohesive,” said Michael Maloney, Design Director with Legat.

Completing a sustainable buildout in such an old space should have been more difficult, but fortune found Legat Architects. “We actually lucked out in terms of exterior wall construction,” Maloney said. “It is an insulated, thermally broken, ribbon window system, which is great because we could have pumped all of our budget into improving the glass efficiency.” The raw state of the untouched space was another attractive feature. Not having an outdated mechanical system to rip out made installing a state of the art, four-zone HVAC system easier.

Designing their own space allowed Legat to try out the latest edition of USGBC’s rating system, LEED v4. “Since we were both the client and the architect, we had an opportunity to learn,” said Maloney. “We can use it for lessons learned on future projects.”

Sustainability within a business park setting may seem oxymoronic. This is a building that is surrounded on four sides by surface parking lots, after all. It’s at the edge of the metro area, closer to downtown Racine than downtown Chicago. But that was intentional. Legat serves clients throughout the region, not just in the Loop. It’s extremely hard to find a location with access to public transportation and to highways. “We serve a pretty diverse group of clients and while our offices are based in different locations, we work on all projects,” Vujovic said. “You can be close to the train to allow the commute to work to be easier, but then how do you get to your clients? Which is more efficient?”


Ultimately, the new Gurnee office is also a showpiece of green building to the firm’s clientele. One orange wall runs the length of the office, a strong visual cue that performs several functions. It separates the workspace from utilitarian areas, acts as a bit of branding as it is painted in the firm’s signature color and it’s a billboard for their core principles: design, performance and sustainability.

So while sustainability is literally written on the walls for clients to see, it is subtly built into the space in a way that visitors can experience. “We [and our clients] are not always 100% on the same page and this is a good way to talk people more into subliminal kinds of sustainability application systems,” Vujovic said. “That argument has changed over time, and some things are better understood. But we need to make the case that what we are proposing in terms of sustainability is not over and beyond what logically makes sense to the client, to their budget and to the project.”

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