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Innovative Chicagoland Buildings Striving for Sustainability

Geoffrey Baer
Illinois Institute of Technology's Kaplan Institute. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Illinois Institute of Technology's Kaplan Institute uses ETFE foil cushions in place of glass for its second-floor facade. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

We’ve all heard of “green” architecture designed to reduce the huge toll buildings take on our environment and climate. But last December, the architecture firm SOM took it to a whole new level. They unveiled a prototype building dubbed the Urban Sequoia that goes beyond the current goal of net-zero energy to actually capture carbon. In a sense the building helps to cleanse the air of emissions driving climate change, instead of contributing to them. While such structures currently exist only in theory, you can already find Chicago buildings that address climate change by producing clean energy equal to or more than the amount they consume. That’s in addition to local sites that prioritize sustainability in other ways, from incorporating agriculture or renewal energy sources to repurposing existing buildings.

Chicago itself has received the top level of certification for sustainability in buildings from LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a green building rating system. Here are a few notable examples from around Chicago.

Park District of Oak Park’s Carroll Center

The Park District of Oak Park's Carroll Center. Photo: Hausman Photography, courtesy TBDA, LtdThe Park District of Oak Park's Carroll Center is one of only three Illinois buildings certified as zero energy. Photo: Hausman Photography, courtesy TBDA, Ltd

This addition to a Park District building in the western suburb of Oak Park is a “postcard from the future,” the CEO of the New Buildings Institute (NBI) told the Chicago Tribune. The Carroll Center is the second of only three buildings in Illinois to be certified by the NBI as zero energy. Designed by Oak Park firm Tom Bassett-Dilley Architects, it produced, via rooftop solar panels, more than twice the energy it used during a yearlong test period. (Excess energy goes to the neighboring park.) It uses geothermal energy pulled from the earth for heating and cooling and is heavily insulated to prevent energy leakage. (Energy waste is a major driver of emissions, as a new exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Center demonstrates.) Fresh air is still abundant, however, through a ventilation system that has sensors to track carbon dioxide.

Addition to Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire

The Adlai E. Stevenson High School Addition in Lincolnshire, Illinois. Photo: Wight & Company/© Connor Steinkamp PhotographyLincolnshire's Adlai E. Stevenson High School addition includes a rooftop greenhouse and exterior gardens for additional learning. Photo: Wight & Company/© Connor Steinkamp Photography

Located in the northern suburb of Lincolnshire, this high school addition was the first building in Illinois certified as zero energy by NBI—plus it has received a zero energy certification from the International Living Future Institute, another recognized green building rater. It features an extensive array of rooftop solar panels as well as a rooftop greenhouse and exterior gardens that allow students to produce food for the school and experience hands-on learning in botany and biology. Chicago-based firm Wight & Company is behind the building.

If you’re curious, the third NBI-certified zero-energy building in Illinois is the Northbrook Park District’s Techny Prairie Activity Center in the northern suburbs, also by Wight & Company.

Farm on Ogden

The Farm on Ogden. Image: Google Street ViewThe Farm on Ogden is a center of urban agriculture that adaptively reuses an existing building. Image: Google Street View

Another site that features agriculture is North Lawndale’s Farm on Ogden. Located just off the Central Park Pink Line ‘L’ station, it is a joint project of Lawndale Christian Health Center and the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture program Windy City Harvest. It includes a greenhouse, aquaponics for lettuce and tilapia, commercial and teaching kitchens, a community market space, and a youth farm on a facility designed by Chicago’s Booth Hansen, which adaptively reused an old building rather than tearing it down. A focus on job training and healthy produce in an underserved community embodies a “whole person” approach to community health and wellness.

University of Chicago’s Keller Center

The atrium of the University of Chicago's Keller Center. Photo: Courtesy University of Chicago/Tom RossiterFarr Associates' renovation of Edward Durell Stone's 1963 building added a light-filled four-story atrium. Photo: Courtesy University of Chicago/Tom Rossiter

Another transformation of an existing structure is the Keller Center, home to the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. Chicago-based Farr Associates renovated a 1963 building by Edward Durrell Stone, creating more open space and natural light, most notably in a four-story atrium that features wood from trees killed by the emerald ash borer and milled locally under the direction of Theaster Gates. The renovation also added solar panels, a green roof, and a rainwater-capture system, leading to a LEED Platinum certification and a Petal certification from the International Living Future Institute.

Illinois Institute of Technology’s Kaplan Institute

Many colleges have committed to sustainability; for instance, the University of Illinois at Chicago requires that all new construction and major renovations must be at least LEED Gold certified. IIT’s Kaplan Institute (pictured above), designed by IIT professor John Ronan, also has LEED Gold certification. It incorporates a new material, ETFE foil cushions, essentially inflatable pillows, in the façade of its second floor, which is cantilevered over the first floor to provide shade. The ETFE façade can vary the amount of solar energy entering the building and is lighter than glass. Courtyards allow for natural light and ventilation, while a system of water-filled tubing in a concrete-filled metal deck turns the floor into a radiant heating and cooling system.

Method Manufacturing Facility

The Method Factory in Pullman. Image: Google Street ViewThe Method Factory in Pullman is the first LEED Zero Waste project in the world, according to LEED. Image: Google Street View

The “South Side Soapbox,” as it has been called since it manufactures Method soap, opened in the Pullman neighborhood in 2015, the first factory to open in the South Side in some thirty years. Virginia-based William McDonough + Partners designed the LEED Platinum certified facility. A wind turbine provides 50% of the building’s energy, according to McDonough + Partners, while solar panels supplement that and provide hot water. A 75,000 square-foot rooftop greenhouse operated by Gotham Greens produces fresh greens. It also recently became the first LEED Zero Waste project in the world, meaning that no material is sent to a landfill: everything that enters is used in products, recycled, or composted, according to LEED.

Wacker Drive Skyscrapers

A high concentration of LEED certified buildings can be found along Wacker Drive downtown: 191 North Wacker, One North Wacker, 71 South Wacker, 111 South Wacker,  and even the Willis Tower are LEED Platinum. (The Willis Tower received the certification in 2019 after an extensive renovation.) One South Wacker is LEED Gold certified. As of 2020, Illinois had the third-most LEED certified green square footage per capita in the United States, after Massachusetts and Washington.

Assemble Chicago

Assemble Chicago will soon be Chicago’s first net-zero high-rise. Last year, the city named Studio Gang and The Community Builders the winner of a competition, to design this 20-story affordable housing apartment tower. It will replace a vacant parking garage and unused land across from the Harold Washington Library. The base of the tower will contain a community hub with a health clinic, market, food hall, office space, and cultural programming space, while each of the 207 apartments will feature a contemporary spin on the classic Chicago bay window visible on nearby historic buildings. Tiny Pritzker Park next door will also be revitalized as part of the project, while the proximity of a Loop ‘L’ station allows for an easy—and green—commute.