Going green doesn’t have anything to do with choosing a natural paint color for your kitchen, or planting herbs in your community garden. But the phrase can have many different meanings across a broad spectrum. Turning off lights in rooms in vacant rooms is a green move; installing a gigantic wind turbine in your backyard is a bigger one. Communities throughout the Chicagoland area place green practices and programming at different positions on their lists of priorities—and the steps they take depend on funding, community interest, feasibility and other factors.
About 15 years ago, former Mayor Richard M. Daley started the ball rolling to make Chicago the most environmentally-friendly city in the country. Today, the Second City has become number one on the green scale: Chicago is one of the world’s greenest and most livable municipalities supported by seven million square feet of green roofs, an eco-friendly transit system, and more bikeways and parks than any other American city.
Some Chicago-area condo communities have followed suit and make energy-saving policies and programs a top priority for their building community. Residents have jumped on the bandwagon with their own initiatives. Simple tweaks, such as updating light bulbs and plumbing fixtures are a good start, says Jennifer Easton, communications associate for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in Washington, D.C. Homeowners can also use recycled materials to make their home more green, such as using salvaged wood when building a porch, setting up a composting operation or building a rain garden.
Condo owners can also save on their electric bills while helping the environment by sealing up cracks and gaps in their homes.
“It will reduce the amount of air that you have to heat and cool, which will save you money,” says Peter Ludwig, energy efficiency programs manager at CNT Energy in Chicago. “It also reduces the spaces where vermin enter and exit your home, reducing the need for toxic pesticides and extermination costs.”
Another simple green fix is to get a rain barrel to reduce flooding in your basement, which can lead to mold. This also reduces the amount of water that goes into the combined sewer and must eventually be treated, Ludwig says.
Seal It Up
Adding insulation to walls and ceilings and adjusting the heat or air conditioning when you aren’t home helps save energy and also cuts costs. One of the most important—and simplest—fixes is to examine your windows. Specialty coatings on window panes can reduce the number of UVA and UVB rays that enter your home. These coatings can reduce your air conditioner needs.
If your building allows it, you can switch out your single pane windows and get multi-pane windows, these insulate your unit from the snow, besides doing a better job retaining heat.
If your building won’t budge on the windows add blinds that have a form of light control already built into them. The blinds can be encased between two window panes, which reduce dust and diminish chances of airborne pollutants.
Owners may also enroll in real time electricity pricing programs, and pay the wholesale hourly rate by checking out www.cntenergy.org/pricing/comed-rrtp.
Green By the Numbers
The trend to go green has gone viral, and is expected to continue growing. Last year, green homes in the United States accounted for 17 percent of the overall residential construction market, according to the National Association of Home Builders' Green Home Buildings and Remodeler Study. That number is expected to grow to between 29 percent and 38 percent by 2016.
In monetary terms, this equates to a five-fold increase, from $17 billion in 2011 to up to $114 billion in 2016, based on the five-year forecast for overall residential construction. Chicago-area builders, contractors and designers should also be brushing up on their eco-friendly techniques.
By 2016, 34 percent of remodels are expected to be primarily working with eco-friendly products—which is a 150 percent increase since last year. Part of the trend toward remodeling, re-using and recycling has to do with the money saved by not buying new, says Harvey Bernstein, vice-president of Industry Insights and Alliances, McGraw-Hill Construction.
“Despite the drastic downturn in housing starts since 2008, green has grown significantly as a share of activity, indicating that the green market is becoming an important part of our overall economic landscape.”
It’s not hard to see why going green has become so popular. “It’s a decision that saves building owners and tenants money through decreased utilities and operating costs, it creates more healthful and enjoyable indoor environments for occupants and it conserves energy and resources,” Easton says.
And there are many examples why Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification makes good economic and marketing sense.
One great example is the EcoLogic Lofts in Bucktown. More than 20 percent of the building's architectural materials utilize recycled materials, and apartment units have dual-flush or low-flush toilets, but perhaps the most unique feature are the wind turbines located on the roof, which generate two percent of the building's power. This alternative energy source reduces demand on the grid and leads to less fossil fuel burning to create electricity, according to their website.
Bob Horner, developer and co-owner of Winthorp Properties agrees and has become a believer in LEED certification. The Winthorp Club, a 15-story condominium in Evanston, didn't start out on the LEED track when planning began in 2007, but then the company started learning about LEED. As an exercise, the company compared their plans with LEED's requirements and saw many similarities...so they decided to apply.
“When we realized we could already make a solid silver [certification] we asked, 'What do we need to do to make this a gold certified building?' It wasn't that expensive. We had the high energy standards and quality control, and the [proper] carpeting was picked out. We weren't making specific investments in LEED.”
Among the green features at the 96-unit development are high-efficiency mechanical systems, water-conserving plumbing fixtures, low-emissivity windows, multiple green roofs and rainwater irrigation for landscaping.
Since the 2008 economic downturn, LEED certification has become an important marketing tool. Buildings such as the Aqua on Lake Shore Drive East, and the Hyacinth Place Town Homes in Highland Park, proudly tout their LEED certification on their sales websites.
Edie Jahn, a real estate broker with Re/Max All Pro in Sugar Grove agrees that the demand will grow. “I'm now seeing buyers looking at existing properties and asking, 'Where can I get tax credits for energy conservation' or 'How can I landscape for energy efficiency?' They want to be kinder to the planet and have energy efficiency in their home, and the two go together.”
A Greener State of Mind
Overall, going green creates a better living environment for everyone involved, says Wendy Berger Shapiro, president of WBS Equities LLC., a real-estate development and green consulting firm, and publisher of GreenBean Chicago, (www.greenbeanchicago.com) a source for information about green projects in and around Chicago.
Using low-VOC paint creates a better breathing environment, while using recycled materials and content helps the planet. “We have the ability to do the right thing,” Shapiro says.
More and more people are trying to do just that, to the point that homebuyers are expecting their new condos and houses to be outfitted with the latest eco-friendly products.
“Real estate professionals are seeing green buildings as the new Class A property type, which means those buildings that are not green may soon be obsolete on the market affecting their value,” says Jason La Fleur, Chicago-based regional director for the Alliance for Environmental Sustainability, and chairman of the Residential Green Building committee of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Illinois chapter. “As such, green buildings that receive certifications such as LEED enjoy a competitive differentiation in the market, and can enjoy sales price or rent premiums. Additionally, efforts around energy conservation result in direct operating expenses, increasing the net operating income for building ownership and as a result, increasing the building’s appraised value.”
In Chicago, government agencies are helping pave the way by offering financial incentives. As part of the Chicago Sustainable Backyards Program, Chicago is giving those who qualify up to 50 percent off their next local purchase of trees, native plants, a compost bin and even a rain barrel.
But even without the government’s help, those who choose to go green will find out quickly that they’ll be saving money in the long run. The great thing about going green is that nearly every eco-friendly move you make will reduce your operating costs, Ludwig says.
Sealing windows will lower your heating and cooling bills. Getting energy-efficient appliances will also lower bills. Save money on water by finding appliances that use less water or lower water flow; installing a low-flow shower head will lower water bills without spending much to start.
More Than Money
It’s not just about the money, however.
“Beyond the obvious economic rewards from lower energy and water bills, a comprehensive approach to green building results in multiple benefits that are not just economic, but also environmental and social,” La Fleur says. “This is referred to as triple bottom line benefits.”
Green buildings usually have a better location and stronger community. Implementing simple practices such as a shared vegetable garden allow neighbors to interact, creating a stronger and more desirable community, La Fleur explains.
“It’s worth noting that survey data shows the most important reason people are attracted to green homes is not for the environment aspects or energy-saving features, although those help,” he says. “The most important reason is that green homes are more comfortable and healthier for people, particularly those with asthma, allergies and chemical sensitivities.”
It isn’t all roses and butterflies, however. There are some obstacles that building owners, developers and unit owners face if and when they decide to make some eco-friendly changes. Most eco-friendly options cost more initially than their standard counterparts—whether you’re researching washing machines, dishwashers, flooring or building materials.
“Getting the maximum return on an investment from going green requires a comprehensive multi-disciplinary approach, as this covers many different design, construction, operations and maintenance aspects of a building,” La Fleur says.
And since the current green market is exploding and expanding every day, you really need to do your research before making any decisions.
“I think there is so much information out there, that finding credible information is the hardest part for people to do,” Shapiro says. “A lot of people out there are saying that their materials are green, but there aren’t an easy set of standards. A lot of people talk the big green game, but how do you know who to trust and who not to trust?”
The first step, says Shapiro, is to ask salesmen and contractors to explain each product, and detail how it is an environmentally-friendly, sustainable product. Doing that will hold the people you hire accountable.
Also, check out the USGBC’s green home guide at www.greenhome guide.com to see a valuable Q&A with green home professionals, in addition to a searchable feature that will allow you to locate green home professionals in Chicago.
At the Rebuilding Exchange in Chicago, homeowners can source reused old growth timber, windows and other home materials. They work to deconstruct buildings instead of demolishing them to divert the waste from the landfills.
There isn’t a comprehensive green living program available currently to enlist individual homeowners in green lifestyle choices, although proposed changes to the Chicago Green Homes Program would certify individual units through the city’s green certification program. Additionally, there are several incentive and rebate programs from utility companies to get people to save energy, La Fleur says. One good one is CNT Energy’s program called Energy Impact Illinois, which is designed to help homeowners, building owners, contractors and communities take action and find resources in a straightforward manner. Through this, you can get an energy rater out to your home to help you identify where your biggest issues are, and what the best low-cost improvements for your home would be. For more information about Energy Impact, check out www.energyimpactillinois.org.
The LEED rating system should also help you figure out your best buys. It rewards new and existing commercial buildings using a tiered (silver, gold, platinum) rating system.
It’s clear that green is finally the new black. Get with the trend.
Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.