Chicago’s Green Building Initiatives Take Global Strides

By Vuk Vujovic, Associate AIA, LEED AP
and Steven Kismohr, AIA, LEED AP

The world is in peril. Scientists find the Earth is in danger of harmful radiation. Its agricultural production is depleting, followed by a declining economy. The planet’s biodiversity is waning rapidly, while countries and multinational companies, fearing economic and social upheaval, are slow to make changes to their business-as-usual approach. Does this sound like a familiar scenario? In the 1970’s, this was about the ozone depletion. Today, we are dealing with global climate change.

So what happened to ozone depletion? In 1987, 27 nations–including the US–signed the Montreal Protocol, which targeted substances that deplete the ozone layer. The Protocol required phasing out the production of a number of substances believed to be responsible for unprecedented ozone depletion. This started the international compliance process, which, in turn, began the process of mitigating ozone depletion. Several industries adjusted their operations to meet the new requirements. The “ozone hole” shrunk significantly. Nobody went bankrupt. The corrective action was made possible because countries took collective action on a problem and agreed on a solution.

Where to Start?
Today we hear similar predictions on climate change, but the current outcome is a little different. The Kyoto Protocol was signed ten years later, in 1997, by 120 countries including most of the world’s industrialized nations. One notable exception was the United States, which cited “potential damage to the US economy” if required to comply. Some advocate doing so with greatly reduced thresholds and without any major regulatory requirements. Leaders have left it up to the market to “regulate itself.” The solution is within reach, but action lags.

Now, global warming is on everyone’s mind, despite the reluctance of the US Federal government to intervene and mandate solutions. The fact that buildings account for half of all US CO2 emissions points at the building industry the most, for both causes and possible solutions. We all want to leave a habitable planet for our future generations, but where to start? What can building owners, architects or engineers do? Are there any local tools to help address climate change?

The Cool Tool
Enter the Carbon Reduction Strategies for the Chicago Region (also known as the “Cool Tool”), developed in 2007 by the American Institute of Architects’ Chicago Chapter Committee on the Environment (AIA Chicago COTE). It was created to educate the public and design professionals on readily available sustainable strategies that can help reduce the impact of the built environment on carbon emissions and global climate change.

On September 22, 2008, just days after the City of Chicago launched its Chicago Climate Action Plan, we had the opportunity to represent AIA Chicago COTE at the World Sustainable Building Conference (SB08) held in Melbourne, Australia. The event, which attracted more than 3,000 attendees from 80 countries, provided a venue for the Cool Tool, while enhancing Chicago’s reputation for action and innovation in the international green community.

The Cool Tool strategies stemmed from AIA Chicago COTE’s ongoing cooperation with the City of Chicago’s Department of Environment and discussions about mitigating climate change on a local level. They were also developed as a means to adapt the city’s 2030 Challenge initiative with strategies specific to the Chicago Region and Midwest climate.

As a Web-based matrix, the Cool Tool incorporates 60 practical steps to improve energy efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint of any building type. Four categories range from immediate solutions as simple as turning off lights when not required, to long-term strategies that use higher design integration and ongoing implementation policies for maximum carbon and energy use reductions. The matrix defines cost, possible carbon emissions, and energy use reductions for each strategy.

Australia: A Lesson in Action
What was most impressive about World SB08 was the level of communication and cooperation between government, academia and the building industries in most countries attempting to tackle climate change. Submitted work addressed a wide range of issues, from technical and financial to political and philosophical aspects of addressing climate change and implementing sustainability on a global scale. Unlike most “green” conferences, World SB08 provided ample information on a multitude of policies, solutions and technologies supported by published research. An atmosphere of sharing information, research data and experiences to achieve a common goal pervaded the conference. The speakers provided much more in-depth analyses than we’re used to seeing elsewhere.

Australia, another country slow to sign the Kyoto Protocol, came around last year. Kevin Rudd, the new Prime Minister, ratified the agreement as his first official act. World SB08 demonstrated how Australia has changed its view about climate change and the overarching message we heard was: this is happening now, and we (in Australia) are doing something about it right now.

The Australian federal government is preparing regulations to measure the CO2E (carbon dioxide equivalent) gases released from buildings. This year, it released a draft report titled the Garnaut Climate Change Review, which analyzed the climate challenges the country will face in the next 100 years. The report’s key element was to mandate a carbon emissions cap and trade scheme by 2010. The report also goes beyond Kyoto requirements by recommending reductions of CO2E levels by 25% by 2020 and 90% by 2050 (with year 2000 as a base line). The Australian government has pledged to confirm what path it is to follow by year’s end. Will the US pursue some of these same actions or are we are still stuck debating whether climate change really exists?

Bonding Public and Private Interests
The tools created to address climate change need to help everyone reduce energy use, associated costs, and carbon emissions. For that reason, the Cool Tool is designed to serve a variety of building industry professionals: municipal officials, building owners, architects, engineers, contractors, developers. It could also extend beyond the design and construction industry, functioning as a practical resource for homeowners. The Cool Tool’s goal was to provide Chicago’s public and private building owners with a common cause: decreasing the impact of global warming on our city by reducing the carbon and energy footprints of buildings through conservation and “smarter,” high-performance design. The “Cool Tool” is currently in a pilot release intended to generate interest and will continue to be refined as more information becomes available.

A Competition Where Everyone Wins
We shared the COTE Cool Tool matrix at SB08 World Sustainability Conference with the hope that other cities throughout the world will use it as a springboard for their own energy and carbon emissions reduction plans. The audience of our World SB08 presentation recognized the intended breadth and versatility of the Cool Tool. It is a contribution to help stimulate a healthier economy and promote a “Who has the greenest city?” competition on a global level. We hope that sense of competition impels city governments and businesses to be more sustainable in their design, construction and operation to reduce their carbon emissions and the effect of climate change. When that happens, we all win.

Sidebar: A Cool Tool Primer
The Cool Tool matrix divides carbon reduction strategies into four implementation categories. Action items indicate policies, design strategies, and existing technologies to be implemented in building design, construction, and operations. The strategies are applicable to renovations and new construction.

Immediate Strategies
These approaches are achievable virtually without cost. For instance, activating computers’ low-power “sleep mode” after 30 minutes of inactivity cost nothing but can save a bundle by cutting down phantom energy costs.

Short-Term Strategies
This category includes strategies with a low first cost and little design integration required. One example is using building commissioning, a process in which engineers check and tune-up building systems to ensure they are operating efficiently. Savings come from adjusting existing controls to reduce HVAC waste while maintaining or even increasing comfort levels for building occupants.

Mid-Term Strategies
These moderately priced strategies require modest design integration and mostly apply to building upgrades and renovations. Examples include engaging all disciplines early in a “whole building” design process, and replacing standard windows with tripled glazed units. The latter strategy can reduce a household’s energy bill by up to 15%.

Long-Term Strategies
The final category is most applicable for new construction and creating comprehensive policies that will have impact on future building design. Its strategies require moderate costs and higher design integration. They range from implementing renewable energy sources like building integrated photovoltaics and wind power to mandating policy that promotes longer lasting buildings.

AIA Chicago COTE is hoping to add to the Cool Tool’s functionality by transforming it into a wiki-based website, to enable users to learn about carbon reduction strategies, add to the Cool Tool matrix, modify strategies, and suggest resources and references, thereby creating a “living tool” that evolves as new ideas emerge. We anticipate having the site available as soon as the first quarter of 2009.

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