O’Hare Goes Green. Big Time.

By Matt Baker

Courtesy Chicago Department of Aviation

Ten years ago, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley announced a plan to renovate the area’s overtaxed, international airport. The O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP) advocated new and extended runways, a reconfigured layout and a newly-constructed western terminal.

The project was designed to reduce delays and increase capacity at the airfield. Spend some money now, the thinking goes (the current OMP budget is estimated at $8 billion), and make more later once O’Hare’s prominence as a transportation hub is carried on into the 21st century.

“The historic O’Hare Modernization Project has received more federal funding than any other airport reconstruction project in history,” said U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). “That remarkable federal investment fuels O’Hare’s position as the economic engine for the region, solidifies Chicago’s role as a global transportation hub and will pay dividends for our state and nation for years to come.”

As we’ve seen before, however, the needs of capitalism and conservation need not deviate. In keeping with the city’s standards of environmental stewardship, the OMP created a sustainable design manual in 2003 to guide the green aspects of the airport modernization.

The manual calls for myriad sustainable practices in the areas of site management, water and energy use, indoor air quality, facility operations, construction materials and others.

Since then, renovations have already begun at O’Hare in what is one of the largest public works projects in the nation. Further, the 2003 design manual has been revised; this October the city issued a Sustainable Airport Manual (SAM), which they describe as a “living document” that will evolve as new technologies, designs and principles emerge.

The city also expects the SAM to guide the construction and renovation of airports across the world. Rosemarie Andolino, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA), hopes that the new manual and the changes wrought at O’Hare “will continue to evolve as a benchmark for environmental stewardship in design and construction.”

The modernization plan will take several years to complete over various phases. Some of the work has already concluded, however. 2008 was a busy year, with a 3,000-foot extension to the airport’s busiest runways, one brand new runway and a new air traffic control tower. All of these projects opened on or ahead of schedule and under budget.

Courtesy Chicago Department of Aviation

Handling all the traffic on the new north runway, the north tower is one of the most environmentally-friendly control towers ever constructed. During the $65 million, two-year project, more than half of all construction waste was kept out of landfills and at least 20% of materials were sourced locally.

The tower’s cantilever design and 30-degree angle windows provide more than just great views of the green roof below. According to Bill Mumper, air traffic manager at the airport, the angled glass keeps rainwater off so that all but the most violent storms won’t occlude visibility.

Also completed in 2008 was the first new runway at the airport since 1971. At 7,500 feet long and 150 feet wide, runway 9L-27R is capable of handling the next generation of very large aircraft, such as the Airbus A-380 and Boeing 787.

Incredibly, 100% of all excavated concrete and asphalt waste was reused onsite, according to John Patelski, Managing Director and President of Engineering and Construction at Epstein, the Chicago-based engineering firm that led the runway’s design. Half of other construction and demolition debris was diverted from landfills, while more than half of the new construction materials were acquired locally. minimizing off-site transportation impacts.

Where possible, existing navigational equipment and lighting were salvaged and reused. Landscaping of the runway expansion was one of the first uses of new low-maintenance, tall fescue seed mix. This mix eliminated the need to import over 17,000 cubic yards of topsoil. The site also features waste re-use and recycling and water-efficient landscaping. The developers were conscious of sustainable energy design by using rapidly renewable resources.

The newest feature to the main terminal parking garage opened this year: a public electric vehicle (EV) charging station. Capable of fully charging an electric vehicle in approximately four to eight hours, the station was installed as part of a project, the first and largest of its kind in the US, of 280 city-wide EV charging stations. The Chicago Department of Environment and a private company, 350Green, which installs and maintains the stations, plan on expanding the program at both airports and elsewhere in the city.

A Federal Express warehouse at O’Hare has also joined in. The 175,000 square foot vegetated roof atop the FedEx Cargo Relocation Facility is the largest freestanding green roof in the city and the second largest at an airport in the world.

Designed and developed by Intrinsic Landscaping, Inc., the FedEx Cargo building is one of 12 green roof structures between O’Hare International and Midway Airport. FedEx calculates that this structure will save 20 cents per square foot of green roof per year on energy costs alone and will absorb approximately two million gallons of storm water each year.

The ability of green roofs to retain rainwater and curb the urban heat island effect are especially apt for an airport, where a large percentage of the footprint is impervious concrete.

Photo: Joseph Yaroch

“The creation of the green roof space is a key component of going green across Chicago, and at both airports,” said Andolino. “I want to commend FedEx for making sustainability a priority on their new replacement cargo facility at O’Hare.”

One highly visible green addition to passengers walking through Concourse G is a new aeroponic garden. A joint effort between the CDA and HMSHost, O’Hare’s food service provider, the urban garden will provide produce for the airport’s restaurants including Tortas Frontera, Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi, Blackhawks Restaurant and Tuscany. Vegetables include Swiss chard, lettuce, habanero peppers and green beans, as well as herbs like basil, cilantro, dill, parsley, chives, thyme, oregano and even edible flowers.

“Producing and purchasing locally grown foods supports the CDA’s commitment to sustainability by strengthening the local economy and job market, providing a unique learning opportunity for travelers and reducing urban sprawl, traffic congestion, habitat loss and pollution from transportation of produce,” said Andolino. The eight-foot tall aeroponic towers require no weed-pulling, use two-thirds less water than conventional gardens and produce a higher yield per square foot.

Midway Airport will soon follow suit with a new composting program for the 13 restaurants that operate there. Under the program, all of the restaurants at Midway will collect pre-consumer food waste, which will then be delivered to an off-site, certified composting facility in the Chicago area for later use as fertilizer.

Since it is so large in scope, the modernization project is only partly done despite years of work. The CDA recently announced plans for a massive solar panel installation, which would supply renewable energy to the airport while helping to grow the region’s alternative energy market. Up to 60 acres of airport land will soon sport ground-mounted solar panels.

Future plans also call for a fueling station that would supply multiple alternative fuels such as compressed natural gas, biodiesel, ethanol and electric vehicle charging to commercial and private vehicles at and around O’Hare. Dozens of taxis making more than 3,000 trips to O’Hare have already been using compressed natural gas as part of the city’s Green Taxi Program which launched in August.

As the airport modernization continues, another new control tower will be built. Plans call for the tower to go up by 2015, in time to accommodate heightened air traffic on a new runway. The FAA has committed $3.4 million for the design of the new facility, and in keeping with the commitments built into the OMP, it will be constructed with green materials and practices.

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