A Decade of Model Green Building

By Matt Baker

This June, the Chicago Center for Green Technology (CCGT) turned ten years old. Hundreds of people came out to celebrate the successes of one of the country’s premier green building educational facilities and to launch it toward the next ten years.

The CCGT was dedicated in 2002 and awarded LEED Platinum the following year, at a time when you could count such buildings on one hand. And the site came with a long list of LEED Platinum superlatives: the first in Chicago, the first municipal building anywhere; the first brownfield site; the first renovated building. The CCGT also earned more points than any other project before it for that version of LEED.

The CCGT had its roots with then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Chicago Brownfield Initiative (CBI). The CBI, like so many similar programs, linked environmentalism and economics by a common goal: rehabilitate urban land that has turned fallow and toxic and return it to productive use.

The property at 445 N. Sacramento, just south of Garfield Park, was owned at the time by Sacramento Crushing. The company, licensed for recycling construction and demolition debris, had far exceeded the scope of its permit, as evidenced by the piles of waste that rose 70 feet high and sank 15 feet into the ground.

The Chicago Department of the Environment (DOE) and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency shut down the facility, with the DOE taking ownership of the property in 1996. The initial plan was to remediate the site so that it was commercially viable, as had been done with other projects in the CBI program. But the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment, led by Doug Farr of Farr Associates, introduced the city to the USGBC and LEED.

Funding totaling $9 million from a HUD loan, utility arbitration, city funds and other sources provided leverage to rebuild the site in way few had ever seen. “We had a site, we had money and we had an idea,” said David Reynolds, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of General Services at the anniversary event. “From that came the Chicago Center for Green Technology.”

The first step was to remove the 600,000 cubic yards of construction waste from the 17-acre site, a process that took a year and a half. A large percentage of this was scrap concrete, which the city sold to recycling firms and used as foundation material in the Millennium Park garage, then under construction. All told, 84% of the site’s construction waste was diverted from landfills.

Then there was the matter of the 34,000 SF building, first erected in 1952 and in serious disrepair. “At that time this building had no windows, no plumbing, no wiring and the roof had been leaking. It was really just a shell,” said Reynolds. “The consensus was we should just hit it with a bulldozer while we were out here and push it over.”

But that just meant the building was full of potential. Farr Associates led the design work, crafting a living, usable facility. In the rehabilitation, 100% of the structural shell remained intact and no CFCs or HCFCs were used in any of the building materials, half of which came from within 300 miles of the site. The hydraulics in the elevator, for example, use canola oil instead of a petroleum product.

More than a third of the building’s materials were made from recycled content, including insulation, ceiling tiles, drywall and more. Various recycled flooring methods were used such as linoleum, rubber and scrap cork.

Insulated windows featuring a low-e glazing keep the building thermally intact while bringing in ample daylight. The windows are also operable, taking advantage of the natural cross ventilation that was originally designed into the building.

Most of the heating and cooling is derived from a ground-source heat pump system, based in thermal wells dug 200 feet deep. A high-efficiency, natural gas boiler assists with heat demand in the winter.

The seven-zone mechanical system was designed to use 40% less energy than a comparable building. This is achieved with a heat recovery system tied to the building’s exhaust and incoming ventilation. A building automation system optimizes the heat pumps and can override the HVAC during peak stress.

Another source of on-site energy is the collection of solar photovoltaic panels on the roof and awnings and a ground-based array, which provide 20% of the building’s electricity needs. Occupancy and light sensors dim artificial lamps as needed to reduce the draw of power.

A portion of the roof not taken up by photovoltaics contains a vegetated roof which offers extra insulation and stormwater retention. Four cisterns with a total capacity of 12,000 gallons catch even more stormwater and use it for irrigation. The green roof and cisterns cut the site’s runoff in half.

And the CCGT gets greener every year as new technologies are introduced and tested out at the facility. “I just saw a green wall in there with plants that don’t need dirt and grow in the air,” said Karen Weigert, the city’s Chief Sustainability Officer, during her remarks at the anniversary celebration. “Can we talk about how cool that is?”

But more important than how green CCGT is, is how green it makes the rest of Chicago. The CCGT’s Green Tech U offers a series of lectures and seminars covering every aspect of green building, policy and other topics. Every session is free, open to the public and often eligible for continuing education credit.

Also free and publicly-available is the Green Tech Resource Center, a comprehensive library of sustainable products and practices. The Resource Center has green building guide books, LEED references and samples of environmentally-conscious building materials. It is an important aid for anyone looking to install a green roof, wind turbine, apiary or just about anything else.

The building is also home to like-minded tenants. WRD Environmental is a landscape design/build firm. They oversaw the original landscaping of the site from landfill to prairie oasis and continue to steward the land. Greencorps Chicago is a city initiative that provides job training for ex-offenders.

“We are a city in a garden,” said Weigert. “That is our motto and you see it here today as we continue to build and refresh our environment and build those great connections for all of us to live in a rockin city, have a little nature and make sure that generations ahead will have it too.”

Chicago now has more LEED buildings than anywhere else in the nation. Over a dozen wind companies, the most in North America, are headquartered here. During the past ten years, this city has served as a beacon of environmentalism and progress; thanks in no small part to the CCGT, Chicago should remain the leader that it is for decades to come.

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