Building in Harmony

By Matt Baker

Image courtesy of Harmony House.

It’s the greenest animal shelter in Chicago and possibly the nation. Harmony House for Cats, which officially opened its new location this past July, was designed to be a net-zero energy facility with sights set on LEED-NC Platinum. Attaining Platinum appears to be manifest at this point. “It’s only a question of how high our score is going to be,” said Ann Dieter, the Board President of Harmony House.

Situated on Elston Avenue in the Avondale neighborhood, the one-story, 7,000 square-foot building was designed by Farr Associates and dbHMS, and constructed by Goldberg General Contracting. The facility sports a main greeting area, three adoption playrooms, three admission rooms, four special needs suites, a medical ward, treatment room, conference room, kitchen, three bathrooms and two mechanical rooms.

The shelter’s previous location, a two-flat on north Kedzie, had been in need of rehabilitation. However, a private donor supplied a generous endowment to instead erect a brand new structure—one built to the highest green standards.

Harmony House is a cageless, no-kill adoption center and the space was designed with the animals’ peculiar needs in mind. Cats are segregated into separate rooms based on temperament, health and other factors. Shy cats, for example, can find refuge beneath a blanket-draped table in their room. Only a few wear collars. “They are the escape artists,” said Monica Schrager, Vice President of the Board for Harmony House. “They are the ones that try to dash out the door.”All of the bathrooms feature low-flow fixtures and one has a shower that, in addition to the secure bike rack in the central plaza, makes it easy for employees and volunteers to bike to work.

Image courtesy of Harmony House.

One original concept called for partial walls, with a space near the ceiling connecting all the rooms. Dieter and her staff had to convince the designers that they were underestimating the cats’ agility. “This was a special challenge for them,” said Dieter. “They had never done an animal shelter.” When they are lounging and not dashing, the shelving that the cats perch upon is all locally-sourced.

Robust ventilation filters were chosen to contend with the cat hair and litter dust. All of the exhaust outlets are on one side of building, constantly bringing air in to keeps odors in office area to minimum. “Believe me,” said Dieter, “they tore their hair out over all of this.”

The plaza is an open air feature in the middle of the property that the building wraps itself around, allowing natural light to infiltrate every corner of the interior. “Cats in every room of the new shelter will be able to nap in the sunshine, and look out at the trees and plants,” said Dieter. The ample windows also allow for daylight harvesting, which is augmented by variable, light-sensing fixtures.

All of the plants on the property are native and/or drought-resistant. The plaza is finished in permeable pavers and pockets of pea gravel to reduce stormwater retention. All of the trees were chosen so as not to overshadow the solar panels as they mature. The white and yellow, Mondrianesque exterior is not only very attractive, it is clad in recycled cement siding. The finish on the siding also claims to be graffiti-resistant.

Image courtesy of Harmony House.

The site’s proximity to Elston, Western and Diversey Avenues means good access to public transportation. For drivers, Harmony House has only two dedicated parking spots: one for the disabled, and one that will be prioritized for drivers of energy-efficient vehicles.

Harmony House is slated to be the first net-zero energy commercial building in the City of Chicago. How can a relatively small commercial property produce more on-site energy each year than it takes in from the utility companies? With a very aggressive and redundant renewable energy strategy.

It starts underground with the 14 geothermal wells with a combined capacity of 42 tons. Variable speed drives and seven remote heat pumps move the fluid around only as the system demands at any given time. Awnings, mechanically-adjustable shades and spray foam insulation all cooperate to aid heat transference as well.

On the roof, 20 solar thermal panels provide additional hot water, enough to adequately supply 70% of the shelter’s annual hot water needs. An array of 96 solar photovoltaic panels also provide electricity to the site. Several redundancies are built in for service needs. For example, water heating in the building first comes from the solar water panels, then from geothermal and as a back-up, from electric sources.

An energy recovery ventilator mixes exhaust through a heat exchanger with intake air. The result is fresh air that is pre-conditioned to the space. The building has six different air handling zones, commanded by two mechanical rooms, a “wet mechanical,” handling the geothermal and solar hot water intake, and a “dry mechanical,” which oversees the solar photovoltaic and commercial electric.

Delta Controls created an energy-modeling and building control nexus. Since the shelter is manned largely by volunteers, the dashboard system was designed to have a user-friendly interface. Graphics will be cycled through on the monitor in office to constantly provide visibility to aspects of how the building is working. Depending on temperature, time of day, utility usage and other factors, the dashboard will communicate the reason the system is deciding what to do.

The shelter’s name, Harmony House, was chosen because of the way the cats live together, in an open, peaceful environment. Every room even has a Zen-like name such as Shangri-La, Camelot and Nirvana. But it also reflects how the new building interacts with its environment: in harmony with nature.

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