Building Green Chicago 2013

By Matt Baker

Karen Weigert, Chicago Chief Sustainability Officer.

Karen Weigert, Chicago Chief Sustainability Officer.

For seven years, Index Publishing has hosted the Building Green Chicago Conference & Expo in downtown Chicago. This annual event brings together sustainable leaders from the private and public sectors, hundreds of attendees and companies and organizations eager to show off their solutions for making our built environment greener.

The keynote speaker this year was Karen Weigert, the Chief Sustainability Officer under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. She discussed the administration’s Sustainable Chicago 2015 plan, which sets 24 goals for improvement in the city across seven areas of focus: economic development, energy efficiency, transportation, water, open space, waste management and climate change.

Weigert highlighted some of the economic development initiatives of the city that also help to create green jobs, such as Greencorps, an environmental stewardship job training program for individuals with barriers to employment. Weigert also talked about changes to our regional transportation infrastructure. “We need to make walking and biking safer and easier,” she said, while also expounding on the city’s plan to expand the region’s transit infrastructure.

Weigert concluded her remarks by noting the way that Chicago is taking on the challenge of climate change head-on, with specific goals for reduction in energy, water, waste and other areas in the next two years.

The Green Office

Colin Rohlfing, Sustainable Design Leader, HOK; Dustin Gellman, CEO, Greenpoint Partners and Kevin Dick, Project Manager, Delta Institute.

Colin Rohlfing, Sustainable Design Leader, HOK; Dustin Gellman, CEO, Greenpoint Partners and Kevin Dick, Project Manager, Delta Institute.

The first panel discussion looked at one of those city initiatives, the Green Office Challenge. Designed to provoke commercial office spaces into reducing utility use, the Challenge has been one of the city’s more successful initiatives on this front. Delta Institute and GreenPoint Partners collaborate to administer the program.

Kevin Dick, Project Manager with Delta Institute, and GreenPoint’s CEO, Dustin Gellman, described some of the new features in Round Three of the Challenge. For example, a new tool that fosters engagement within an office by allowing multiple users to interact and a leader board that will highlight progress to promote comparison and friendly competition.

Also new is a knowledge base where participants can find ways to improve their office and earn points in the Challenge. “If you have done things around your office, we want you to contribute to this knowledge base,” said Gellman. The idea is to create a self-sustaining forum where participants can discuss what has worked and what hasn’t in their spaces.

One such participant is HOK, represented at the conference by Sustainable Design Leader Colin Rohlfing. When the architecture and design firm moved into a new, LEED Platinum space several years ago, they used all the green technology they could get their hands on, from occupancy sensors for lighting to carbon dioxide sensors for HVAC. However, after joining the Green Office Challenge, they came in at a paltry tier three. That’s when the realization struck that a new, sustainable space isn’t necessarily enough. “This is about occupant engagement, this is about the lifecycle of the building and ongoing operations,” said Rohlfing. “This is about change in management; this is about getting people excited and doing these things continuously.”

Utility Rebates

Jason Ransby-Sporn, Program Manager, CNT Energy; Paige Knutsen, Sr. Program Manager, Peoples’ Gas and North Shore Energy Savings Program; Helee Hillman, Director, Goby LLC and Nathan Warren, Program Manager, Nicor Gas Energy Efficiency Program.

Jason Ransby-Sporn, Program Manager, CNT Energy; Paige Knutsen, Sr. Program Manager, Peoples’ Gas and North Shore Energy Savings Program; Helee Hillman, Director, Goby LLC and Nathan Warren, Program Manager, Nicor Gas Energy Efficiency Program.

There are a number of things that a property owner can do to not only reduce energy consumption, but save money as well. The second panel discussion of the day partnered experts from the commercial and non-profit sectors to advise how one can navigate the landscape of utility energy efficiency rebates.

CNT-Energy, a division of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, is a “think-and-do tank” tasked with helping the multi-family, affordable housing sector save on energy costs and operate more efficiently. An initiative of CNT Energy is the Energy Savers Program, managed by Jason Ransby-Sporn and focused on offering free energy audits, modeling, utility build analyses and other services.

In cooperation with the Community Investment Corporation, CNT Energy has operated a loan program for the last four years. Roughly two-thirds of the loans are energy efficiency items that are components of larger site rehabilitations. “It is a model for creating sustainable investment because the money is paid back,” said Ransby-Sporn. “It’s not just subsidized energy efficiency. We’re recognizing value in terms of money saved and creating a more profitable property.”

One way to save money and reduce usage is by taking advantage of programs offered by the utility providers. The state of Illinois has legally mandated that these programs be in place and each publicly-funded utility must meet specific standards. What’s more, they are funded by a line item on every Illinois resident’s utility bill, meaning there are funds out there that we are already paying into.

The hazard is in trying to negotiate the various grants and programs from the different utilities. “Implementation contractor utility work in the state of Illinois is a spaghetti monster,” said Paige Knutsen, a Senior Program Manager with Franklin Energy Services. Knutsen manages the Energy Savings Program for Peoples’ Gas and North Shore Gas. “For example, you might talk to me about one program, but go to another implementation contractor for another program and that’s where people throw their hands up.”

“There is a slippery slope there, as relates to collaboration versus competition,” said Nate Warren, Program Manager with Resource Solutions Group, where he oversees the Nicor Gas Energy Efficiency Program. “RSG, Franklin and CNT are in essence competitors in the marketplace, but trying to achieve a common goal.”

Helee Hillman spoke on the subject from another perspective. As a Director at Goby, LLC, Hillman consults companies, property owners, managers and others on how best to manage their portfolios. “We understand that sustainability is and can be costly,” Hillman said. “We try to offset those costs by taking advantage of these amazing projects so sustainability is more attainable for everyone, not just Class A office buildings with money.”

Hillman went through a few properties that Goby has helped, including the art deco masterpiece, Two N. Riverside Plaza. “There’s a common misperception that old buildings can’t be sustainable. Scratch that from your head,” Hillman said. In addition to helping the building attain LEED certification, Goby saved the property tens of thousands of dollars with measures such as renegotiating their energy contract.

New Sustainable Standards

Paul Merrill, Director of Sustainability, Clayco; Rod Petrick, Trustee, Chicagoland Roofing Council and Aaron Joseph, Deputy Sustainability Officer, City of Chicago.

Paul Merrill, Director of Sustainability, Clayco; Rod Petrick, Trustee, Chicagoland Roofing Council and Aaron Joseph, Deputy Sustainability Officer, City of Chicago.

Convincing those who adhere to traditional construction methods to build green can be a challenge. The two biggest hurdles are the often higher upfront costs of sustainable materials and the inertia of doing what is familiar. This has resulted in the legislation of green building standards. As the marketplace adopts the new standards, they change, becoming stricter and inching us closer to smarter, more efficient ways of building up our environment.

Now, new changes are coming. Illinois has already approved its changes to the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code and Chicago is in the process of refining that code to its own purposes. Aaron Joseph, the Deputy Sustainability Officer for the City of Chicago, moderated a panel discussion on new sustainability standards that building professionals should expect.

Chief among these was the city’s commitment to greening its stock of buildings and transportation infrastructure. And while we wait for a new version of the Chicago-specific energy conservation code, Joseph hammered home the point of public-private partnerships that advance the sustainability agenda. Having previously held positions at Urban Partnership Bank, Morgan Stanley and Environmental Systems Design, Joseph knows both sides of public/private relationship, and how important it is to have input from the private sector.

One organization that has helped guide new standards is the Chicagoland Roofing Council. Rod Petrick, former president of the organization and owner of Ridgeworth Roofing, spoke on behalf of the Roofing Council and focused on changes in the code relating to roofing. He pointed out that insulation standards have steadily grown, with efficiency improvements of 30% in 2006 and another 15% on top of that in 2009. These will only go up in the new version, from R-20 to R-25.

Petrick also highlighted the requirement for a continuous air barrier in new construction for both residential and commercial applications. And unlike downstate Illinois or in the suburbs, Chicago has a special section devoted to roof reflectivity, in an attempt to reduce the urban heat island effect.

The new standards for roof insulation, Petrick pointed out, may be too costly or simply impossible, given the size restrictions on many existing buildings. He suggested some workarounds, however, that can add efficiency and stay within the purview of the new code. A roofing membrane, for example, is considered a roof covering, and as such, is subject to different standards. “Put simply, no continuous air barrier is required when the extent of work is limited solely to a roof recover or roof replacement,” Petrick said.

Joining the panel was Paul Merrill, Director of Sustainability with design-build firm Clayco. Merrill specializes in green building practices within his organization and leads training to clients, subcontractors and Clayco employees. Merrill believes that the education of the workforce on sustainability matters is paramount, saying that the greenest methods are only green if implemented properly—or at all. For instance, Merrill pointed out that when certifying a project through LEED, almost 60% of the total available credits are attainable due to successful practices in the field.

He also sees a need to change the mindset of developers and clients that it costs more money to build green, saying that conclusion is reached as a result of short-term, closed-minded thinking. Merrill also spoke about where new green building standards will go in the future, with a special necessity for innovation. “There is a need for new and creative sustainability ideas,” he said, “for an industry slow to change.”

The Green Economy

Angela Bailey, Policy Associate, Chicago Jobs Council; Kate Tomford, Chief Sustainability Policy Advisor, Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity; Sofia Dermisi, Professor of Real Estate and Pasquinelli Family Distinguished Chair, Roosevelt University and Brad Klein, Senior Attorney, Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Angela Bailey, Policy Associate, Chicago Jobs Council; Kate Tomford, Chief Sustainability Policy Advisor, Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity; Sofia Dermisi, Professor of Real Estate and Pasquinelli Family Distinguished Chair, Roosevelt University and Brad Klein, Senior Attorney, Environmental Law & Policy Center.

The final discussion of the day centered on green jobs and the growing green economy. Even as we claw our way out of the economic recession, the alternative energy industry has seen and continues to see growth. For example, installed capacity of photovoltaics double each year and in the last four years, annual capacity increased tenfold.

Last year, nearly 120,000 Americans worked in the solar industry. “That’s a 13% growth rate in the solar job sector while the overall economy grew by just 2.3% during that same time period,” said Brad Klein, a Senior Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Klein summarized a report that his agency conducted in 2011 that counted over 300 wind, geothermal and solar thermal supply chain companies in Illinois alone that employed over 18,000 people. “We expect this to continue growing, and all these companies will require a highly-trained and professional workforce,” he said.

The Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity (DCEO) is an arm of the Illinois Energy Office and is the designated recipient of federal funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. Kate Tomford, who serves as Chief Sustainability Policy Advisor for the DCEO, discussed some of the incentive programs and job training that the agency offers.

The DCEO offers incentives on efficient lighting, HVAC, gas furnaces, boilers and even LED traffic signals for municipalities. Rebates are available for new construction while for existing buildings, the agency has some funds available for retro-commissioning.

Among the incentives that the DCEO offers, the solar rebates have seen the most interest. “We annually offer a solar rebate for small-scale projects,” said Tomford. “In our early years, it took maybe a couple of months for that funding to run out and now the funding goes in about ten days.”

Through the Smart Energy Design Assistance Center at the University of Illinois, the agency also provides job training, specifically through building energy assessments, code training and, in conjunction with that, right-sized HVAC training.

Angela Bailey is a Policy Associate at the Chicago Jobs Council, a non-profit public policy advocacy organization. Bailey directed her discussion toward the policy-makers and job-seekers in the audience.

The Council’s Chicagoland Green Collar Jobs Initiative is a diverse, partner-based initiative that advocates for employment and training opportunities for disadvantaged workers in the green economy. Due to the high unemployment rate, unskilled workers have found themselves in a very competitive labor market.

The Green Collar Jobs Initiative has instituted several measures to alleviate this. One thing they addressed was the disconnect between the available training to low-income earners and what employers actually needed. Another was bridging the abilities of those poverty-level workers who suffer lower-than average education levels.

Bailey stressed the importance of finding a green job training program that is industry recognized, and has a high job-placement rate. “You need to make sure that the training program you enter is training people for jobs that are actually available,” Bailey said. “That might seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised … how many training programs I’ve seen that are training people for jobs that are not actually available.”

Dr. Sofia Dermisi is a Professor of Real Estate and the Pasquinelli Family Distinguished Chair at Roosevelt University‘s Walter E. Heller College of Business. Dr. Dermisi’s research focuses on major downtown office markets, with three areas of emphasis: market analysis, terrorism/life-safety and sustainability. Those three disciplines dovetailed in one graph she showed at the conference showing the spike in crude oil prices every time there is a new crisis of instability in the Middle East, starting with the Yom Kippur War up to the Arab Spring.

With the uncertainty surrounding imported energy and the return on investment that companies see when they invest in green principles, there is a clear shift in how the real estate marketplace treats sustainability. This is reflected in the curricula at colleges and universities like Roosevelt.

“In the past, only architects or engineers focused on sustainability,” said Dermisi. “Now, if you’re in any type of property-management class or construction class, you look into the sustainability aspect. Especially considering the amount of existing space that is out there, you really need to have educated property managers.”

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