Sustainability at the Shedd

By Matt Baker

By all accounts, John Graves Shedd was a successful businessman of his day; Marshall Field called him “the best merchant in the United States.” He was also a philanthropist and civic leader, donating to schools, hospitals and libraries. But the one reason that today his name is known to every Chicagoan is that it is etched in marble on what is perhaps his greatest gift, the Shedd Aquarium.

Read_SC15Q4Believing that every world-class city should have a great aquarium, Shedd donated $3 million and created an organization to see that Chicago would have one. He died in 1926, never having seen what his donation and determination wrought.

Designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White—the prestigious firm behind many Chicago landmarks including the Wrigley Building, Civic Opera House, Union Station and more—the building is lavish and whimsical. Cresting waves are featured on the parapet, shells and sea creatures are etched into the heavy brass doors and sculpted octopi drape over the Tiffany chandeliers.

No expense was spared to ensure that it was the largest indoor aquarium in the world upon opening in 1929. Two expansions—the Abbot Oceanarium 1991 and the Wild Reef exhibit in 2003—have together nearly doubled the aquarium’s size and helped to continue its mission of connecting people to the living world and inspiring them to make a difference.

The job of maintaining 32,500 aquatic animals is an energy- and water-intensive one. But this October, the Shedd received a Governor’s Sustainability Award, presented by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, having demonstrated a commitment to environmental excellence through outstanding and innovative sustainability practices. It was high praise years in the making.


In 2013, the Shedd launched their Master Energy Roadmap, designed to make the aquarium the greenest in the world. Developed in partnership with the City of Chicago, Illinois Science and Technology Coalition, the Institute for Sustainable Energy Development, the Citizens Utility Board, West Monroe Partners and the Civic Consulting Alliance, the roadmap aims to cut energy consumption of the historic building in half by 2020. This ambitious initiative will save close to 10 million kilowatt hours annually.

The roadmap has guided the aquarium on how to improve the efficiency of their operations in a number of ways. The first is retrofits, such as LED lighting, variable speed drives and heating and cooling optimization. Four of those Tiffany chandeliers in the lobby now contain LED lamps that mimic the look of incandescents. With over 600 bulbs between four chandeliers, that change alone saves about 60,000 kWh per year.

New electricity sub meters and enhanced automation systems will help the operations team better understand and control the aquarium’s energy use in real time. The Shedd can now adjust to usage patterns and demand response pricing. Better energy storage, along with the 265 kW solar panel array on the roof, will save the aquarium on energy costs and provide critical power in the event of a blackout.

“By 2020, we want to be able to call ourselves the first smart energy aquarium, where we’re looked upon around the globe for energy practices,” said Bob Wengel, the Shedd’s Vice President of Facilities.

That’s why the roadmap was so important. “We quickly realized that an energy plan wasn’t just about retrofitting a building with LED lights and maybe some fancy controls, it became about how the building is going to interact with the grid in the future,” Wengel said.

To track the building’s performance, a monitor-based commissioning system was installed and integrated with the building automation system, an approach that Wengel prefers to retro-commissioning. “What you’re finding in retro-commissioning is you do commissioning for a 12-month or 18-month period, the engineers go away, and about two years later, the building backslides,” he said. “I can turn the system on, read the data, get a report and do the work. I can tune my building up once a year a lot cheaper than going back every four to five years and doing commissioning again.”


When it opened, the Shedd was the only inland aquarium to have not only freshwater habitats but permanent saltwater exhibits. To make this possible, one million gallons of Gulf of Mexico seawater was shipped in railroad tankers from Key West all the way to the shores of Lake Michigan.

These days, municipal water is treated with salt and chemicals to create a carefully balanced ecosystem for the sharks, rays, whales and other saltwater species that call the Shedd home. While the elimination of those shipments has meant a huge efficiency improvement, maintaining all the water in this temple to Neptune is still a Herculean task.

One innovation took two problems and addressed them both with one succinct solution. While remodeling the oceanarium, the design team had trouble scouting a space to install a new life support system and wondered if they could do away with an existing brine maker—a huge tank used to create saltwater. Meanwhile, over two million gallons of water from the oceanarium was lost to the sewer system each year.

“It started with a question,” said Wengel. “Could we use that water that we’re dumping out of our fish systems and move it into our marine mammal systems since they’re not as sensitive as fish?” After consulting with the animal health team, the facilities crew was able to design and build a cheap water transferring system to exchange water between the two systems, eliminate the brine maker and save millions of gallons of water per year.

Even though it’s one of the world’s largest aquariums, an audit several years ago showed that most of the water use in the building wasn’t going to the exhibits but to facilities. Freezers, coolers and air handling equipment were chilled with a continuous supply of city water, which was common at the time of the building’s construction. “When you ask why, you would hear it’s because we’re grandfathered in,” Wengel said. “But that doesn’t make it right.” A new chiller plant put the system on a closed loop, saving up to eight million gallons of water a year. The cooling tower is fed in part by rainwater collected on site.

The roadmap is on a five-year cycle, so the next benchmarks will be examined in 2018. Each area of the building operations has its own goal, and the goal for water reduction was 50%. Those reductions are hovering right around 49% right now, two years ahead of schedule. “When we built that plan for our water, we decided that we were going to use best practices to collect and conserve water and we’re going to do that without compromising a high level of animal care and guest experience,” said Wengel.


There are plenty of other sustainable things going on in the Shedd, including a composting and recycling program and a food digester in the kitchen area. Gardens are incorporated into the landscaping, featuring two beehives and organic produce, which goes toward enrichment for the animals or is donated to food pantries.

But so much about what the Shedd does goes beyond its walls. Aislinn Gauchay is the Assistant Director of Great Lakes and Sustainability at the Shedd, where she oversees a suite of programs that include learning initiatives and in the field stewardship to preserve biomes in the Chicago region. “The sustainability plan at the Shedd, and our sustainable operations are, for us, a critical extension of our conservation mission,” Gauchay said. “We truly believe that the most important thing that we can do is model for our guests and our community how you can give back to the environment by being a good steward of the natural resources that you engage with.”

The Shedd sponsors action days where organizations go out to one of a number of sites from as far north as Illinois Beach State Park in Zion to the Indiana Dunes. These volunteers, along with experts from the Shedd, pull invasive species, plant native ones, monitor water quality, pick up trash and perform other tasks to help ensure that those sites are ecologically sound and protected.

The Right Bite program is another endeavor, wherein the Shedd works with restaurants, the food distribution industry and the general public to increase the sustainable seafood footprint in Chicago in support of healthy oceans. “Really, the choices we make as individuals as to what kind of seafood we eat has a huge difference on the health and prosperity of our oceans,” Gauchay said. Aside from climate change, the biggest threat facing the oceans is overfishing. The Shedd works with fisheries and aquaculture to improve their sustainability. They then engage chefs, distributors and other seafood tastemakers to make sure that they are informed of the sustainable options.

This commitment to sustainable seafood is true at home also, as the Shedd is committed to sustainable, restaurant-quality seafood for its animals. Not that this doesn’t come with its obstacles. Otters, for instance, can eat close to 15% of their body weight on a daily basis. Despite the considerable difference in size, the annual food budget at the Shedd for one otter nearly equals that of a beluga whale. They also have a refined palate. “They eat clams and shrimp and squid and oysters, food that we would consider a fancy night out,” said Gauchay.

One challenge can be balancing the nutritional needs of the animals with their personal tastes. Shrimp is a large part of the otter diet, but also one of the harder species to source sustainably. “As we were trying to vet the particular options, we had to give the otters a taste test because they’re very picky and they make it well known when something is not to their liking,” said Gauchay. “There were little otter tantrums that were involved when we found that they didn’t love the shrimp.”

Whether it’s trying to marry their sustainability goals with the needs of the animals or convince the public to do the same, the Shedd is on a mission to make the world greener. “We’re trying to walk the talk,” Gauchay said. “We’re trying to be at the forefront of our industry to ensure that we’re reducing our carbon footprint. And we are asking others to join us in doing that.”

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