Carbon Drawdown: The Next 15 years for the Green Building Movement in Chicago

By Brian Imus, USGBC-Illinois Executive Director

The U.S. Navy Bachelor Enlisted Quarters, designed and built by Wight & Co., was the first LEED-certified building to be constructed in Illinois. Since that time some 15 years ago, more than 1,000 LEED-certified spaces have been completed across the state. Today, Illinois is a recognized national leader in green building and sustainability know-how. This leadership is reflected in the advancement of innovative, cutting edge technological firsts, like the Evanston net-zero Walgreens and the recently completed Grainger data center in Lake Forest, the first LEED v4 certification anywhere in the world. Illinois consistently ranks in the top ten every year for the most LEED square footage certified per capita, leading the nation for three years in a row starting in 2013.

As a result of this track record, in places where interest in green building is growing exponentially—places like China, Brazil and India—builders are turning to Chicago-based design, engineering and manufacturing firms. Illinois continues to be a leader in clean energy jobs, with over 100,000 jobs directly tied to the industry sector. The Illinois Small Business Development Center’s International Trade Center has documented the huge potential for job creation in Illinois in these emerging markets.

These achievements and the growth of the sustainability industry wasn’t happenstance. It has been the result of the long-standing commitment Illinois companies and green building advocates have had for decades.

As a membership driven non-profit, the U.S. Green Building Council – Illinois Chapter (USGBC-Illinois) is proud to have been a part of helping foster and grow this vibrant community of green building professionals. The organization was founded in Chicago in 2002 by passionate, sustainability-minded professionals who were inspired by the impact green building could have on our communities and the environment. Many of these founders worked on those first LEED projects, like the Chicago Center for Green Technology, the first LEED Platinum municipal building in the world.

Of course, keeping our green building leadership mantel requires innovation. It isn’t good enough to point to the number of green roofs and LEED buildings.

That’s why the USGBC-Illinois board of directors, reflecting on these achievements, decided it was time for a new epic challenge for the green building community, one that builds on the experience with advancing LEED in Illinois, but will help bring the benefits of sustainability to more buildings and more people who have yet to benefit from the green building revolution.

To achieve that goal, USGBC-Illinois leaders were inspired by Paul Hawken’s new work around carbon drawdown. These strategies are quantitative technologies, building practices or methods that are already in existence. And they are “no regrets” solutions—actions that make sense to take regardless of their environmental value since they have intrinsic benefits to communities and economies. These solutions improve lives, create jobs, restore the environment, generate resilience and advance human health.

To further these strategies in a scale that can make an impact, USGBC-Illinois has launched a new strategic plan, an Epic Challenge for the green building community. Going beyond LEED and new construction, the plan focuses on Chicago neighborhoods, every Chicago neighborhood, implementing these no-regrets carbon drawdown strategies. And just like with LEED, it will require leveraging the robust network of passionate professionals in a way that would bring the benefits of green building to a broader audience.

The Epic Challenge vision is simple: to promote, socialize and implement carbon drawdown strategies in all of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods by 2020. And we’re going to look to our statewide network to build on our work and impact communities across Illinois.

Critical to our success are three strategic goals. First, engage with 3,500 buildings in adopting one or more carbon drawdown strategies. Second, ally with partners in every Chicago community to advance resiliency and livability at neighborhood-scales. Finally, educate and equip 30,000 green building professionals and community members to advance carbon drawdown strategies throughout Chicagoland.

While the goals of this new strategic plan are ambitious, there’s confidence because of the success the green building community has had in the past. 15 years ago, we set out to make LEED the premier green building rating system used in Illinois. Today, USGBC-Illinois has grown into the largest non-profit in the state dedicated to promoting green buildings. It is the diverse and engaged network of individual members, volunteers and industry leaders that make possible nearly 75 educational events each year promoting the latest and greatest in environmental performance, technology and design. With support from industry leaders, there is policy development to expand demand for green building know-how in Illinois. And members give back with thousands of volunteer hours with community engagement initiatives, like the Green Apple Day of Service program to help build green infrastructure in schools around Illinois.

It’s going to take the passion and expertise of the sustainability community to achieve this vision and put Chicago on a path towards a carbon-positive future in a way that improves the health, economy and social well-being of every resident in every neighborhood. You can learn more about the plan at www.usgbc-illinois.org/about/epicplan/ and carbon drawdown strategies at www.drawdown.org.

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