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Year Three Proves the Green Office Challenge Not so Challenging

March 20, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

By Clarence P. Denning

greenofficePay any attention to green building trends and you’ll hear an oft-cited number: 40%. That’s the share of U.S. energy consumption taken by buildings. The picture is bigger than that, however, and little of it is rosy.

In 1980, buildings accounted for not quite 33%, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Back then, the energy-intensive industry sector accounted for more at over 41%. By 2010, those figures had nearly swapped; industry had shrunk to under 31% while buildings now consumed over 41%.

Residential buildings have always accounted for a larger portion than commercial buildings, but the latter have grown much faster over that time period. Residential structures grew from 20.1% of the total U.S. energy portfolio in 1980 to 22.5%. Over those thirty years, commercial buildings grew from 13.5% to 18.6%. The DOE predicts that to jump to 20% by 2035. In a dense, urban area like Chicago, structures account for about 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, with nearly 40% coming from commercial buildings.

Clearly, steps need to be taken to abate this growth. In 2009, the City of Chicago created a program to address commercial energy use, in coordination with Local Governments for Sustainability (known as ICLEI after their former title, International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives).

The Green Office Challenge is a friendly competition among office tenants to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The Challenge not only offers an opportunity for Chicago businesses and property managers to gain recognition for their green achievements, they can save energy, save money and gain a competitive advantage in green innovations.

More than 100 property owners and office tenants participated in the first year, including Jones Lang LaSalle, the Merchandise Mart, Transwestern Corporation, Office Depot and Microsoft. Office tenants are evaluated through a “green office scorecard” based on 50 green strategies that are related to five key office-related sectors: waste, energy, transportation, outreach and tenant engagement. Property managers can implement behavioral changes and capital improvements to reach those goals, and all are encouraged to use Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager to track the data.

Nearly 150 property managers and tenant companies located in Chicago’s downtown business district took part in the Green Office Challenge last year. Combined, they saved $17.5 million in energy costs and reduced energy use by 124 million kWh, the equivalent to the energy used by 45,000 homes. These efforts averted the emission of more than 85,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

“Chicago’s efforts in sustainability have created economic opportunity throughout our neighborhoods and dramatically improved the overall quality of life for residents,” said Mayor Emanuel. “The Green Office Challenge is a great example of the private sector working with government to reduce costs and create jobs while protecting the environment.”

Participants worked to set and achieve specific green goals, supported primarily through monthly training events, use of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager and other tools. It is because of these efforts, for example, that participants were able to divert 43% of their waste from landfills.

Round three, which launched in February, is a collaboration between the city and various partners, including non-profit Delta Institute, technology start-up GreenPoint Partners and sponsor Office Depot. This round will run through 2013 and suggests activities that employees and building managers can undertake to green their business practices. The competition has previously been focused on office buildings and tenants in the Loop, but this round will expand to those not just in the central business district but across the city and even the suburbs.

Mayor Emanuel’s environmental action agenda, Sustainable Chicago 2015, sets a target of doubling participation and impact in round three, as part of a larger goal to accelerate the economy through sustainability.

Aside from opening up the program to the full extent of the Chicago area, the key to the future success of this version is competition. “In Chicago, we like to compete and we like to win. And we love to win on sustainability,” said Karen Weigert, the city’s Chief Sustainability Officer, at the February launch party. “We want Chicago to be the most sustainable, competitive, livable city in the world.”

Last summer, ICLEI released the Green Business Challenge App, a customizable web application that now allows any municipality to launch a friendly competition among its business community to save money, energy, water and waste. Based on the success of Chicago’s Green Business Challenge, nearly a dozen cities and counties have also launched similar programs, including Houston, Charleston and Arlington County.

Houston Green Office Challenge participants reduced energy use by 28 million kilowatt hours, water use by 74 million gallons, and diverted 40% of their waste from landfills, in addition to many other achievements like adding bicycle parking, implementing flex time and telecommuting policies. The secret to the Green Business Challenge program’s success is twofold: fun and friendly competition, and media recognition for the businesses’ green achievements.

The web app allows any local government to launch a Green Business Challenge program in weeks, not months, and to administer it with fewer staff and less money. Participants access the app through the local government’s website, and use it to register, take a baseline survey, browse a library of tips and resources, update their achievements, view a scorecard that tracks their progress toward goals, read customized suggestions for ways to increase their score and operate a carbon calculator. Program administrators can use the tool to customize the pr-ogram, view reports on participants’ progress and maintain engagement with mass emails.

Plans Unveiled for Downtown Bus Rapid Transit System

February 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

On Washington Street, colored pavement and signage will designate the BRT lanes. Curbside platforms and bus shelters will provide safe boarding options, while also protect bike lanes from traffic.

On Washington Street, colored pavement and signage will designate the BRT lanes. Curbside platforms and bus shelters will provide safe boarding options, while also protect bike lanes from traffic.

You may have heard that bus rapid transit (BRT) was coming to Chicago next year. The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) unveiled this week the proposed lane configurations for the Loop streets to be used for the service starting in 2014.
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Mayor Announces Expansion of Recycling to Entire City by End of 2013

February 20, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

recyclingThe city of Chicago announced today the expansion of the blue cart recycling program to the 49th and 50th Wards. However, city officials also vowed to expand recycling pickup to the entirety of Chicago by the end of the year.
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Chicago Nominated for 2013 Earth Hour City Capital

February 19, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

A darkened downtown Chicago as it appeared in 2009 during the second annual Earth Hour Challenge.

A darkened downtown Chicago as it appeared in 2009 during the second international Earth Hour Challenge.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has selected Chicago as a finalist to be a “City Capital” in the annual Earth Hour City Challenge. Along with Cincinnati and San Francisco, Chicago was chosen by WWF and global management consultancy Accenture for actively taking steps to transition its communities toward a climate-friendly future.
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Chicagoland’s First Passive House

December 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Baker

While it was popularized—and now thrives—in Germany and Scandinavia, the passive house concept actually started in the 1970’s, at the University of Illinois. The technology stagnated in the US after the energy crisis receded, though it took off in Europe.

But, as more developers and consumers in this country accept sustainable architecture, the search is always on for the next superlative in green building. Currently, a passive house truly is the greenest option for new construction. It will likely be some time before another technology dethrones it.

So when the Lema Family decided that they wanted to build a durable, super-efficient home, it wasn’t long before they decided to build a passive house in suburban River Forest, the first certified passive house in the Chicago area.
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Cannon Design Does More With Less

December 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Baker

Cannon Design’s Chicago office once occupied three stories and about 80,000 square feet at 111 W. Washington. This year, they moved into one floor spanning between the buildings at 205 and 225 N. Michigan. But don’t call the 60,000 square feet of space in Michigan Plaza a step down; Cannon Design has proved that less really can be more.
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Old Growth: The Rebuilding Exchange Broadens in Size and Mission

December 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Baker

Deconstruction—the art of carefully dismantling a building rather than demolishing it—has been expanding over the past few years. Also expanding is the local hub for this practice, the Rebuilding Exchange. What once was merely an exchange for repurposed building materials is now also an exchange for deconstruction ideas.

Since first opening back in February of 2009, it has been the mission of the Rebuilding Exchange to create a market for reclaimed building materials. Initially, this was manifest simply in a Brighton Park warehouse where contractors and the DIY community could donate or purchase salvaged building supplies. A recent move to the northwest side has given the nonprofit venture more room for stock. But perhaps just as exciting are the expanded endeavors such as educational seminars and even a furniture line.
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A More Sustainable Chicago

December 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

By Jo McKee

If there were any lingering doubts about the Emanuel administration’s commitment to sustainability, the 2015 Sustainable Chicago Action Agenda will hopefully lay them to rest. The green itinerary calls for aggressive actions on the part of the Chicago government and its citizens to reduce our impact on the environment over the

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next two to three years.

“A sustainable Chicago,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in his opening remarks to the action plan, “is a city that spends less on energy use with each passing year, creates good-paying jobs in up-and-coming industries, responsibly maintains and upgrades its infrastructure, and ensures every Chicagoan has the opportunity to live a healthy and active lifestyle.”

The goal of the Sustainable Chicago action plan is to provide practical tactics to keep Chicago among the country’s most sustainable cities. These are just some of the goals and strategies that the mayor and his Sustainability Council put forward.


The first avenue of sustainability is job creation and economic development. The action plan points out several projects currently underway that do or will provide green jobs, such as a $1.1 billion investment in smart grid technology and sewer, CTA and airport infrastructure projects. Between 2007 and 2010, renewable energy jobs increased in Chicago by more than 12% and pollution reduction jobs increased by nearly 14%, more than double the national average.

In that same time, wind technology grew in the region by over 23%. Through efforts like last year’s green manufacturing plan, Chicago Sustainable Industries, the city aims to leverage public-private partnerships to ensure that green jobs continue to grow here.

“This roadmap not only sets the goals that will shape our priorities for years to come,” Emanuel said, “but establishes a swift course of action that will challenge us to create jobs, foster new industries, and reduce costs for residents and businesses.”

The action plan stresses making Chicago a hub for the sustainable economy by recruiting sustainability companies to locate here and increasing demand for green products through municipal procurement. The plan also claims that the city will “identify, prioritize and eliminate code barriers to sustainable practices.”


There are over 600,000 buildings in Chicago, which combine to create over 70% of the city’s carbon emissions. Keeping in mind that this plan has a 2015 deadline, one major goal is to improve citywide energy efficiency in those buildings by 5% and by 10% in municipal buildings.

The plan stresses the creation of 20 MW of new renewable energy—at least half of that on city-owned property. Given that the Fisk and Crawford coal plants were shuttered earlier this year, this may be motivated as much by necessity as idealism. Currently, renewables account for roughly 2% of the city’s energy demand.

Strategies the city hopes to have in place toward these goals include cutting the solar permit approval time in half, replacing street lights with energy-efficient bulbs and installing smart meters in homes and businesses.


Vehicle emissions are of course an enormous source of greenhouse gases. One solution to reduce these is to increase the amount of pedestrian and bike traffic in the city. For commuters, the only real way to reduce carbon emissions is to encourage the use of public transportation, which has plummeted since the 1940’s.

The city has already installed a number of dedicated and/or protected bike lanes across the city this year. The action plan calls for an additional 100 miles to be created by 2015. A bike sharing system with an inventory of 4,000 bikes should also reduce the number of car trips that Chicago residents and visitors make. For pedestrians, a new Navy Pier “flyover” will enhance foot and bike traffic to the city’s most popular tourist destination.

The CTA had over half a billion riders last year. But that’s still not enough. To increase ridership, the transit agency will be adding bus rapid transit next year and continue improvements to rail infrastructure. The CTA will also replace or rehab 1,500 buses with low-emission models. The Red Line is currently undergoing a large modernization project, with seven stations getting facelifts and the entirety of the Dan Ryan route under reconstruction at some level. It is hoped that these improvements will cut up to 20 minutes off of a daily commute.


Chicago is shaped by waterways; Lake Michigan forms one border and the Chicago River defines the city’s neighborhoods. The lake is our playground, but also our source of drinking water. The twice-reversed river, on the other hand, is our stormwater reservoir and wastewater catchment. It is imperative that we protect both, for the flora and fauna that call them home and for the future of our economy and well-being.

The 2015 Sustainable Chicago Action Plan calls for a reduction in water use by 14 million gallons per day. Keys to this include replacing aging water mains, an expansion of gray water use (including possible changes to the municipal code) and more aggressive water metering.

Better stormwater management will go a long way to not only keeping Chicago basements dry, but the Chicago River clean. Portions of Deep Tunnel, the decades-long underground reservoir project, are already online, but plans are in place for the Thornton Reservoir to open by 2014.

The city also hopes to enhance access to the lake and to make the Chicago River the area’s second waterfront. Crucial to the this last goal are filling in the gaps along the riverfront trail and constructing boat houses and other recreational opportunities. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District also voted this year to finally begin disinfecting sewage discharge into the river, making recreation on the river an attractive and viable goal.


Compared to other major US cities, Chicago is dismal at household recycling. The action agenda pushes for the blue cart program to be available to every household within the next three years. Combined with the change to a grid-based waste pickup strategy, rather than the inefficient ward-based scheme in place now, these efforts will help save on fuel and reduce the amount of household waste going to landfills.

Making up more than 60% of Chicago’s waste stream, however, is construction and demolition (C&D) debris. Chicago ordinances mandate that half of all C&D waste be diverted from landfills. Here the city is leading by example; new projects being implemented by the Public Building Commission are on schedule for a 90% C&D diversion rate.

“From improving citywide energy efficiency and promoting diversified transit options, to launching citywide recycling,” Emanuel said, “the roadmap is robust and comprehensive, touching upon the full spectrum of life for Chicagoans.” The action agenda addresses many more areas of sustainability, including parks and open spaces, efforts to curb climate change, access to healthy food and much more. You can read the full report at the city’s website:

Hedge Fund: Rebates for Your Sustainable Back Yard

December 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

By Linda Seggelke

In 2010 the City of Chicago established an educational and incentive program that highlights the many ways that Chicagoans can create more environmentally friendly landscapes. The program, titled Chicago’s Sustainable Backyards Program, is now being managed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT). As more and more individuals become concerned about the negative impact we have on the city, the country and even the planet, the sustainable backyards program allows property owners to garner rebates while improving the look and efficiency of their yard.
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Building in Harmony

September 17, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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.
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