Popular Chicago program helps residents go green

Popular Chicago program helps residents go green

Frances Whitehead and James Elniski, faculty members at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, navigated largely uncharted waters when they renovated an urban warehouse in the West Town neighborhood into a sustainable residence several years ago. At the time, many area contractors failed to understand "green" technology, Elniski says.

"You need someone who knows how sun exposure is affected by nearby buildings, or what kind of wind turbines are more responsive in an urban setting," he says of some of the issues he and Whitehead encountered in 2005. The home's many eco-friendly systems include radiant heating, wind- and solar-powered generators, a green roof and an all-electric grid that maximizes the wind and solar potential.

The couple also worked carefully with Chicago city officials to obtain the necessary permits and zoning to convert a commercially zoned warehouse into a residential dwelling with cutting edge technology. "We did a lot of educating the permit folks in terms of plumbing and electrical to bring them up to speed with what we were doing," Elniski says.

Fast forward six years and Chicago's Green Homes Program, fine-tuned with input from Elniski and Whitehead, now offers research support, fee waivers and an expedited process to get permits for sustainable projects. The program continues to gain popularity each year: officials issued 201 permits in 2010 as compared to only 19 in 2005.

"A lot has changed around the country in just a few years," Elniski says. "Cities are proactively incorporating these kinds of programs."

Developer and Angie's List member Zach Maiorca, owner of highly rated Green Door Development, can attest to that. He lived in California for several years before starting his Chicago business in 2004. "The green movement had really taken hold in California, but it wasn't as well integrated into the Chicago lifestyle," he says.

Maiorca says he took advantage of the city's Green Homes Program in 2006 to renovate a house he owned, working with highly rated Chicago architect Nathan Kipnis, an AIA and LEED-accredited professional, to redesign it in an eco-friendly fashion. It's one of the first houses fully constructed under the city program, which receives praise from Kipnis.

"They say they'll turn around permits in 30 days, and in most cases for us, it's less than 15 days," he says. "For anyone who understands Chicago permitting, that's amazing. A typical permit used to take six weeks or two months."

The completed house includes reclaimed and sustainable materials, low-flow plumbing fixtures, low-VOC paints, and Energy Star appliances and heating and A/C systems. The design also includes built-in green elements. For example, the windows and openings between the first and second floors form a thermal chimney that pushes hot air through second-floor windows in the summer. "You can totally change the temperature without touching the air conditioning at all," Maiorca says.

Kipnis says the thermal chimney exemplifies how to use green elements without bleeding cash, as it's based on placement and not gadgets. He says green design shouldn't be thought of as an add-on, but rather as a way to approach the entire process. It doesn't have to take extra time and money.

"Any time you come to a decision point, see if there's a green solution, and if so, see if it makes sense financially," he says. "All the gizmos have their place, but maybe they're not the right answer. Many passive elements don't cost much, if anything."

Angie's List member Alene Korby of Palos Heights [Ill.] learned this when she built a home that was equal parts green, ergonomic and efficient to live in. She brought that experience to her new business, Plum Suite, which teaches clients how to apply the same principles to their own homes.

She researched older houses to learn how people cooled off or warmed up in the days before climate control. "All the little things add up," Korby says. "They thought about many distinctions to make the home more productive and enjoyable. You made sure the room layouts followed the sun throughout the day so you could find brightness and warmth no matter what time it was."

Korby added eco-friendliness with energy-efficient fixtures and green materials, the latter of which proved to be the biggest cost for the project. She estimates the sustainable materials added 30 percent to her bill.

Although it may cost more in some instances, architects and designers say green work helps prepare homes for the future, lower energy costs, improve indoor air quality and protect the environment - not to mention increase the resale value down the line. "Going green is the only smart move," Kipnis says.

But Kipnis cautions homeowners to carefully choose their designers and builders. "You need to check references diligently," he says. "Visit homes they've done and find out what's green about them."

Korby says she frequently encountered difficulties with her builder, and prefers not to name him. "It required him and his subs to do things differently than they were used to," she says. "Change is hard. That's why houses like this don't get made very often."

Kipnis says green will eventually supplant energy-hogging homes as the accepted norm. He also rejects the notion that green buildings are ugly. "I think it gives designers the opportunity to be even more creative," he says. "Contractors who have no idea how to do this are getting left in the dust."

For more information about green permitting in Chicago, go to chicagogreenhomesprogram.org.

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