This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Engineering firm grows via projects to shrink cities’ carbon footprints

A relatively new Chicago sustainability engineering firm is in expansion mode to help shrink the carbon footprint of cities and buildings around the globe.

PositivEnergy Practice LLC was formed about 18 months ago by the three partners of architectural firm Adrian Smith & Gordon Gill Architecture and Roger Frechette III, who headed up the engineering department at Skidmore Owings & Merrill, another Chicago architectural design giant. PositivEnergy’s creation was inspired by an unsolicited “decarbonization” plan AS&GG developed for the city of Chicago recently. And the new group’s current growth stems from other countries and city governments showing interest in similar carbon-reduction plans. Those plans focus on reducing energy consumption and green house gas emissions within existing buildings.

Image from AS&GG’s Chicago decarbonization plan

When the city of Chicago unveiled its Chicago Climate Action Plan in 2008, AS&GG decided to formulate a roadmap that offered layers of solutions for achieving the plan’s goals of dramatically reducing the city’s carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. In fact, Images Publishing released a book earlier this month entitled “Toward Zero Carbon,” which documents AS&GG’s Chicago de-carbonization plan efforts in detail. The firm was already well-known for other sustainability projects, including a design for a green retrofit of the Willis Tower in Chicago.

The formation of the separate boutique engineering firm has enabled staffers there to focus much of their work on advising building owners, universities and governments on making their existing structures more energy efficient and higher performing in a multitude of eco-friendly ways. The firm is working on the engineering component of new building projects, too, including a 2,000-foot-tall tower in Wuhan, China, a high-performing building in Russia, and new developments in India and Korea that will begin soon, according to Mr. Frechette, PositivEnergy’s president.

The early efforts of sending decarbonization proposals to city and country leaders around the world is suddenly beginning to pay off, with its first big client just signed in Malaysia, Mr. Frechette says. To meet expected demand, the firm expects to hire about 15 more engineers, computer programmers, software engineers and other high-level professionals over the next few months, which would double the current staff, he says. Mr. Frechette declined to provide revenues for PositivEnergy, but notes the firm is engaged in other energy-efficiency retrofits worldwide and sub-contracting work on new design project.

Crain’s met with Mr. Frechette to learn more about the firm’s decarbonization efforts and job opportunities in the field.

Crain’s: Why was the PositivEnergy Practice created as a separate entity from the AS&GG architectural firm?

Mr. Frechette: We all worked on new buildings before, but we believed it was more important to focus on existing buildings and city plans.The new firm was created in January 2010 at the tail end of the AS&GG Chicago decarbonization plan effort. The new practice could take that plan and carry it forward.

Roger Frechette III

Our mission here is to move the meter in a positive direction. There is an incredible need to make buildings better. Our access to energy and fossil fuels and water is diminishing, and rapid population growth is putting pressure on all that. Most of the energy we consume as a world community is going into buildings.

We have a big opportunity to make a change to have buildings in the built environment that are more efficient and higher performing, use less energy, last longer, and create environments for employees that are happier and healthier and more productive.

How do you come up with the strategies to help clients achieve their lofty goals?

We get a great level of detail in our computer modeling, depending on the size of the project. We use existing data collection, we reconcile utility bills against our models to see what the impact might be with the changes we recommend.

We have a new tool we developed called an urban parametric model. It’s a virtual interactive database that collects information from every building in the set. Through a series of algorithms it will assess various strategies for change. Itwill home in on a particular set of strategies and recommendations from an energy perspective, financial perspective and carbon perspective.

We also have a strategic alliance with NASA to help us with our model. Through NASA, we get heat information to know which buildings could be improved through changes in their facades, roofs, etc. They also have very smart people there who will help us with writing of code for some of those calculations.

Has the firm been hired yet for another decarbonization plan?

We’re only 1.5 years old, but we have lots of proposals out there. Our most recent contract just awarded is in Malaysia for the city of  Putrajaya, the country’s seat of government. The sustainability plan will be for their government office buildings and the infrastructure that supports those buildings. It addresses water and waste systems, transportation, community engagement and an opportunity for renewable energy resources.

We’re getting really close with another one in Costa Rica. We met with the president of Costa Rica a couple months ago and she expressed interest in a plan for the entire country, with particular interest in the capital of San Jose. We also are having ongoing discussions with the city of Detroit right now and we’ve been asked to submit a proposal to Washington, D.C., by the GSA (Government Services Administration). I’ve been to Utrecht in the Netherlands, Madrid, Rome. This idea seems to be gaining a lot of interest. We’ve even been asked to create a model for the city of Shanghai, which has about 17 million people. That’s where you can make a difference.

What kind of growth do you anticipate within this new practice?

I’m projecting revenues and size of staff will double this year, but our goal isn’t to just be a large firm. We want to attract and retain the best and smartest professionals who want to work on reducing energy consumption, water consumption, reducing carbon emissions, and effecting change in a very positive way.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Startup turns home cleanout into home greenout

One Chicago-area green entrepreneur is making it easier for homeowners looking to de-clutter in an eco-friendly way by taking their stuff and donating, recycling and avoiding the landfill.

Fran Horvath started Greenout Cleanout as a full-fledged company about six months ago, but she’s been doing this type of work on and off for the last decade. As a real estate agent starting out 10 years ago, Ms. Horvath began helping clients clear out lots of stuff from their homes while they were getting ready to put their houses up for sale. And because she was eco-minded, she made efforts to recycle what she could from these homes. She’d donate items to organizations like the Salvation Army or the Hadassah House Resale Shop in Skokie to reuse in other people’s homes or found other resources for recycling. She prided herself on sending very little to landfills.

Those sideline efforts have turned into the focus of Ms. Horvath’s business. She decided to launch a venture dedicated to cleaning out other people’s homes because she saw the demand for those services grow.

Ms. Horvath also had another valuable skill: In a former career, she was a professional organizer. She’s been getting rid of other people’s junk for a long, long time.

Ms. Horvath finds new homes for most furniture and clothing. And she knows how to be environmentally responsible by safely getting rid of items that contain toxic chemicals, such as cleaning supplies or paint. She brings them to a toxic waste recycling center on Goose Island run by the city of Chicago. Ms. Horvath also drops off old computers or medications that could be unsafe if they were tossed in a dumpster or poured down a drain.

Ms. Horvath, 49, was also one of the founding members of the Business Alliance for a Sustainable Evanston, or BASE. As a board member of the non-profit, she organizes educational events for North Shore businesses that are looking to become more sustainable.

Crain’s caught up with Ms. Horvath to learn more about the green way of scaling down the insides of a home.

Crain’s: Is it easier to recycle or find new uses for household and personal possessions today compared to a decade ago?

Ms. Horvath: In 2001, it wasn’t so easy to get rid of some things, such as medications, cleaning supplies, paint. Back then, Freecycle and Craig’s List didn’t really exist in a big way. Now I can put an old couch on Craig’s List and sell it quickly. But then, just like now, I could always put a couch in the alley and it’s usually gone within 20 minutes.

What are some of the most challenging items to recycle or repurpose from a home?

There’s not much that has to go in the garbage. A lot of places aren’t taking mattresses because of the bedbug issues. I also wouldn’t want to donate them if they’re stained and nasty. Broken little kitchen appliances that aren’t metal are tough too because I can’t get them donated and they won’t get recycled.

Things with mold or other hazardous waste on them are impossible to get rid of.

Does it matter to clients that you emphasize sustainable practices when you are getting rid of belongings in a house?

The people who already know about sustainability find this kind of service very important and it’s a great fit. People who don’t know about it usually learn more about recycling while I’m working with them and that’s a good thing. I don’t get a dumpster and park it outside their home when I’m working. My clients like that.

Do you have plans to expand your business beyond just getting rid of other people’s clutter?

Yes. I’m soon going to be renting a space in Morton Grove where I can consign for clients things that can be sold. I also refinish furniture, so I plan to sell some pieces in that new space. I love being able to take a piece of sad and neglected furniture and turn it into something beautiful and functional once again.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Bike-sharing outfit rolls out more stationss

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Rothschild

By Judith Nemes

As thousands of Chicago residents are participating in this week’s Bike to Work Week, a one-year-old bike-sharing program is gearing up for expansion to ride that wave of interest.

B-cycle, a bike-sharing program operated by Bike & Roll, a local bike rental and touring company, is installing two new automated bike stations on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus this month. The additions will bring the total number of stations to six and will boost the potential for more Chicagoans to hop on a bike, says Jeremy Rothschild, Bike & Roll’s director of marketing.

The other stations are situated at various points along the lakefront or nearby, including Buckingham Fountain, the museum campus near the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium, and at the Time-Life Building on Ohio Street. There are 100 bikes circulating among the unmanned kiosks.

B-cycle’s growth is occurring just as Gabe Klein is coming onboard as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new transportation commissioner. Mr. Klein has a reputation for supporting urban biking initiatives. Before his move to Chicago, he was credited with turning the bike-sharing program in Washington, D.C., into the largest one in the country during his two-year stint as that city’s transportation director.

The bike-sharing trend is growing in other U.S. cities, including Madison, Wis.; Denver and Boulder, Colo.; Des Moines, Iowa; Louisville, Ky., and San Antonio, Texas.

Chicago’s bike-sharing program is operated privately by Bike & Roll, a longtime Chicago bike rental firm. And while the city of Chicago isn’t yet a partner in its operation the way some other city programs are structured, the Chicago Park District extended the concession permit already in place with Bike & Roll’s existing rental business on its premises to include the new program, Mr. Rothschild says.

The latest stations added to the roster are located at IIT’s McCormick Tribune Campus Center and just north of the Paul V. Galvin Library, both on the main campus at State Street. IIT students and anyone else nearby will have access to the bikes, which are locked up at an automated station and typically rented by users for up to two hours to run quick errands at relatively short distances.

Crain’s met with Mr. Rothschild to learn more about the business of bike sharing.

Crain’s: Can you briefly explain how someone would take one of these bikes for a spin?

Mr. Rothschild: It’s an automated system, so a user could take a bike and pay for it per use or they could join with a membership. The membership includes the first hour free for each ride and begins at $35 for 30 days. On a per-use, it costs $10 for the first hour and $5 for each additional 30 minutes. There’s a student discount, too.

They’ve got built-in locks so riders can stop somewhere and lock it up. The bikes have passive RF (radio frequency) ID and a GPS on it. If one disappeared, we could activate it to find it.

The program has a green element because when riders have a membership, they get an estimate of their carbon dioxide emissions savings compared to using a car for the same distances traveled.

Crain’s: Are you teaming up with the city of Chicago in any way to run or grow the program?

Mr. Rothschild: The city has not given us any money, but we’re getting non-financial support with the permit extensions at our existing concessions. We see our work so far as a trial program that the city will hopefully give funding to expand it further in the future. We understand the city’s budget limitations, but we also know they’re very excited about this system.

Crain’s: Why did you pick IIT as the spot to add new stations this summer?

Mr. Rothschild: IIT is at the forefront of lots of green technology. They got it immediately and were interested in participating. Gang Green, the student-run sustainability club on campus, has been instrumental in making this happen at IIT. They have been getting the word out, and we expect they’ll help us promote it to get a big influx in the fall when more students will be on campus.

Crain’s: Do you have plans to expand the program to other universities in Chicago?

Mr. Rothschild: Not yet. We’re focusing on increasing usage this summer among the stations we already have. But every school in the city would be perfect for this sort of system. Students have distances to travel over the campuses, are more inclined to ride and are probably more casually dressed.

But really, the bikes are designed so anyone can ride them, even in nicer clothing. They have tire guards in front and back, a robust chain guard and the baskets are designed to hold a briefcase. When the program first started, I rode around the city in a suit to prove that you could do it.

Crain’s: Is Bike & Roll turning a profit yet with this new venture?

Mr. Rothschild: The stations are capital intensive, so we have to grow the program slowly. I can’t share revenues, but B-cycle is not a pure-play business venture from a capitalistic standpoint. There’s a social element to this, so it’s not measured solely by profit. We really just want to encourage more people to ride bikes in the city.

We’d also like to see more corporate support for this system. We have spoken to some companies about sponsorship and encouraging their employees to use it.

Crain’s: How do you envision people traveling throughout the city to use this kind of program if it grows in a big way?

Mr. Rothschild: This is great for what’s called the last mile. Say you live in Ravenswood and you take the train into the Loop. If there’s a bike station there, you can take a bike on that last mile to your office (if there’s another station for dropoff nearby). We’re not trying to replace the CTA, we’re trying to enhance it.

Chicago is a very bikeable city, and the new mayor has stated a goal to make Chicago more bikeable. The more people that ride bikes in the city, the safer it is because vehicles get used to seeing them. Chicago is well on its way to getting there. There’s also 18.2 miles of car-free lakefront trails, and it’s a beautiful ride.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Tapping old, new technology to boost the life span of city’s trees

The Stanford, Conn.-based tree maintenance company Bartlett Tree Experts is aiming to help Chicago-area clients maximize the longevity of their trees by tapping high-tech solutions from the IT lab and testing low-tech solutions borrowed from ancient cultures.

The company’s research arm in Charlotte, N.C., has developed a digital inventory management system that uses GPS data collectors to map out the trees they’re caring for and decide what measures are needed to keep them at their healthiest, says Scott Jamieson, vice-president in charge of business development and corporate partnerships. Some of the more visible Chicago clients using that GPS system include Millennium Park and Lurie Garden, the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Greater North Michigan Avenue Assn. and the University of Chicago.

Bartlett also is studying the benefits of applying biochar, a natural fertilizer first used to grow crops in the Amazon 6,000 years ago, to trees in today’s cities. A test was launched in April along a strip of Milwaukee Avenue in Bucktown and Wicker Park. In a joint effort with the Morton Arboretum, researchers will investigate for the next two to three years whether the fertilizer improves the preservation of trees planted along that urban stretch, Mr. Jamieson says, adding that city trees have an average life span of about seven years.

For the last few years, Bartlett has targeted Chicago as a growth market. The company says revenues here have risen by double-digits recently to about $10 million in 2010. About half of its clients in Chicago are residential and the bulk of its commercial clients are larger institutions.

Crain’s caught up with Mr. Jamieson to learn more about Bartlett’s Chicago activities.

Crain’s: Why are trees so important in an urban environment to combat climate change?

Mr. Jamieson: One of the most important things trees are good for in the city is shading and cooling. They help reduce the heat-island effect (which raises the temperature in the city) and they reduce energy demands for cooling inside buildings. Anything that helps lower the overall temperature of a city or reduces energy consumption contributes to a reduction in greenhouse gases being emitted.

Another important area we’re seeing the effect of climate change is the expectation of more rain and problems with storm water capture and retention. If trees are planted in urban areas, they intercept water so that it doesn’t end up in the sewer systems. A lot of the federal funding for tree planting and tree care is linked to storm water issues so they can intercept rain before it runs off into the streets and sewers.

Do Chicago residents and business owners make the connection between the desire to be more green and the importance of trees in the city?

People get the equation around trees and being green and that awareness is at an all-time high. Years ago, merchants didn’t want trees on the avenues. They said it blocked their signs and got in the way of pedestrians. Now, the merchants want trees. We have some awesome research from Dr. Kathleen Wolf at the University of Washington that shows trees in retail areas drive an increase in profits. The study found businesses had about 30% higher profit margins in shopping areas with trees compared to those without. Creating a beautiful tree-friendly environment causes people to linger longer and shop more. Some retailers plan on using their trees and plantings as part of their marketing strategy.

Tending to trees along Michigan Avenue

Can you briefly describe the high-tech inventory tool Bartlett uses to track tree health and maintenance for its Chicago clients?The system is a handheld, highly accurate GPS unit that records all kinds of data about the trees. We overlay that data onto sophisticated maps, like Google Maps, and we can see the tree exactly where it’s located. We can enter an infinite amount of data with this software tool into a database, including the size of the tree, canopy spread, diameter, height of the tree, etc. . . . and then we monitor the trees closely to know when they’ll need any kind of maintenance.

Tracking data on Michigan Avenue with the GPS device

We also can get ecological values. The latest, coolest thing about this technology is that it measures how much storm water that tree is probably intercepting and how much it’s worth to the city. You can get carbon sequestration and cooling data, too.

When we worked with the Greater North Michigan Avenue Assn., we gave them these values so they can eventually put it on their website to show that they’re ecologically friendly and that they’re helping to reduce the city’s carbon footprint. They will see how they can weave that information into their marketing to show the value of their trees is helping make their avenue a very green avenue.

Testing biochar along Milwaukee Avenue

Tell us about the biochar pilot project you just started along Milwaukee Avenue.

Biochar is like charcoal made from wood chips, corn stalks or other biomass that’s burned to a level past charcoal but not to pure carbon. It’s an ancient process that was discovered in the Amazon about 6,000 years ago. The natives burned this and used it to fertilize the fields and help grow their crops. It’s been used in agroforestry for years in Third World countries.

We were the first to look at whether it has the ability to help urban trees grow in tough soil. Trees in the city are planted around rubble, clay, all kinds of degraded soil. Can biochar help improve that soil? We don’t know its effect on trees yet, but we’re working with the Morton Arboretum on this to find out.

We’re studying 60 trees along Milwaukee Avenue. Some plots are controlled with no fertilizer added, some got regular fertilizer and some trees were fertilized with only biochar. We’ll monitor the roots, the soil, the oxygen within the soil and soil biology to see if the biochar improves the growth and health of the trees. If biochar proves to cost-effectively improve the growing conditions of urban trees, its use could save municipalities and property owners significantly in tree-replacement costs and help preserve valuable urban tree canopy.

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