This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: High-rise, low-carb buildings offer new ideas for sustainable skyscrapers

An exhibit of six green buildings designed by students at the Illinois Institute of Technology opened this month at the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

The six designs were superimposed on a massive white model city of Chicago already on display in the CAF’s atrium in the Santa Fe building on Michigan Avenue. The IIT contribution is part of a larger project of imagined designs from four Chicago-area academic institutions that was unveiled last Thursday, called “Unseen City: Designs for a Future Chicago.”

Tall buildings have the potential of offering greater energy efficiencies than low-rise buildings, in part because of their density. But designers can create structures that also meet environmental, physical and cultural challenges of the current century, says Gail Borthwick, a senior architect at Adrian Smith & Gordon Gill Architecture, and one of the advisers of the IIT project. Incorporating those other elements and imagining highly sustainable buildings was the challenge presented in a studio format to a group of 12 IIT students, who worked with Ms. Borthwick, and other mentors including professionals from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

The students worked in pairs and developed six proposals for tall buildings in downtown Chicago that address central issues for construction of a more livable city. Some examples they came up with included the shuttered U.S. Post Office building reinvented as a “post waste” recycling center. Another design is called CO2ngress Gateway Towers, located at the Congress Parkway interchange. That structure has a connecting bridge between the two towers that’s equipped with carbon scrubbers to absorb carbon dioxide emitted from the thousands of cars driving underneath into the Loop each day. The captured carbon dioxide is fed to algae grown inside the building and is then processed into biofuel for residents in the building to power their eco-friendly cars.

The initial concepts for some of the designs originated from a pro bono project ASGG undertook when city officials asked the firm to imagine a vast overhaul of Chicago’s downtown area that could drastically reduce its carbon footprint, explained Ms. Borthwick, its project leader. That two-year effort between 2009 and 2011, called The Chicago Loop DeCarbonization Plan, was intended to help meet some of the goals outlined in the Chicago Climate Action Plan of 2008. The firm also published a book about that project.

Crain’s met Ms. Borthwick at last week’s opening to learn more about the exhibit and whether these buildings might ever rise up in Chicago’s built environment.

Crain’s: How do these student projects collectively address the question of how buildings can solve modern environmental problems that exist in Chicago’s downtown area?


Gail Borthwick

Ms. Borthwick: Each student was asked to investigate the immediate physical, economic and social context of their chosen site and incorporate their response into their design. Each pair of students chose a specific environmental issue to address: water quality, education, air quality, food supply, waste, density. These all tie back to reducing carbon emissions and using less energy.

Crain’s: How did you and others serve as mentors for these students?

Ms. Borthwick: The students had one-on-one access to our team from CTBUH and ASGG three days a week. We also brought in specialists to consider urban issues, engineering and structural systems and environmental strategies. We’d go through their ideas, which gave them a chance to formulate their story and refine it as they went along.

Crain’s: What’s the likelihood of these designs ever seeing the light of day? Or was the intention for them to be thought-provoking so other architects might incorporate these concepts into future sustainable building designs?

Ms. Borthwick: While the sites are existing sites and the projects quite feasible, the intention is really to encourage architects to pay attention to elements of design beyond just aesthetics – to show that consideration of density, urban issues and environment can be intertwined into the design to make a stronger, more successful architectural project.

This is the direction our profession needs to go. In tough economic times, architecture needs to evolve to consider not only the aesthetics of a building but also its economic and sustainable viability. If you take a project to a developer and show all these elements, there’s a much better chance the project will be built.

Crain’s: Are any of these student designs economically feasible?

Ms. Borthwick: Some of the teams considered the financial feasibility in depth. Others were more considerate of the needs of living in the downtown core. As always, the projects need support of the city — tax breaks, financing, code zoning — and in most cases, an interested developer.

Crain’s: Does Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s agenda for promoting public/private partnerships to encourage green building solutions in Chicago create any opportunities for these proposals or other ideas in your firm’s decarbonization plan?

Ms. Borthwick: Certainly the mayor’s infrastructure trust program can be investigated to move forward many strategies in the DeCarb Plan – not just new and existing buildings but particularly mobility and infrastructure strategies. We’re continuing to work with the mayor’s office to identify buildings that want to do deep retrofits. The city announced a short list earlier this month of 14 buildings in the Loop and just north of there that signed on to the mayor’s energy efficiency initiatives.

In fact, there’s a symposium this week (Thursday) at Willis Tower where building owners and property managers will share success stories of energy efficiency retrofits, including someone from the Merchandise Mart.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Chicago music fest grooves to a green beat

Greening your business or urban lifestyle and rocking out to live bands at an outdoor festival don’t have to be mutually exclusive in Chicago.

The fourth annual Green Music Fest in Wicker Park and Bucktown this weekend is combining a two-day summertime street concert with demonstrations of ways individuals and companies can make their everyday lives and business operations more green.

The event’s producers are aiming to make the festival eco-friendly and challenging other Chicago fest organizers to do the same, says Robert Gomez, one of Green Music Fest’s organizers who was among the group that conceived the event four years ago. Mr. Gomez owns two Chicago live music venues, Subterranean and the Beat Kitchen, and is involved in organizing other summer concerts too.

Aside from the lineup of local and national bands on two stages (Dinosaur Jr. and Hey Rosetta! among others), there will be a Green Village, where local green businesses and nonprofits will demonstrate ways individuals can change their lifestyles and other business owners can alter their practices to be more mindful of the planet. Some of the activities will focus on renewable energy, recycling, worm composting, urban gardening and bicycling.

Local small-business vendors will be on hand as well to sell their wares to concertgoers. Some include: Greenheart Shop, Chicago Specialty Gardens, Coco Loco Jewelry, GiGi Handmade, Community Energy and Global Elements. Food vendors at the festival will use compostable plates and utensils, and they aren’t allowed to sell items in plastic bottles or plastic foam containers.

To minimize the environmental impact of the event, Chicago-based Bright Beat, a project management and sustainability consulting firm, is overseeing the waste diversion program with eco-stations to recycle and compost everything that’s consumed at the fest. Other sustainable features at the concert include biodiesel generators and LED lighting for efficient energy use, and a free bike parking area.

The two-day festival kicks off at noon Saturday on Damen Avenue between North and Schiller avenues. Crain’s met with Mr. Gomez earlier this week to learn more about the festival planners’ greening goals.


Robert Gomez

Crain’s: Have you seen much growth over the last four years among green businesses that want to be part of this event?

Mr. Gomez: There’s enormous interest but it’s difficult for some to be part of the festival because of the economy. I thought I’d have 100 percent exclusive green vendors by the fourth year, but we’ve only got about a third of the space dedicated to them. It’s hard for small green vendors to commit their time and money to an event like this. Still, we’ll have a lot of great stuff for people to buy and learn about. We’ll also have the usual sunglasses and other festival things for sale.

About a dozen green companies will be on hand selling mostly lifestyle stuff (jewelry, fair trade gift items, composting kits). We’re excited to have a hybrid car on display from Fiat, and Fat Tire New Belgium Brewing Co. will have a booth informing people about how their entire brewing process is done sustainably. And GreenChoice Bank is one of our sponsors.

Crain’s: What’s the goal behind combining the two concepts of an outdoor concert and raising awareness about sustainability?

Mr. Gomez: My hope is that this festival and Wicker Park/Bucktown will be the leader in the city of encouraging green efforts among the small businesses here and people who attend. To put on a music festival, you can call it anything you want and people will come if you do a good job. When I proposed the idea of a green music fest four years ago, it obligated us to operate in a green way as much as possible. It’s more costly to put on an event this way than to ignore it.

For food vendors that participate, we have a high standard for their waste stream. This isn’t an organic food festival, but no plastic bottles are allowed and they can only use compostables and recycled paper products.

Crain’s: Do you think most concertgoers will care that the festival is green?

Mr. Gomez: A lot of people will come just to listen to music and drink the beer. But when they throw away that cup, someone will be there to make sure it goes into the proper container and tell them it’s being composted. They won’t be able to escape the green elements. We’re hoping to get 25,000 people depending on the weather.

Crain’s: Will it be a tough sell to encourage other local businesses to adopt more eco-friendly practices?

Mr. Gomez: In my own business at Subterranean, we converted to 80 percent recycling from 80 percent waste just two years ago. I made a commitment to make four containers for recycling and only one for waste. Ironically I’m saving money as a result too. If I can do that in a three-story business, other business owners around me can do it too. Maybe we can motivate others to see the economic advantages.

Crain’s: How are you trying to influence other Chicago festival producers to copy your greening tactics this weekend? What about local businesses?

Mr. Gomez: We’re figuring out a way to make this impossible for other festivals to refuse by doing it right. In time, this will be more economically feasible and attractive. With help from Bright Beat and others, we can educate other event producers that they can do this too. I anticipate that eventually every event in the city of Chicago will be obligated to step up their greening efforts to mirror ours.

We’re also hoping to influence businesses in Wicker Park and Bucktown by raising their consciousness to do things in a green way. When there’s an event like this in your backyard, it’s hard to ignore the green aspects.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Here comes the bride, all dressed in green

Wedding bells are ringing in June, and some Chicago couples are adding green elements to their celebrations with the help of a group that connects vendors to eco-conscious consumers.

The Chicago Green Wedding Alliance has nearly tripled in size in its two years as more small-business owners are offering sustainable features for couples planning weddings, commitment ceremonies and other life events that are mindful of their impact on the planet and their communities.

The alliance was formed to encourage more people to consider adding an eco-minded aspect to their weddings, according to Lynn Fosbender, one of the co-founders and owner of Pollen Floral Design, a floral design studio that specializes in green weddings and other gatherings. The other co-founders are Amanda Eich and Tony Vassallo, who own Spilled Ink Press, a firm that uses recycled paper and other sustainable materials in its invitations and other custom-printed paper goods.

An initial collection of a dozen local companies got the nonprofit off the ground in 2010. The community of vendors within the alliance has grown to more than 30 this year, including caterers that source organic and sustainable food from local farmers, such as FIG Catering and City Provisions, and green event spaces such as Catalyst Ranch and Greenhouse Loft.

Crain’s met Ms. Fosbender between flower runs this week to learn more about the alliance’s activities in growing this sector of the local green economy.


Lynn Fosbender

Crain’s: Why was there a need to form the Chicago Green Wedding Alliance?

Ms. Fosbender: I’m doing something a little unusual trying to work with locally grown and sustainably grown flowers. I found myself working with a lot of the same green vendors and getting good referrals and I thought we could form a community if we could get all these like-minded people together. As a group, we might be able to encourage more eco-friendly weddings and events and make it easier for those couples to find us.

Crain’s: What are some of the most popular ways for couples to add sustainability to their big day?

Ms. Fosbender: Many couples aren’t making their weddings fully sustainable, but they’re choosing the things that are most important to their values. To some people it’s the food, to others it’s decor or the venue.

It seems like working with locally and sustainably grown food has really gotten some traction and is becoming more achievable as more vendors and caterers are offering it.

In the Midwest people are becoming more aware of the environmental impact that cut flowers have in the production process, transportation and the way workers are treated. It’s less intuitive than sustainable food, but similar to the impact it has on the environment. I’m also going to start offering living centerpieces. I’ll be partnering with Greenhouse Loft to rent out succulents for some events.

Some ways to add sustainability aren’t even about services. One idea is to choose a venue that will accommodate the ceremony and the reception. That cuts down on transportation for guests and vendors, which shrinks the carbon footprint of the event. I even offer a discount to people who do that because my staff doesn’t have to travel to two venues.

Crain’s: Are there any particular services that are hot right now or just coming up on the radar for wedding planning?

Ms. Fosbender: There’s a move toward working with local artisans for paper items, such as invitations and programs. They’re working with recycled paper and vegetable-based inks.

One of the easier things that some couples do to have the biggest impact is to decrease the guest list. It decreases the amount of food that’s needed, and the size of the space. It’s an easy and cost-effective way to be more green.

Crain’s: What has the alliance done to generate more buzz around the green wedding concept?

Ms. Fosbender: One of our first events was a workshop for event planners to understand how to help clients plan more eco-friendly weddings. That really helped us get the word out. This past February, we had a show and our vendors had tables out to show their wares to event planners and couples.

Crain’s: There’s a lot of new vendors listed with the alliance. What’s your vetting process to make sure they’re truly “green”?

Ms. Fosbender: We have an application process with a series of questions that ask about the operations of the business and we have vendor-specific categories that get into more details of how sustainable they are. We rely on the one-on-one meetings to see that they are indeed acting the way they say they are. We’ve denied applications before and we’ll suggest ways to get them up to our standards. We also want people to be actively involved in the education and marketing component of the group to spread the word (about greening an event).

Crain’s: Do you think entrepreneurs will find a growing market for green weddings if they decide to focus their energy in this area?

Ms. Fosbender: I don’t think this is just a fad. With each generation, there’s a greater understanding that we need all the resources we have and we need to nurture them. Those values are being passed along and encouraged. I think this is here to stay.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Clean-tech leaders partner with aviation to rev up Midwest biofuel biz

A new coalition composed of a local clean tech group, airline corporations and a municipal agency aims to boost Midwest development of biofuels for commercial aviation.

The Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative recently was formed to accelerate research, development and investment in technologies in the region that target renewable energy for commercial airplanes. Key partners include the Clean Energy Trust, the Chicago Department of Aviation, United Airlines, Boeing Co. and Honeywell’s UOP sustainable energy division.

The first order of business for the group is twofold: An appointed advisory panel will deliver a report on the activity that’s already under way in the Midwest. The panel also will develop an action plan of how to take those pockets of productivity to the next level by attracting more funding and advancing research projects into commercialized products, says Seth Snyder, section leader of process technology research and energy systems at Argonne National Laboratory. Mr. Snyder is one of the leaders of the advisory panel and a biofuel technology expert. Those reports are expected to be complete by early 2013.

A number of Midwest engineers and entrepreneurs have taken ideas from research institutions and rolled out startups that are working on some aspect of biofuel development. For many, the goal is to develop commercialized products that can be used as a sustainable replacement for traditional imported fuel sources or fashioned into a fuel blend similar to the way ethanol is used in cars, notes Mr. Snyder.

Crain’s met with Mr. Snyder to learn more about the potential opportunities for entrepreneurs in the region to pursue the biofuel sector.


Seth Snyder

Crain’s: Why is there such great interest in developing biofuel technologies?

Mr. Snyder: It’s all about economics and the environment. We know fuel cost has a big impact on the economy. We import billions of gallons of oil each year (for aviation) and we’re not in control of what happens in the global market. If we replace much of that domestically we will stabilize the supply and stabilize costs.

From an environmental standpoint, it’s about controlling greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Transportation isn’t responsible for all GHG emissions, but by replacing (petroleum-based fuel) with biofuels you can reduce emissions by 60 percent or more. GHG emissions are increasing temperatures, which is having an impact on our climate, agriculture, water levels, hurricane patterns, you name it.

Crain’s: Why is the Midwest being targeted as a good place for this type of sustainable biofuel initiative?

Mr. Snyder: We have the feedstock available here with so much agriculture. We have the engineering capability to take things from the lab and put them at a full commercial scale. These will be industrial processes, not just projects in the lab.

Crain’s: Can you give a few examples of the type of biofuel technology where some of the R&D and investment is occurring?

Mr. Snyder: There are two ends from an R&D perspective. There’s feedstocks, as in what are you going to grow. There’s a lot of research in the Midwest involved in corn stover, the residue left over when we produce corn. And there’s research in new crops for biofuel, including switchgrass. There’s one startup in Chicago called Chromatin that got a few rounds of VC funding. They’re working on a feedstock called sorghum, but also using it for commercial sales for other products.

The other half is the companies that are taking what’s grown and doing the chemical conversions or fermentations to turn it into a biofuel. One that’s well-known is Amyris (out of California). More locally, there’s LanzaTech in Roselle and Virent in Madison (Wis.), which is a spinoff from the University of Wisconsin and a partnership with Shell to make jet fuel (among other products). Lately there is more activity on the conversion side.

Crain’s: How would you characterize the level of activity among research institutions, entrepreneurs and investors in the Midwest in biofuel technology?

Mr. Snyder: There’s been very high interest in the last seven or eight years among research institutions and there was some angel investing and creation of spinoffs over the last four years. But I expect there will be a slowdown now because there were some recent IPOs and most of them are under water. That’s because their value was based on potential and a business plan, not on revenues. As soon as one goes under, investors get skittish and pull back on funding.

Crain’s: Despite those market setbacks, you sound optimistic about biofuels as part of a long-term diversification strategy for the airline industry. How soon do you expect they will be part of that portfolio of fuel options?

Mr. Snyder: Right now we have some individual one-off commercial flights using biofuels, and they’re using it as a blend (with traditional fuel) just like ethanol is used as a blend for car fuel. Some companies, like Honeywell’s UOP business unit, are starting to produce fuel that meets airline industry specs. Then it’s a question of cost, and from there it’s a matter of availability.

You need to have supply that can provide for more than three flights a year. It’s really a matter of getting costs down and putting a supply chain in place. Unless we have policies that push it away, I predict we’ll see a lot more biofuel blends over the next 10 to 20 years.

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