Who needs LEED?

Published in Crain’s Chicago Business on September 16, 2013

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Michael and Helen Cameron in their backyard

Uncommon Ground restaurant owners Helen and Michael Cameron had enough eco-design features in their newly constructed home on the city’s North Side to win certification from a respected green building group.

They took a pass.

Unlike a growing number of Chicago commercial building owners seeking third-party certifications, people building green homes are less eager to chase the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification. Some, like the Camerons, say it’s not worth the cost and hassle.

“I have enough plaques on my restaurant walls,” says Mr. Cameron, whose two Uncommon Ground restaurants, in Lakeview and Edgewater, were named Greenest Restaurant in America two years ago by the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association.

In design circles, LEED certification confers bragging rights to building owners and designers, but it doesn’t come free.

What’s more, some argue that LEED’s rigorous point-based design checklist doesn’t focus enough on a home’s performance in energy efficiency, water conservation and other measures that can be more telling about whether the structure is gentler on the planet. In response, says Jason LaFleur, who chairs the Residential Green Building Committee of the USGBC’s Illinois Chapter, LEED administrators are tweaking that checklist to toughen standards.

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Jason LaFleur chairs the Residential Green Building Committee of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Illinois chapter.

The Camerons tore down their crumbling, 100-year-old home last year to build anew with as many green elements as they could afford. With a construction budget of less than $600,000, the Camerons considered pursuing LEED but couldn’t justify the estimated $6,000 to $8,000 for the application fee plus consulting fees and features not in the original design, Ms. Cameron says. They were confident that hiring Evanston-based green architect Nate Kipnis would allow them to achieve their sustainability goals.

LEED doesn’t take into account the size of a home, which makes a huge environmental impact. The restaurateurs could have built as much as 5,200 square feet on their property but settled on 2,850 for a smaller carbon footprint. Much of the home is outfitted with Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, nontoxic and natural materials, and kitchen cabinets crafted from local, fallen elm trees. Natural light floods the home through giant windows on the eastern and western exposures and from a skylight atop a central stairwell that cuts through all four floors.

The most dramatic sustainable feature is the 6.2-kilowatt photovoltaic panels that blanket the steep incline of the garage’s southern-facing roof. The 24 panels are expected to generate enough electricity to power the entire home, as well as charge the couple’s electric Nissan Leaf. A two-way meter from Commonwealth Edison Co. was installed so excess energy can be pushed back to the power grid.

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The Camerons spent $650 on a Home Energy Rating System report, a program used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine whether a home is performing at “Energy Star” level. The Cameron home results were in the low 30s, much the same as a top-rated LEED Platinum home Mr. Kipnis designed in Glencoe last year.

The energy score is gaining popularity as a measure of energy efficiency and is more affordable, Mr. Kipnis says. “The definition of green is fuzzy enough, so getting some kind of third-party certification is important, especially with something as complex as a house,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s so easy to build a normal house (and) throw in a geothermal system so they can call it green.”

Chicago-based architectural and design firm 2 Point Perspective is working on homes with five clients pursuing LEED certification, but it hasn’t made sense for many other projects, founding partner Lisa Elkins says.

DOES LEED AFFECT RESALE?

About two years ago, Ms. Elkins says, a client considered applying for LEED certification during a major renovation of his Lakeview home that included installation of two wind turbines and photovoltaic and solar thermal panels. Going for LEED came up early in the process, but it wasn’t feasible because of required insulation inspections, she says. LEED raters must see exposed walls to ensure the home is properly insulated. But the drywall had been replaced recently and was in good condition.

“The owner proved his greenness by adding all those renewable-energy features,” Ms. Elkins says. “Ripping all that good drywall out and putting it into a landfill or even recycling it would’ve been more detrimental to the environment.”

Some architects recommend pursuing LEED for a potential higher resale value—as much as 8 or 9 percent in areas like Portland, Ore., and Seattle, as estimated by Portland-based Earth Advantage Institute.

In the Chicago area, few homes with LEED designation have hit the market, but one recent new-construction sale in suburban Lemont garnered a 3 percent bump in its appraisal because of a pending LEED award and higher expected energy efficiency versus a comparable home without its green features, according to Michael Hobbs, an appraiser specializing in sustainable properties and president of PahRoo Appraisal & Consultancy in Chicago.

Dana and Joe Sidoryk briefly considered the LEED path when building their home in Elmhurst last year but opted out when they realized the eco-friendly measures they were adopting—including non-formaldehyde cabinetry and whole house filters that remove chlorine from water entering the home—wouldn’t be enough to meet LEED standards, Ms. Sidoryk says.

“We made green choices that made sense to us,” she says.

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Could this biologist save the Chicago River?

Published in Crain’s Chicago Business on September 2, 2013

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Joshua Yellin hopes his BioHaven prototype will lead to more islands here and other urban rivers.

The Chicago River often doubles as an open storm sewer. Among the garbage that Joshua Yellin sees bob downstream on the river’s North Branch are Styrofoam cups, soccer balls, cigarette butts, plastic and glass beverage bottles, plastic bags and condoms. Into this jetsam, Mr. Yellin recently added a small, plastic island near the northern tip of Goose Island.

His artificial plot—essentially a 10-inch-thick mesh raft seeded with native plants and tethered by a chain—is intended to help restore the river to a more natural state. The underside provides a habitat for fish, as well as microbes that can clean the water of pollutants, while the top is a sanctuary for waterfowl, turtles and insects.

Mr. Yellin, an educator at the Shedd Aquarium, installed the BioHaven island as his capstone project for a master’s degree in natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was donated by Floating Island International Inc., a company in Shepherd, Mont., that designed and manufactures them.

“The Chicago River is a graphic example of a river dramatically impacted by humanity,” says Bruce Kania, Floating Island’s project development director. “Here’s a young scientist who’s attempting to expedite the process of recovery, and we absolutely want to support that.”

The Chicago River is a challenging environment for a BioHaven island, which is made of nonwoven recycled plastic. Most of the more than 5,000 placed around the world are in lakes or other placid waterways. The river’s current, as well as passing boats, has buffeted the 5-by-10-foot mat, damaging its edges. Ducks, meantime, have eaten much of the plant life, which included wild iris, hardstem bulrush and prairie cordgrass.

Mr. Yellin, 29, is rebuilding his artificial wetland. He is making it twice as thick, which should allow it to float higher in the water and enable the plants to take better root. He also is constructing a ring around its front end to shield it from debris.

A Chicago native, Mr. Yellin headed to Montana after he graduated from Illinois in 2007 with a degree in integrative biology and psychology. In the wilderness, he learned to fly fish and fell in love with rivers. After a stint guiding canoe trips in Alaska, he returned to Chicago in 2011 to work for Friends of the Chicago River.

“I was drawn to these pristine rivers out West, but most of the work out there is about preserving them as they are,” he observes. “Back here it’s more challenging because it’s about trying to get the Chicago River back that way.”

A BioHaven island like the one on the North Branch costs about $1,250, plus year-round maintenance. Mr. Yellin is hoping his prototype will lead to more islands here and other urban rivers. The other day, he spotted more than 100 small fish eating under the island and possibly spawning. The river may be damaged, but it isn’t irretrievable.

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