This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: A look back at the Greenbuild conference at McCormick Place

An estimated 25,000 people engaged in eco-friendly building and design descended upon McCormick Place this week to swap ideas and business cards at the annual Greenbuild conference sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

Since its first gathering in 2002, the annual Greenbuild has grown each year and set a new attendance record this year in Chicago, according to event organizers. More than 1,000 companies from 112 countries exhibited their products and services in McCormick’s massive Exhibit Hall. Conference attendees also could choose among 200 educational seminars. Many sessions focused on various aspects of LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, an assessment and rating system the USBGC created to determine whether a building is eco-friendly and sustainable. A green jobs fair was on the agenda and attendees were entertained by an all-day film festival featuring documentaries with sustainable building themes.

Some highlights and observations from this week’s conference:

More than 10,000 people filled McCormick Place to hear Gen. Colin Powell give the opening keynote address on Wednesday that focused on the need for leadership and passion. Political pundits Mary Matalin and James Carville offered their sometimes differing views from Washington, and noted that Americans are in agreement about their concern over future energy issues and finding solutions in green buildings.

Two new LEED accreditation categories were introduced at Greenbuild to streamline the process for retailers, as well as high-volume property developers. The new retail track was designed to take into account the specialty design and construction needs of retailers, which varies significantly from corporate interiors in an office building or other commercial structures. Storeowners increasingly are seeking LEED certification for branding purposes and to take advantage of green incentives and tax credits, observes Doug Gatlin, vice-president of market development at the USBGC during his announcement of the new categories. Applications from retailers nationwide seeking LEED status doubled this year to about 1,300 compared to 2009, he says. Many of those retailers include banks, grocery stores, restaurants and big-box and department stores.

The new volume program will benefit developers seeking LEED certification on 25 or more properties. The high-volume process is expected to reduce developers’ certification fees by 17% and as much as 70% with registration of more than 100 projects, notes Mr. Gatlin.

The event has taken on a more corporate feel in recent years — more suits, fewer Birkenstocks. Still, the Exhibit Hall was filled with a passionate crowd of people eager to boost their sustainable businesses and help green the planet along the way.

Bigger corporate players packed the aisles on the exhibit floor with new services and products. Underwriters Laboratories from suburban Northbrook is a new entrant to the sustainability arena and was there touting its new spinoff UL Environment Inc. The company, now in its second year, is working on new sets of standards to create uniformity in building materials. “When a company says their product is made from 80% recycled materials, we think consumers should know exactly what that means,” notes Christopher Nelson, director of global commercial development. UL was instrumental in creating safety standards for electricity more than 100 years ago to prevent major fires in Chicago and elsewhere.

Some displays in the Exhibit Hall dazzled. Serious Materials, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based maker of energy-saving products, had a 20-foot-high replica of the Empire State Building in New York City, complete with King Kong scaling the top floors. Serious refurbished that building’s 6,000-plus windows during its recent energy-saving retrofit, says Valerie Jenkins, director of marketing communications who talked up their products during Greenbuild.

Meanwhile, at a private “soiree” Wednesday night, a few dozen green building thought leaders in town for Greenbuild gathered to engage in a mini-TED-like experience of provocative discussions, test drive the new electric Chevy Volt and sample local, organic fare catered by City Provisions. The event was hosted at the home of Craig Sieben, owner of consulting firm Sieben Energy Associates (and a co-producer of the acclaimed climate change solutions documentary “Carbon Nation”), and produced by Tipping Point Productions, an event-planning firm that brings together sustainably-minded people.

The Bank of America Tower in New York

Speakers included Bob Fox, a New York-based architect whose firm Cook + Fox Architects led the team that designed the new Bank of America Tower in New York City — considered one of the greenest tall buildings in the world and the fourth-tallest building in the U.S. He dug deep into the technical particulars of the $40-million of green technology that was sunk into the project, including: creation of an onsite co-generation energy plant, waterless urinals, and an efficient heating and cooling system that radiates from the floors where each employee gets to regulate their own environment with a personal thermostat.

Another speaker was Michael Italiano, an original founder of the USGBC and CEO of Capital Markets Partnership, a non-profit working closely with Wall Street to push the investment banking community to create a robust market for raising capital and selling investment products to finance green buildings. “Wall Street is the last adopter of sustainability, but it has the potential to be the most powerful,”  he asserts.

One highlight of the evening: attendees were treated to Chicago’s first test drives of the Chevrolet Volt electric car, a division of General Motors. Tony Posawatz, GM’s Vehicle Line Director for the Chevy Volt, jokingly reminded drivers as they waited their turn in the cold: “Remember, Posawatz rhymes with kiloWatts.” The Chevy Volt won’t be for sale in Illinois until next summer, at earliest, for a price tag of about $41,000 — one battery included.

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