This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Sending a message via recycled art

A sculpture crafted from recycled paper adorns one of Urban Innovations’ River North lobbies.

You wouldn’t normally expect a property management firm to install lobby art crafted from recycled paper and trash finds.

But that’s what’s going on in a handful of office buildings in River North — commercial spaces that are leased out to designers, architects, art galleries and furniture companies.

Last month, Urban Innovations Ltd. hired two artists to create free-flowing paper sculptures in the empty storefronts and lobbies of the nine 100-year-old loft buildings it owns and manages in the shadows of the Merchandise Mart. Round Two of the city of Chicago’s Green Office Challenge launches officially after the New Year, and Urban Innovations wants its tenants to participate in the yearlong event.

Alfrieda Green, Urban Innovations’ vice-president for property management, was part of the firm’s initiative to draw tenants’ attention to the city program. Crain’s met with Ms. Green to find out why the firm is so eager to get tenants onboard.

Crain’s: Why is Urban Innovations participating in the Green Office Challenge?

Ms. Green: We really want to get a message out to our tenants in a campaign called “UI Change it Up” and the Green Office Challenge is a part of that. We’ll be doing monthly tenant education meetings about the fundamentals of sustainability, such as efficiency and recycling and how they can have a sustainable procurement process. At our first meeting last month, about 5% of our tenants turned out, but we have high hopes for next year.

We have about 12 tenants already signed up for the challenge out of 130, so we have a long way to go. Luckily, it’s a yearlong program so we’re hoping to get quite a few more signed up. One of the goals of the challenge (for property owners) is how many tenants you can sign up.

Crain’s: Why did you decide to use recycled art to get your tenants excited about the Green Office Challenge?

Ms. Green: Because we’re in River North, the tenants we attract tend to be more creative and they come to us because they want flexibility in how they can design their space. We decided if we’re going to do an engagement program, we needed to engage them creatively. We commissioned a group called INDO to make artwork out of the recycled paper in our portfolio of buildings. If it’s a creative component that makes you think differently about how you throw your paper away or what you do with your waste, that’s great.

Crain’s: Where is the paper for the installations coming from?

Ms. Green: All the paper is generated by our properties. A few weeks ago, the artists wanted architectural drawing paper, and we have a lot of architects in our buildings. We went to their offices and asked for architectural paper that was going to be discarded, and they gave us more than we could ever want. So something that was going to be recycled anyway is turned into art.

We did some Dumpster-diving too. The artists are going to add to the installations as the Green Challenge progresses throughout next year. If we’re fortunate to lease the storefront space, the installation will be relocated.

Crain’s: What do tenants have to do if they enroll in the program?

Ms. Green: They have to designate a person as their green team member who will come to the monthly meetings at the building. Each month we’re going to highlight lighting efficiency, recycling or something else so they can start to develop their strategy for their office. They have to look at what they can do differently in their office to be more efficient. In some cases, that might involve an investment on their part, like changing out their light bulbs, but they could see a lot of savings, too. They also might not be fully using green programs already in place like recycling and programmable thermostats. The great thing about the Green Office Challenge is you can pick and choose what you want to do.

Crain’s: On the property management side of the challenge, what else does your firm have to do besides get tenants to sign up?

Ms. Green: Efficiency is another component of the challenge. You have to use the EPA’s Energy Star (rating system) and track your buildings’ performance, which is something we’re already doing. We expect to get to Energy Star by early next year for two of our properties. In order to qualify for the challenge, you don’t have to get to Energy Star, you just have to improve your efficiency. We’re looking to do that at every property. Energy efficiency saves us money. If we can get an award for doing that — fantastic. But we’re just as excited about saving money as we are about the award.

Crain’s: Is the art-driven strategy creating the kind of buzz you’re hoping for?

Ms. Green: We want more buzz. We already have a few tenants that are very excited about this program, but in January we’re going to do a big push to really get the message out. We’re very excited about what can come out of this.

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