About the Sustainability Trifecta at Chicago’s Eco Terra

Hawthorne Development Corp.'s Ganesan Visvabharathy takes us behind the country's largest multifamily project built to PHIUS standards.

Having maintained focus on sustainable, green building practices and energy efficiency since the late 1990s, Hawthorne Development Corp. has kept true to its motto—”Green building, green energy and green living.” Currently, the Illinois-based company is working on a project that will be the largest multifamily development in the country built to Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS) standards.

Dubbed Eco Terra and previously known as Garden Station, the two-year project will be a seven-story, 348-unit luxury, mixed-use apartment community in Chicago’s Villa Park. The development is set to feature standard amenities for upscale living environments, such as a fitness center, a swimming pool, a theater, a dog park and a dog grooming station, as well as WeWork spaces on each floor.

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Exceptional about it is that it will use between 40 percent to 60 percent less energy than conventional buildings through an array of sustainability features. In addition to being built to PHIUS standards for energy efficiency, Eco Terra will also meet the requirements for two other certifications, with all energy to be produced on-site and stored in Lithium-ion batteries, so that gas will not be needed. Moreover, it will reduce energy use through features such as LEDs throughout, variable refrigerant flow that is 30 percent more efficient than conventional HVAC systems, heat recovery ventilation that reduces heating and cooling demands, and triple pane windows. The property will also have its own solar array, and water-saving plumbing fixtures will help control water usage.

Hawthorne Founder Ganesan Visvabharathy reveals all about this unconventional project and building to Passive House standards today.

Attention to sustainability doesn’t end at PHIUS standards. Eco Terra will also meet the requirements for Net Zero Energy Use and Net Zero Carbon certifications. How will these green goals be achieved?

Ganesan Visvabharath, Founder, Hawthorne Development Corp.

Ganesan Visvabharathy, Founder, Hawthorne Development Corp. Image courtesy of Hawthorne Development Corp.

Visvabharathy: Net zero carbon is achieved via an all-electric building, through the elimination of natural gas usage in the building, which is replaced with clean electric power. While it’s true that we have not examined how much carbon has been produced during the production processes of each building material—which would be a monumental and inordinately expensive task—Hawthorne only works with materials that have net zero carbon status.

Net zero energy certification is achieved through the use of solar technology that provides sustainable, clean energy for the building.

Tell us more about the team behind the project—who handles which aspects of the development?

Visvabharathy: Yolanda Contreras, vice president of Hawthorne Development Corp., has been in the real estate development industry for the past 15 years and the solar industry for the past eight years. She is the president of her own solar firm, Solar Micro. Yolanda oversees the day-to-day operations of Hawthorne.

Kirthiga Krishnamurthy, chief financial officer at Hawthorne Development Corp., is a fourth-generation real estate businesswoman who has been in the industry for the past 12 years. Born into a real estate family, her ideas of the industry have evolved with respect for the environment, and her willingness to be part of the change in the industry aligned her path with Hawthorne since 2018.

Nick Pancotto, project manager with Hawthorne Development Corp., has been in construction from an early age, when he helped his father in building apartment communities and single-family homes. He advanced his career at PCH Ltd. and Kipling Development, where he supervised the acquisition and entitlement of large parcels of land, but also the coordination and project management of development consisting of hundreds of units. Over the years, Nick has honed the skills that allow him to devise cost-effective solutions for virtually any construction problem, be it with respect to soil, building superstructure, or operation and maintenance.

Eco Terra, the largest multifamily project built to Passive House standards

Eco Terra. Rendering courtesy of Hawthorne Development Corp.

How difficult is it nowadays to find teams knowledgeable in Passive House building practices?

Visvabharathy: Not easy. Depending on the location of the project, it can require quite a bit of time to locate a team that has the skills and the practical experience with sustainable, green building techniques.

READ ALSO: New Building Codes Spur Creativity Among Multifamily Developers

Which phase of the project is most dear to you? Are there any aspects of the development that worry you?

Visvabharathy: Whereas all phases are equally attractive, the execution phase is the one fraught with challenges, hence it gives me immense pleasure once that phase is completed. These days, challenges have increased due to substantial material price increases and shortages.

Another big challenge is the shortage of qualified field-service workers serving the utility sector. While connecting new developments to utilities has never been a fast process, since 2019, the shortage of qualified people has resulted in substantial delays because team relocations were needed.

How have increased construction costs and rising inflation impacted your project?  

Visvabharathy: Construction costs have skyrocketed and even if you can manage the increased costs, logistics issues have made it more difficult to locate and procure necessary materials such as lumber. This has led to traders no longer being willing to hold prices for more than two weeks, and this is a huge challenge.

Eco Terra, the largest multifamily project built to Passive House standards

Eco Terra. Rendering courtesy of Hawthorne Development Corp.

Green development has been gaining ground recently, boosted by younger generations that prioritize eco-conscious features in their homes. Is the current economic volatility threatening its expansion?

Visvabharathy: Yes, I do see a blip in the market due to economic volatility, but I believe this is a temporary phenomenon, one that will last for three or four quarters. I do not see any long-term impact.

Do you have any advice for those who consider building to Passive House standards?

Visvabharathy: The team is the most important. You need a great HVAC design team, with deep knowledge of Passive House standards, a rating consultant and a contractor who are willing to try new things if they are not already experienced in the Passive House field. Usually, the contractors are very risk averse and do not want to venture into new areas, and this is a big problem.

Other advice would be to get involved with the various industry associations that support sustainable, green, eco-conscious building. There are many national, state and local associations that provide education, certification information, and most importantly, networking opportunities. Hawthorne is a member of PHIUS at the national level, the Illinois Green Alliance at the state level and the U.S. Green Building Council Chicago Chapter.

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