Chicago Green Issues Showcase Need for Direction

The design industry and many city governments have made serious efforts in the past few years to encourage sustainable building–but the average homeowner may still find going green is anything but easy.

Even homeowners with the most carefully constructed plans are hitting sustainability snags, according to a recent Chicago Tribune article that ran last week. The article began by outlining the troubles Plainfield, Ill. homeowners Nora and Richard Parkman encountered when trying to add a solar energy system to their home. The Caton Ridge Homeowners Association shot down the Parkman’s proposal because they didn’t like the way the solar panels it required looked.

Legislation preventing associations from ruling out solar panels for aesthetic reasons passed the Illinois State Senate in 2007, but is still awaiting approval from the House, according to the Tribune, which criticized the Chicago area (the suburbs, especially) for its slow acceptance of green design.

That’s a big blow for a city whose mayor once famously declared he wanted it to be the most green in America. And, to be fair, Chicago has done quite a bit to encourage green building. A Cook County ordinance, passed in 2002, requires all new county buildings to be LEED certified. The city has a Green Homes Program, which encourages green residential building and offers builders incentives, including a  system that cuts the time it takes to receive a permit in half for registered sustainable projects.

Yet still, as the Trib points out, green building faces some challenges in Chicago, such as:

  • Financial Incentives Aren’t Widely Publicized. Illinois offers $10,000 in incentives and the federal government will give $2,000 in tax credits–but many homeowners don’t know about either option.
  • Inspectors Aren’t Equipped to Approve Green Design. "A lot of inspectors are old school and don’t understand
    the new technologies," David Broderick, a permit expediter and principal at Chicago’s Phase 1 Consulting told the Trib. It’s an inspector’s job to use building codes–but, in many cases, those codes haven’t been updated to include green building principles.
  • The System is New. Expediting permits is great–but, since the green home programs are still new, anything sustainable often involves significant delays. Remember our earlier blog (way earlier–back in August) about Frank and Lisa Mauceri’s green home renovation? They had planned to  include a roof-mounted wind turbine to generate energy–but the city’s zoning code didn’t have a provision for that kind of a device on top of a building. The Mauceris met with the city for three months and ended up changing the code: admirable, but more effort than many would likely put into a remodeling job.

Not all Chicago green design news is bleak: The city has a number of green-friendly private residential buildings that are in the works or were recently completed–such as 340 On the Park, which is expected to achieve a silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating, and
Michigan Avenue Tower, which says it will be the first residential condo in the city to use 100 percent renewable energy to power the entire building.

Chicago is not alone in its effort to publicize green design; and it’s not alone in its stumbling blocks, either.

Even cities focused more on building, rather than renovation, are finding green building can be a tough sell because of a lack of information or resources. San Diego–seriously damaged by wildfires last fall–is encouraging homeowners who lost property in the fires to rebuild green; initial homeowner hesitation involved concerns about builder green design competency and–you guessed it–delays.

The Southern California Sustainable Rebuilding Task Force recently held a forum at a local museum to address homeowners’ green building fears, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Maybe that’s what we need a little more of–some homeowner hand-holding and a few helpful how-tos. If new condos are using green design as a marketing tool to sell units, there is undoubtedly a desire to go green–unfortunately, in many cases, homeowners are still waiting for the guidance they need to do it.