Green Building and Climate in Chicago

Posted by Linda Seggelke on April 23, 2008 · Leave a Comment Print This Page Print This Page

By Sadhu Johnston, Chief Environmental Officer, Chicago Department of Environment and
Joyce Coffee, Director of Project Development, Policy and Research, Chicago Department of Environment

Recent analysis of carbon emissions in Chicago exemplifies the important role that the built environment can play in addressing climate change. Over 70 percent of green house gases produced in Chicago come from energy used in or by buildings. Thus, addressing climate change in Chicago will necessitate making both new buildings and existing buildings more energy efficient.
By tackling the emissions produced to power our buildings, we believe that we can reduce utility costs, improve the building stock and enhance the quality of life and environment. Under the leadership of Mayor Richard M. Daley, we’ve already developed numerous programs to address this issue. Our efforts to reduce emissions in buildings across the city are supported by significant existing city green building initiatives.

Green Building Permits and Economic Support

Chicago is the first city in the nation to offer an expedited building permit to encourage green building. By reducing permitting time and waiving consultant review fees, the city has encouraged hundreds of projects—representing more than 2 million square feet—to build green. Chicago also requires that green building strategies be integrated into any construction project funded or supported by the city. These requirements include Leadership Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification, green roofs and effective storm water management. As a result of these programs, Chicago has more than 250 buildings working toward LEED certification, more than any city in the U.S., and is also the only city in the world to have four LEED platinum buildings.

Green Roofs and Cool Roofs

In the spring of 2001, Chicago established a 21,000 square feet green roof on top of City Hall, significantly decreasing the urban heat island effect. The adjacent Cook County building’s asphalt roof is 70 degrees hotter, on a 95 degree day. Chicago currently has 400 green roof projects in various stages of development that will total nearly 4 million square feet when built, more than the rest of the country combined.

Chicago has several green roof incentive programs, including the Green Roof Improvement Fund, a 50 percent grant match for the cost of placing a green roof on an existing building located in the Central Loop TIF District up to a maximum grant amount of $100,000 per project and the Green Roof Grant Program, which awards $5,000 grants for green roof projects on residential and small commercial projects.

In addition, the City of Chicago currently requires all new near flat roofs to meet the U.S. EPA Energy Star cool roof standards as part of the Chicago Energy Conservation Code. A cool roof uses special materials to reflect the sun’s heat instead of warming the building below. The city’s Cool Roofs Grant Program provides up to $6,000 each to help residents and small business owners install roofs which meet or exceed the cool roof standards.

Green Homes and Green Guidelines

Any residential development built with support from the City of Chicago must meet the Chicago Green Homes Program requirements. A series of

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guides educate the city’s home builders and owners about the Green Homes Program and innovative renovation strategies, including the use of energy efficient technologies, materials and construction methods. The Green Homes Program awards builders and developers a point-system incentive for using green materials and technologies in the construction of new units, including energy star certification. These guidelines help homeowners save hundreds of dollars on their energy bills. The Historic Chicago Bungalow Initiative offers grants to homeowners for conversion to energy efficient heating, cooling and insulation systems, allowing homeowners to realize hundreds of dollars in savings each year.

Industrial Rebuild Program

Chicago’s Industrial Rebuild Program provides energy efficiency and water conservation audits to local industries, develops efficiency plans and provides low to no interest loans for their implementation. This program not only reduces waste but keeps much needed industrial jobs in the city. In 2005, audits of 10 different companies in the candy industry identified 1.2 million gallons of water saved per year, 140 cubic yards of material diverted from landfills, and 2.5 million kWh/year of electricity saved.

The Chicago Standard

Since 2000, the city has retrofitted 15 million square feet of public buildings to lower energy use by a minimum of 30 percent. In June 2004, Mayor Daley made public the city’s commitment to building green by announcing the adoption of The Chicago Standard, which is based on selected points from the LEED Green Building Rating System that are reasonable and appropriate for Chicago. In 2007, more than 20 percent of electricity used in city buildings was purchased from green power sources. The city has utilized its purchasing power to attract solar panel manufacturers to the city by committing to purchase the equipment, resulting in over 2 Megawatts of renewable energy generating capacity in the city. The Chicago Center for Green Technology was the first municipal building in the world to achieve a LEED Platinum certification. The Center now offers over 150 green educational programs per year to educate Chicagoans about green building technologies.

Energy Service Companies

Chicago is a partner in the Clinton Climate Initiative’s Energy Efficiency Building Retrofit Program. This program brings together eight of the world’s largest energy service companies (ESCOs), five of the world’s largest banks, and 17 of the world’s largest cities in a program designed to reduce energy consumption in existing buildings. Several major Chicago commercial and institutional property owners are already participating, including Sears Tower as well as the Merchandise Mart, which negotiated an energy performance contract for four million square feet.

Winter Preparedness Fairs and Smart Bulb Program

In 2007, the Chicago Department of Environment (DOE,) along with other city and sister agencies, completed 15 winter weatherization fairs throughout the city. 12,000 households attended the fairs and received information and materials to prepare for winter and the increase in natural gas costs. At these fairs and other venues, DOE distributed more than 22,000 home weatherization kits. The city also distributed weatherization material vouchers to every ward. Through DOE’s Smart Bulb Program and the efforts of ward offices, the city distributed 500,000 compact fluorescent bulbs to Chicagoans.

Green Legislation

The Chicago Energy Conservation Code establishes minimum regulations for the design of energy efficient buildings and structures. The code, first introduced in 2001, regulates the design and selection of the building’s envelope, mechanical systems, service water heating systems and electrical power and lighting systems. The code reduces utility costs, improves the building stock and enhances the quality of life and environment.

In addition, to ensure that all new construction projects in Chicago include green buildings elements, numerous ordinances and codes have been adopted: the Chicago Energy Conservation Code mandates reflective roofs, the Construction and Demolition Debris Recycling Ordinance calls for 50% recycling rates and the Storm Water Ordinance requires that the first ½ inch of rain be captured on site.


Chicago currently has 400 green roof projects in development that will total nearly 4 million square feet, more than the rest of the country combined.


In 2007, more than 20 percent of electricity used in city buildings was purchased from green power sources.

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