Energy efficiency key to global city

By The Columbia Chronicle

Chicago-based design firm Adrian Smith & Gordon Gill Architecture has completed the investigative phase of its ambitious plan to decarbonize the Loop by making buildings more energy efficient.

The initiative is a response to the city’s call for a plan to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2030. If the firm receives approval from city officials, its plan could reduce carbon emissions 20 percent by the year 2020 and 80 percent by 2030.

According to Robert Forest, a partner of Smith & Gill and co-author of the decarbonization strategy, the inspiration for the plan came from high performance buildings and large-scale measures in other cities that advance sustainability.

The firm researched 500 buildings citywide and found that more than half could reduce emissions through a process known as carbon retrofitting, which involves making improvements to buildings’ structures and energy systems.

“The intent of this project is that Chicago becomes a leader in carbon retrofitting and energy efficiency and [changes] the way to look at urban development,” Forest said. “We want to push the heritage of Chicago architecture being a world leader to become an example for cities around the world to look at and take notice of these plans.”

Because of the plan’s scale, the firm still needs to market it to multiple building owners to convince them of the benefits of upgrading energy-saving capabilities, Forest said. He also noted that city officials need to get on board for the strategy to be successful.

Forest said dialogue about energy-efficient projects needs to continue. To that end, Smith & Gill and the Illinois Institute of Technology have founded an educational program for architecture students to design energy-efficient buildings that will implement the decarbonization plan.

Benjamin Sahagun, a senior architecture major at IIT, said he worked with Smith & Gill designers on a semester-long class project. He said the time spent with the firm was unlike any other experience he’s had at the college.

“My concept started with traffic into the city, and around that I designed a residential complex that would clean the air through carbon scrubber machines, which are actually a real thing and are used in power plants today,” Sahagun said. “This really shows how attainable a plan like this is.”

According to Forest, retrofitting older buildings would increase their value and reduce operating costs, both of which are powerful incentives for building owners.

Kevin Brass, public affairs manager for the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, noted a 2011 U.N. survey that shows that more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas that will require investment to redevelop them as energy-efficient buildings.

“[City governments] can’t just plan a city one piece at a time and expect them all to work together when they are completed,” Brass said. “You can’t tear down buildings and replace them and expect to maintain a sustainable city.”

Brass said that plans like Smith & Gill’s can only succeed when fantastical building designs are replaced with a straightforward look at the economic challenges facing progressive citywide development, which the firm has taken into account.

“They are approaching it from a third-party process to create something that works for everyone in Chicago,” Brass said of the architecture firm. “If anyone can make this happen, it’s an organization like Smith & Gill.”