photo: courtesy Baird & Warner and URBANWorks
On a chilly January afternoon, Al and Dario Medina drove me to a familiar Wicker Park sight: a three-story condominium in the final stages of construction. The building looked very much like any other luxury condo going up in the area—rectilinear design, floor-to-ceiling window frontage—yet this building differs from its neighbors in one important respect: It's certified by the Chicago Green Homes program.
Al parked the car and we picked our way through the construction debris to meet John Giambarberee, the realtor giving us a tour of the property. Giambarberee is a pretty low-key guy, but his enthusiasm for environmentally conscious design shone through as he explained features of the place to me—features like the zoned thermostat, which allows you to control the temperature in rooms independent of one another, and the aerated faucets, which, despite being low-flow, create the sensation of a powerful stream of water pelting one's hands. As Giambarberee pointed out the Energy Star appliances, Al asked if he had considered tank-less water heaters in each unit. He had, but tank-less heaters were still too pricey.
Al and Dario are brothers who together founded One Step Properties, a real estate brokerage and consulting firm in Logan Square that aims to put interested buyers in green-certified buildings. Giambarberee works for Baird & Warner, a major real estate brokerage in Illinois, and this five-unit condo is his first green project.
Developers in Chicago, who want to slap the ever-more desirable green label on their buildings, have a few options: They can seek one of the four tiers of LEED certification (the acronym means Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)—a standard defined by the U.S. Green Building Council—or they can shoot for the Chicago Green Homes certificate. The Chicago system came out in 2000, back before a LEED rating for homes even existed. The new LEED is a tougher certification to secure, particularly at the gold and platinum levels, but the two rating systems look relatively similar, awarding points for energy, water and resource efficiency, ventilation and air quality, and site management of new and renovated buildings.
Chicago, the national leader in sustainable construction and host of last year's Greenbuild Conference, bends over backward to encourage environmentally responsible development. Green buildings are eligible for huge discounts on consultant fees, as well as expedited permits that can be secured in a month or less.
The incentives seem to be working. Erik Olsen, manager of Chicago's Green Permit program, keeps a comprehensive blog of all green developments in the city. About 40 residences are currently cataloged on his site, from single-family homes to swank South Loop high-rises to low-rent single room occupancy (SRO) buildings. And the feeling, at least amongst the small group of young brokers I talked with the other day, is that this is just the beginning. "In a few years all homes will have to be green," Al said as his brother nodded in agreement. "Ones that aren't will be behind the market."
A survey conducted by McGraw-Hill Construction and the National Association of Home Builders makes a similar prediction. Last year, $2 billion was spent nationally on residential green building. The survey of builders and homeowners estimates that number will swell from anywhere between $19 and $38 billion in the next two years. Booming growth like this means it's not just the fervent greenies creating demand; Giambarberee decided to make the Wicker Park condo green on something of a whim, as a bonus to anyone interested. "One couple who bought wasn't looking for anything green, they just liked the place," he told me. "Now they're really into it, buying recycled furniture; they just got a table made from old railroad ties. Another couple that bought drove up in a Prius."
The good news for green-minded home buyers is that as certification becomes more common and realtors more educated, greenwashing—the spurious practice of slinging around eco-buzzwords to jack up the price, without delivering the green promises—will be easier to sniff out. And, as it turns out, a green building isn't necessarily a more expensive one. "Getting the certification didn't cost much more, and we're not charging any extra to buyers," Giambarberee said with a shrug, "There's a new building going up a block away. It's similar in size; the units are going for $150,000 more, and there's nothing green about it."
It took a move from the regimented lawnscapes of the suburbs to the congestion of a major metropolis for Sharon to look twice at what she puts in the trash, down the sink and into her own body. She reports fortnightly on her endeavors to change "greening" from calculated deviation to a practicable way of life. You can contact her here.