Contributing Editor

Susan Bady has been writing about the housing industry for 25 years. She most recently served as senior editor of design for Professional Builder and Custom Builder magazines, and is now a contributing editor to those publications as well as the portal Web site Bady has also written for such consumer magazines as Cabin Life and Better Homes and Gardens’ Home Plan Ideas. You can reach her at [email protected].

Chicago green-home tour is an eye opener

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit a group of homes that were featured in Chicago’s first GreenBuilt Home Tour. Sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council-Illinois Chapter, the tour included 16 sites that are third-party certified, including the area’s first Passive House, DOE Challenge Homes, LEED-certified homes, and National Green Building Standard-certified homes.

I was especially interested in the Passive House in River Forest, Ill., which is profiled in the July issue of Professional Builder. The home makes a bold statement in a neighborhood of stately, older residences with its blue fiber-cement siding and contemporary flair. When closed, the heavy doors and triple-glazed, European windows seal the house like a bank vault.  Not only is it very quiet, there’s a big difference in air quality compared to my own home and most other homes. I suffer from chronic sinusitis and allergies, and after just a few minutes in this house I was breathing easier. A lot of attention was paid to using non-toxic materials, including drywall that actually absorbs VOCs. 

During the tour I overheard someone say that Germans believe Americans are terribly wasteful of energy. That’s so true, and it brings up an important point: designing and building green is wonderful, but if the homeowners aren’t committed to a more efficient lifestyle, it defeats the purpose. 

Later, I walked through two urban homes on typically narrow city lots (one was only 23 feet wide). They’re multi-story, very modern-looking structures that maximize outdoor space via the use of rooftop decks. Both homes have rooftop solar panels. The owner of the first house had an interesting observation: he said alternative energies such as wind and geothermal don’t make sense in Chicago, but solar does. The second house had solar thermal panels that supply 80 percent of the household’s hot-water needs, as well as a geothermal heating and cooling system. According to the construction manager, the geothermal cost around $55,000, compared to $30,000 for a conventional HVAC system. But he pointed out that the homeowners’ utility bills are less than $40 a month versus $300 a month—an appreciable benefit.

The last home I visited was a panelized, farmhouse-style residence in the North Shore suburb of Glencoe. Some of the biggest challenges the architect, builder and client faced were restrictions imposed by the city. Cranes were prohibited on the site, so the construction crew had to use a forklift to put the panels in place. To install five solar panels on the roof (and earn 5 LEED points), the team had to get a zoning variance. They also had to install a permeable concrete driveway and a supplementary storm drain in the backyard to ensure there would be no flooding (city storm drains are notorious for backing up after a heavy rain). 

The Glencoe home is the most traditional house I saw on the tour. The kitchen and great room are large open spaces at the rear, with a formal dining room, parlor and study at the front. Deep crown moldings and baseboards dress the rooms. Yet despite its old-fashioned ambience, this is a LEED Platinum home with a well-thought-out green methodology. The homeowners harvest rainwater in 55-gallon barrels and maintain a living roof off their master bedroom. The roofing on the house and the detached garage is metal, painted a reflective aluminum color (expensive, but it’s warranted for 50 years). A “ventilation tower” on the stair landing pulls cool air up from the basement on hot days. And instead of the double-hung windows that are traditionally used in farmhouses, this one has casements with decorative mullions that evoke the style but allow much less air infiltration. 

Even though I didn’t get to see every home on the GreenBuilt tour, I’m impressed with the ones I visited. There’s a vibrant, progressive movement afoot in the Windy City to make houses operate more efficiently and provide a healthier environment for their owners. 

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