Green Power for the People

A sustainable housing project opens in Chicago. By Dianne Molvig

Chicago’s winds are legendary. For people who live in subsidized housing, those winds often bring misery, driving winter’s icy air into homes through thin walls and leaky windows.

Such is not the case for the residents of a new housing project that opened yesterday on the city’s near north side. Called Near North Apartments, the 96-unit, 46,000-square-foot building houses formerly homeless Chicagoans.

For these residents, the wind is no foe, but an ally supplying a portion of their energy. Solar panels, rainwater collection, and gray-water recycling are other features that set this project apart from typical subsidized housing. The five-story building also meets LEED certification standards.

Near North is the newest of 11 housing projects built in Chicago by Mercy Housing Lakefront, the Chicago branch of Mercy Housing, a nonprofit group headquartered in Denver. The company used solar photovoltaic roof panels on one of its previously built SROs, but decided to go further in sustainable design with its latest project.

Perched on Near North's roof are eight cylindrical wind turbines, each about five feet high and 10 feet long, lined up in a row down the length of the building. “The site is oriented perfectly for the prevailing winds in Chicago,” says Barry Mullen, vice president for real estate development at Mercy Housing Lakefront.

He notes that the building, designed by Chicago architect Helmut Jahn, is specially designed to use wind power. The roof curves at the edges, like the top of a loaf of bread. As the wind flows over the curve, it accelerates on its way into the turbines.

The roof also houses solar hot-water panels. Rainwater runoff from the property collects in an underground cistern, into which also drains filtered gray water from the building’s showers. This is the first large-scale gray-water system in Chicago. The collected water is used to flush toilets and irrigate outdoor gardens.

In all, the green-design elements added about $1 million to Near North’s construction costs, which totaled $14.1 million. The expected payback period for the added costs is 16 to 18 years.

Part of Mercy Housing Lakefront’s motivation in opting for sustainable design at Near North was to save on operating costs, says Allen Hailey, regional director of resource development. Another important factor, he adds, is that “more resources are available now, either through private philanthropy or public funding, to incorporate green-design elements into our projects.”

Foundations and private businesses contributed money and materials to the project, and the city of Chicago donated the solar panels. The city, known for its eco urban planning, encourages developers to build green by expediting the plan review process. “It took us less than a month to get through the green-design review,” Mullen notes. “It can take six to nine times that long” for a review of regular building plans.

Mullen hopes that Near North will serve as a model for an innovative, sustainable way to approach housing built for low-income  people. “This project is our environmental university,” he says, “not only to learn for ourselves, but also to show others what can be done.”

Photos by Bob Black


This is a great discussion of Near-North. I had first heard of them in a NYTimes article last fall ( and have been keeping my eye on this development since then.

Now, one question about the 16-18 year payback period: I suspect that this is 'simple' payback (only counting energy / water use) and not elements such as potential for reduced maintenance, greater power reliability, potential for better mental / physical health of the residents, etc ... Now, the last two are far easier for a business to quantify, but they are still real benefits.

I bumped into this piece (even though I have recently started reading Plenty) when writing my own blog discussion of Near-North. Slightly different focus: iPod Energy COOL; Public Housing the Right Way!

Can't wait to see the results when the kids start drinking out of the "gray Water" outlets. Gray water becomes BLACK WATER after how long? I'm sure those "filters" will be perfectly maintained. Nobody will "accidently" tap into the gray water system. Might work in the Sahara, but is a waste of time and resources here. Not to mention the health threat to the very people they are trying to help.

It is my understanding that the City shut this building down because of code issues specifically regarding the grey water issue. What's the scoop?

I'm sure if you subtract the greywater and a few other "green" choices that are NOT energy efficiency related, the payback would fall dramatically from 17 to maybe 2-5 years.

Wind power, heating, cooling, lighting, washing, refrigeration, appliance & electronics, etc offer savings opportunities that are "green" at the same time but with faster payback than greywater.

Chicago's water is cheap and it's price is not tied to financial incentives or penalties which is why greywater systems in Chicago take longer to pay off than other cities.

Not that we should ignore everything that isn't low hanging fruit, we should simply remember to tackle the easy ones first and not always roll them into the explanation we give to the public.

Then again, averaging everything to an acceptable number IS a way to sell a bundled project that would otherwise itemize some beneficial items that happen to have what some might consider too long a payback.