Onsite Energy for Affordable Housing
Solar panels and wind turbines will result in long-term savings for one Chicago apartment complex.
Exposed concrete ceilings that rise at least 9 feet in the air. Floor plans designed by a world-famous architect. Magnificent views of the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago. These are all features Chicagoans expect in million-dollar condos in the city’s top neighborhoods.
Add in onsite power generation from both solar panels and wind turbines, not to mention the use of recycled water to flush the toilets, and these same city residents would probably guess, conservatively, that the residence would fetch a sales price of $2 million or more.
In the case of Near North Apartments, though, they’d be wrong. The apartments contain all these features, and several more, but aren’t designed for the city’s wealthiest residents. Instead, they’re here to serve some of Chicago’s poorest.
Near North Apartments is a newly built example of what used to be called, usually disparagingly, an “SRO,” short for single-room occupancy. Most of the city’s still-existing SROs are small, dingy, dangerous places, either the last step before homelessness for some of its residents or the first step back up from the streets for others.
Near North Apartments, though, is different. For one thing, it was designed by Helmut Jahn, a renowned architect who also designed such powerful buildings as the European Union headquarters in Brussels, the United Airlines Terminal at O’Hare International Airport, and several buildings at the Illinois Institute of Technology, a college campus famous for its modern architecture.
Jahn’s influence is evident at first glance. Near North Apartments looks like an oversized, but still sleek, silvery commuter train, the kind that runs through most Chicago neighborhoods. Its exterior walls don’t run straight up and down, either, but instead angle outward as they rise. The roof is curved, resembling, some say, the top of a loaf of bread.
And on the top of the building? Rows of twisting wind turbines—eight in all—and, hidden from view, flat solar panels. Together, the turbines and panels provide onsite power for the 96 apartment units inside.
For Jahn, the man behind some of the world’s most recognizable buildings, the fact that Near North Apartments is considered affordable housing didn’t change his desire to make a building that is as striking as it is functional.
“I wanted to do this project because affordable housing need not be of lower standard and lesser quality,” Jahn says in a written statement. “Designed with different goals and spirit, this project aspires not only to contribute to the lives of the users, but also to improve the quality of the city.”
The developers of the project, Chicago’s Mercy Housing Lakefront, chose the brand-name architect, unusual design, and “green” element of onsite power generation to shatter some of the longstanding stigmas of SROs, explains Barry Mullen, its regional vice president for real estate development.
“We wanted people to realize that you don’t have to be rich to get these features,” Mullen says. “You don’t have to be rich to live in a home like this. This kind of home, with all its technology, should be available for everyone.”
Alternative Power for All
The designers of Near North Apartments wanted to shatter the myth that only wealthy people could afford to build homes with alternative-energy sources, such as the wind turbines and solar panels that top the city’s newest SRO.
The onsite power generation, then, was always part of the building’s plans.
“Everyone felt this was an opportunity to create a type of university for the implementation of green technologies,” Mullen says. “And, if you think about it, what better place is there to do this than at an affordable-housing project?”
The turbines and panels aren’t merely for show, either. They help reduce operating costs at the facilities. That’s important in a building that isn’t collecting huge rents from its tenants.
“If you are rich, you can afford this technology. You can use this technology to heat your swimming pool,” Mullen says. “That’s great. It does save energy. It is a positive. But in this case, we are looking at the bottom line. These technologies work better for us. They save us money over time. Our cash flow is entirely dependent on a small portion of the residents’ rents. Holding down the operating costs is important for us.”
Neither the wind turbines nor the flat solar thermal panels added significant costs to the project. For instance, the eight wind turbines added about $1 million to the building’s final cost, with most of these dollars coming in the form of a grant from the City of Chicago, whose mayor, Richard Daley, has long been a proponent of green technology.
Those figures, even without the grant, pale in comparison to the overall cost of building and designing Near North Apartments: The residence’s price tag came in at just about $14 million.
For Mullen, Near North is serving not only its residents—the previously homeless—but also the city as a whole by setting an example of how green energy isn’t just for corporations or the wealthy.
And, Mullen adds, alternative energy and energy savings don’t have to mean just wind power and solar power. Homeowners can go green—or at least greener—by investing in something as simple as better insulation for their residences.
“The more examples that can be set, the greater the adoption of this kind of technology will be,” Mullen says. “I think a lot of people are willing and want to use some of this technology. But they are not sure where to start. Their belief is that things like wind power and solar power are too expensive. Most people are looking at the bottom line and saying, ‘I can’t afford this.’ Well, we want them to look at the bottom line and say, ‘Maybe I can’t afford to not do this,’ or at least be inspired to investigate this in some way.”
Near North’s solar panels and wind turbines will result in long-term savings for Mercy Housing Lakefront, which is operating the building. The wind turbines, for instance, are positioned to take advantage of Chicago’s prevailing southwest winds. Located on the curving roof of the subsidized housing development, the eight turbines, all lined in a row, are actually designed to accelerate wind speeds and generate more power.
The developers estimate that the wind turbines and solar panels working together will result in Near North Apartments consuming 22% less energy than would a traditional building. Developers estimate that thanks to these savings the wind turbines will have paid for themselves in 17 years.
On an annual basis, the green technology will result in up to $18,000 in savings compared with what the utility costs for the Near North Apartments might be without the wind turbines or solar panels.
So far, the green technology has worked well. Mullen says the solar panels, for example, have kept the building’s hot-water systems operating at 120°F or higher, even in the cold of a Chicago winter.
Scott Pratt, an architect with Murphy/Jahn and the principal architect of the project, says he, too, hopes that other developers will look to Near North Apartments as an example of the correct way to incorporate alternative-energy sources into even the most affordable of housing.
“One of the most challenging factors of incorporating these types of technologies is that they do cost money. The economics of it will be what makes this challenging for affordable housing,” Pratt says. “In this project, a lot of the technology was affordable because of the grants we received. But with other projects, it’s really going to be the economics that either make alternative energy feasible or not.”
Housing prices in Chicago and its nearby suburbs have never been low. Today, though, they are higher than ever. The median price for a home in the Chicago area stood at $240,000 in February 2007, according to data from the Illinois Association of Realtors.
And housing prices in the region will only continue to rise. That median price of $240,000 is a 0.9% increase from one year earlier. That’s not a significant increase, but the residential real estate market during that period was sluggish. When the market goes through another boom period—which, in a cyclical industry such as real estate, will undoubtedly happen—housing prices will certainly skyrocket once more.
This leaves the region’s most vulnerable people, the homeless and the disabled, facing a huge challenge. Projects like Near North Apartments are designed to meet this challenge.
In 2003, Chicago’s Department of Housing selected Mercy Housing Lakefront, though the organization was known then as Lakefront Supportive Housing, to develop two new housing projects as part of Chicago’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. Near North Apartments is one of those buildings; the other is a 100-unit building proposed for the city’s Englewood community.
Located at 1244 N. Clybourn Ave., on the fringes of what was once the infamous public-housing project known as Cabrini-Green, Near North, which opened its doors in early March of this year, features 96 rental units. Forty-eight of these units are reserved for tenants with limited incomes, while the other 48 are set for those who are disabled and homeless.
The project, though technically an example of a city SRO, is unlike any type of housing previously designed to serve homeless or financially struggling residents. Much of this credit goes to famed architect Helmut Jahn.
Jahn and his fellow architects designed the residence to look sleek, streamlined, and, most of all, unique. Chicago’s public-housing projects, including Cabrini-Green, became a symbol of urban decay thanks to their problems with drugs, crime, and the dilapidated state into which they were allowed to sink. But even when first built, the housing projects lacked inspiration and were dull, grimy towers that looked more like prisons than homes.
Jahn avoided that with Near North Apartments. The building, in fact, could be accurately described as whimsical. It’s as if a giant dropped his toy commuter train in the middle of the city one day and never returned to claim it.
The building’s interiors are also far removed from those of a typical SRO. Each apartment contains 245–265 square feet of living space, spacious compared to similar projects. They also come with their own private bathrooms and kitchens, something that isn’t a given at SROs in the city.
The first floor contains a community room that is open not only to residents but to the general public. By including this in their plans, and inviting outsiders to come into the building rather than shy away from it, architects hoped to help erase the stigma that still surrounds SRO buildings.
Those residents who can afford it are expected to pay 30% of their adjusted gross incomes toward rent.
A Natural Process
Adding the onsite power sources to the project caused few problems aesthetically, says Pratt, the principal architect.
|The turbines and solar panels provide onsite power for 96 apartment units.|
The wind turbines manufactured by Aerotecture International (AI), for example, gave designers a reason to give the building an aerodynamic shape. Pratt calls it “expressing the flow of the wind across the roof.” The spirally turbines also look like a natural part of the building’s unique design.
This installation features eight AI 520H Aeroturbines, each consisting of a pair of helical rotors and airfoils contained within a steel cage and mounted horizontally to the roof of the 96-unit single-resident housing development. The geometry and orientation of the building was designed specifically to increase the speed of the wind as it flows over the roof.
“The architects have taken full advantage of the site conditions,” Mullen says. “The curve of the top of the building almost looks like the top of a loaf of bread. It’s the belief that when the prevailing winds come, they hit the face of the building and accelerate over the top, like the way wind moves across an airplane wing. This all eases the movement of the wind toward the turbines.”
The solar panels from Solargenix Energy LLC also caused no design problems. The panels lie flat on the building’s roof, so are not even visible from the street.
“Overall, adding these features became a very natural process,” Pratt says. “The interest that they add to the design architecturally is one of the things that really excited us about using them in the first place.”
Murphy/Jahn had so much success with the wind turbines and solar panels, the firm is currently considering adding onsite power technology to several projects—both residential and commercial—that are currently in the planning stages.
The solar panels are also unique. Unlike many existing solar technologies, Near North’s panels do not rely on batteries. Typically, power generators such as windmills and solar panels create electricity and then store that electricity into an array of batteries. The batteries then convert the power from DC to AC.
Near North’s system, though, doesn’t use any batteries. The power generated by the panels instead runs into a series of inverters in the building’s basement.
“We’re happy with that system,” Mullen says. “Over time, those batteries sort of become an environmental nightmare. We’re using 14th century technology on the roof and 21st century technology in the basement.”
Near North Apartments boasts one more “green” feature: its graywater system.
Basically, the building’s graywater system collects drainage from the sinks and showers in the building, stores it, filters it, and chemically treats it.
The system then uses the treated water, recycling it to flush the toilets throughout the apartments. Pratt says Near North’s system is the first graywater one in the city of Chicago.
“We did use some systems in this building that are either first-of-a-kind or nearly first-of-a-kind technology,” Pratt says. “The wind turbines are pretty developmental technology. There are not that many installations around in residential buildings in Chicago. This is one of the first. It’s the same with the graywater system. That was never done before in the city of Chicago. We had to do a lot of developmental research to see how these systems would work.”
A Growing Trend
Few Chicago buildings are as plugged into green technologies as is Near North Apartments. However, a growing number of Chicago developers are building residences and commercial projects that do have green aspirations.
Erik Olsen, green projects administrator with the City of Chicago Department of Construction and Permits, has the numbers to back this up. In the summer of 2005, when the city first began tracking permits for green buildings, Olsen’s office issued 19. In 2006, the city passed out 71 such permits. Olsen predicts that the city will approve more than 100 green permits this year.
Mullen is pleased that Near North is part of this trend. But he also recognizes that all the wind turbines, solar panels, and graywater systems would mean little if the building didn’t also provide services to the low-income, homeless, and disabled population who have already taken up residence in all of the building’s apartments.
To this end, Mercy Housing will offer counseling, employment assistance, and case-management services. “We’re all happy with the way this project came together,” Mullen says. “We were able to go good not only for the community but for the environment, too. That’s what we set out to do, and that’s what was done.”
The bottom line, according to Cindy Holler, executive director of Mercy Housing Lakefront, is that the homeless and poor deserve not only a safe and pleasant place to live, but also the chance to reside in a building that is blessed with the latest in environmentally friendly technology.
“People who move into Near North Apartments deserve, like all of us, to live in a place that is great-looking, functional, affordable, and provides key services all at once,” Holler says in a written statement. “Near North Apartments makes sense for tenants and for the community and the city to which they belong.”
Author's Bio: Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor.