Green design makes it to affordable housing

April 01, 2007 |

A remarkable new 96-unit apartment building opened last month in Chicago's River North neighborhood. Designed by Helmut Jahn, the architect behind the James R. Thompson Center and the United Terminal at O'Hare International Airport, the 46,000-sf complex features numerous innovations in sustainable design, including gray-water reclamation, roof-mounted wind turbines, and photovoltaic panels to generate energy.

But this is no typical condo building with multimillion-dollar per-unit price tags. The Near North Apartments Single Room Occupancy (SRO) building was developed by Mercy Housing Lakefront, the local branch of Denver-based nonprofit group Mercy Housing, which builds affordable housing in major cities. Near North Apartments is devoting half its units to the homeless and disabled. The other half will go to individuals on the Chicago Housing Authority's waiting list, with preference to those displaced by the nearby Cabrini-Green housing project redevelopment. As of late March, 89 of the 96 units had already been placed with a resident.

“The intent, from the beginning, was to demonstrate that public housing need not be of lower quality,” said Scott Pratt, SVP of Murphy/Jahn. “We wanted to show that we can achieve quality design in affordable housing on a tight budget—and beyond that, integrate cutting-edge sustainability concepts and achieve LEED certification.”

Mercy Housing Lakefront has completed 11 housing projects in Chicago but none with as high-profile an architect as Jahn. As in its other SRO buildings, tenants pay 30% of adjusted gross income in rent. The Near North Apartments were built at about $114,000 for each of the 245- to 265-sf units.

Government and industry grants covered several of the sustainable features. The Illinois Clean Energy Foundation paid for the eight wind turbines perched atop the building's metal roof, and the city donated the photovoltaic solar panels that flank the turbines on either side. The expected payback period for the added costs is 16 to 18 years. Local firm Graef Anhalt Schloemer did the structural engineering, with Chicago's Linn-Mathes serving as general contractor.

The eight cylindrical Aerotecture wind turbines are mounted in a row on top of the roof to take advantage of southwesterly winds. The roof curves at the edges, driving the wind into the turbines. The high-grade Mylar-finned turbines were selected because they were quiet, as well as for their ability to generate power.

“Some of the turbines produce a harmonic,” said Dan Murphy, PE, LEED AP, principal-in-charge for Environmental Systems Design, Chicago, the M/E/P engineer on the project. “But the Mylar makes them both dense and quiet, so you don't even hear them when they spin.”

Together with the solar panels, the turbines are expected to generate 15% of the building's power. 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.

USG, one of the project's materials suppliers, provided a grant to commission and monitor the projected 22% energy savings of the building. “We're going to go back and monitor and look at exactly what kind of energy savings we're getting from the turbines, the solar panels, the gray-water system, everything,” said Murphy. “It's a project that we can follow and find out what's working and what's not.”

The ground floor of the Near North Apartments features a community room that will be open to neighbors as well as residents. The idea is to use the cachet of a Jahn-designed structure to change the perception of SRO buildings, which are frequently shunned by neighbors who fear they will hurt property values.

As new residential towers continue to pop up in once-dilapidated downtown neighborhoods in major cities, housing advocates decry the loss of hotels and apartment buildings that once housed the poor. Mercy Housing Lakefront is among the organizations that are betting on green building as a way to construct high-quality low-cost housing that will be accepted in up-and-coming neighborhoods.

“The hope is that anything we save in building operations can be put back into programs and support for our residents,” said Cindy Holler, president of Mercy Housing Lakefront. “We want this to be a demonstration of what permanent supportive housing can be. When you build in a neighborhood that's going through gentrification, where there is a need to replace old housing, you just simply don't want the place where the poor people live to be an ugly building.”

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