Sustainability-Minded Non-Profits Work to Upgrade Their Buildings to Net-Zero Energy

Aspiration and Challenge

To keep the terra cotta on the building as it is, insulation is installed in the interior walls.

To keep the terra cotta on the building as it is, insulation is installed in the interior walls.

Two years of planning produced a 78-page document outlining ICA GreenRise’s sustainability strategies, which include swapping existing steam boilers with high-efficiency hot-water boilers, replacing a 300-ton absorption chiller with a new 200-ton chiller, replacing existing air-handling units with a dedicated outdoor air system and installing radiant ceiling panels. Accomplishing all of this is not without its challenges. For starters, the building’s historic status creates limitations on what can be done on the exterior façade.

“The landmark status has a real interest in keeping the terra cotta as it is, so we’ve started looking at insulating the interior walls on those façades,” Showers explains. “But the façades on the back, on the south and west sides of the building, are brick so we can do a cladding on the outside to insulate there.”

Another challenge stems from the fact that the building is occupied and the construction needs to work around the tenants.

“We can’t just move everyone out,” Showers says. “So we are juggling. As we move tenants off a floor, we’re able to gut that floor totally, insulate the interior walls, change the windows out, and put all the new plumbing, electric and HVAC systems in.”

And finally, there is the challenge of funding these kinds of upgrades to the building. The original budget for the project was $20 million but that has been pared down to $15.8 million.

“We are financing through a combination of New Market Tax Credits, Historic Tax Credits, help from the city of Chicago through Adopt-A-Landmark, as well as grants and our capital campaign,” Showers explains. “We’re trying to close the funding on the first phase and then start the funding for the second phase so we can continue on with construction and not have to stop and regroup.”

First phase construction is expected to take six to eight months with all phases set to be completed by the end of 2019. “It’s really ambitious to try to get this building as close to net zero as we possibly can, but what’s really rewarding is the reason we are doing this,” Showers says. “We have 25 different non-profits in this building that all serve the very vulnerable communities around this area and the homeless that are here. ICA is trying to inject its spirit into this building.”

In spite of challenges with budget and logistics, the organization sees the chance to make its building a symbolic beacon. Showers notes: “We really believe that people who are struggling and come to our building to receive services should be able to enjoy a space that honors them and gives them hope. This building really has a purpose in serving vulnerable populations.”

For both groups and both buildings, the journey to net-zero is ongoing. There will be bumps along the way, but both projects provide an important example. On the technical side, the successes and failures of the strategies employed on these buildings will help give a blueprint to future owners and designers striving for net zero.

But on a deeper level, both organizations demonstrate the most important aspect of net-zero energy construction— the will to do it. AGU and ICA will push through any challenges they face because they are dedicated to the true promise of sustainability. And where there is a will, there is a way.

American Geophysical Union, Washington, D.C.

Retrofit Team

Owner: American Geophysical Union, Washington, D.C.


  • Christine McEntee, executive director/CEO

Architect: Hickok Cole Architects, Washington, D.C.?

  • Yolanda Cole, senior principal
  • Holly Lennihan, director of sustainable design, project manager
  • Lindsey Falasca, project architect

Owner’s Representative: MGAC, Washington

Engineer: Interface Engineering, Washington

Development and Construction: Skanska, Washington

Communications/Community Outreach: Stratacomm LLC, Washington

ICA GreenRise, Chicago

Retrofit Team

Owner: Institute of Cultural Affairs, Chicago

  • Ted Wysocki, CEO/president
  • Lesley Showers, property manager
  • Mary Laura Jones, building fundraising
  • Damien Blanchard, facility manager
  • Jim Troxel, board chair

Real-estate Consultant: Henderson & Co., Chicago

  • Irving Henderson, principal

Architect: Farr Associates, Chicago

  • Tony Holub, senior associate and project manager

Engineer: dbHMS Engineering, Chicago

AGU Photos/Illustrations: Courtesy American Geophysical Union
ICA Greenrise Photos: Courtesy ICA Greenrise

About the Author

Jim Schneider, LEED AP
Jim Schneider, LEED AP, has worked in the design and construction industry for almost 20 years. He writes about architecture, sustainability and construction from Denver.

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