28 jun 11  | World Architecture News

Gordon Gill on Chicago’s changing climate

Sharon McHugh

Gordon Gill is a Chicago-based architect and one of the world’s preeminent exponents of performance-based design. As the designer of one of the world's most sustainable skyscrapers, the Pearl River Tower, (designed at SOM) and the world first large-scale positive energy building, Masdar Headquarters, who better than Gill to comment on the alarming prediction in the New York Times that Chicago will soon face a major climate shift that will have it feeling more like Baton Rouge, Louisiana, than a Northern metropolis before the end of the century.

As Leslie Kaufman reported in the Times, Chicago is in for a wetter and steamier future, with record heat waves and extreme storms that will flood the city. While these predictions are not news to anyone who has been paying attention, they do suggest that the impact of global warming on the Windy City is perhaps far greater then previously thought.

With Gill’s firm, AS + GG, leading the way to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, with Chicago’s first Energy Master Plan, the Chicago Central Area DeCarbonization Plan, we asked Gill to share his thoughts on the Times’ article’s implications and what architects need to do to address this marked shift in climate change.

Could you comment on the article in the New York Times, which predicts a warm future for Chicago? Is it accurate and is the situation as dire as the article suggests?

The article is an interesting read. It’s hard for me to scientifically measure the position of the article with respect to changes in temperature and changes in climate, the shift in weather over the last 30 years. I think we do agree that we are certainly transforming our environment. We also agree that Chicago and other cities will undergo a transformation in temperature one way or the other. It’s a beautiful stormy day here in Chicago today and just coming by a neighborhood park, Lincoln Park, on my way to work today, we do have permeable alleys. The alley was redone last summer with a permeable surface. You can see the transformation that is taking place in the city with respect to landscape and planting. We acknowledge that things are changing and, for us in the architectural community, that’s going to pose certain challenges as well.

How do these predictions affect your work, particularly on the DeCarbonization Plan but on other projects as well? Were you aware of these conditions when you developed the DeCarb plan, and are the assumptions predicted here built into the plan?

We weren’t precise on the calculations on temperature shifts but we certainly did take into consideration the transformation of weather and temperature patterns and degree-days. For the existing building stock we talk about in the DeCarb Plan, many of the buildings downtown that were built in the early part of the century were passively oriented, and not mechanically oriented. They have nice operable windows, beautiful double hung sash windows, narrow floor plates, cross ventilation and those kinds of things. Then they got all sealed up and air conditioning was pumped into them, in response to the market demands. So our plan for those types of buildings, which are now Class C office space, is to reuse them as prime residential space and bring the people back downtown to live in the core of the city. Support that with schools and grocery stores and things that go to make life better. The goal is to give those buildings some life and focus on the office buildings as needed. Newer office buildings can be more sustainably designed and built.

Do you feel that plan - in light of these predications - needs any tweaking?

One of the things that we’re going to continue to look at for the DeCarb book, the next generation of it, is water and waste management. We want to get in depth in some of the chapters that we’ve started. The primary objective of the Plan was to look at the reduction of carbon to 2030. We started to look at these things as part and parcel of the DeCarb plan but the details of that is something we are going to get into and look at more closely.

When is the next iteration of the DeCarb plan?

We’ve started. We have a lot of summer interns coming in, some of the doctoral students. I don’t know when we will be ready to publish, but we’ve started the research already. Hopefully this information will be released in a year or so.

Are there any other projects that you are working on now that will need to be adjusted in light of these predictions?

For a potential park project that we haven’t started yet, we will look more closely at the species selection and the material selections with regard to greater permeability. For projects that we are working on now we will look at degree-days and comfort as part of the design challenge. The passive systems we will look at more closely, and dehumidification, especially as humidity is going to be shifting and is predicated to be like Alabama or Atlanta. The dehumidification processes in the buildings will probably be upgraded.

AS + GG is certainly doing its part. What about the rest of the city and the greater design community?

I think there has been a great shift in the attitude towards implementing sustainable ideas into design. When we started this five years ago it wasn’t the basic MO, of all the firms we had as friends and colleagues but it certainly is now to the degree that most firms are now pushing it. We’re also seeing change in the developer community. I think a lot of people are beginning to understand that this isn’t just about systems it’s about an economy. We see a lot of manufacturers producing more and more sustainable materials. When we look at the DeCarb Plan, I refer to it as tapping into the latent potential of existing buildings to leverage their value through energy and carbon. And that’s a business. It affects the owner. It affects the user. The financial model begins to shift. Utility companies get interested.

When you talk about developers being interested from the financial model perspective, are you talking about life cycle costs or are you talking about branding in terms of a building’s leasability and its green factor?

In some cases all of the above. I think a couple of things have happened. The demand for sustainable products, apartments, condos and office space has pushed developers to deliver those types of products. I think that some of them actually understand the life-cycle cost value of it and it depends on whether or not they are holding on to that building or turning it over in terms of how they look at that. But I think we are seeing a combination of desires to push sustainable measures forward. And I think it’s growing. We heard, and I can’t prove it, that LEED rated buildings in Chicago get 6% more rent than non-LEED rated buildings. That’s an interesting statistic. Another thing we talk to people about is that as higher quality buildings come on line, by default you’ll slip behind if you not meeting or exceeding those goals. You want to design for 10 to 15 years out and this is definitely a part of that mission.

This is indeed interesting and very relevant for Chicago. Before we part, is there any news you wish to break?

I’m sworn to secrecy but we will be traveling soon (location off the record) and hopefully announcing new projects.