25 jun 09 | The Chicago Sun-Times

Lofty 'green' renovation for Sears Tower

by David Roeder

Sears Tower is "going green" while keeping its attire of basic black. The tower's owners are planning a rooftop-to-plaza renovation to conserve energy and power up its financial performance.

The makeover detailed Wednesday calls for giving the tower a new neighbor, a 50-story hotel that the Sears owners said would feature "net zero" use of energy. They said changes to the tower itself will cut its appetite for electricity by 80 percent.


* 50-story, 500-room hotel planned at the northeast corner of Jackson and Wacker will use solar and wind technology to strive for "net zero" energy use.
* Granite plaza to be replaced with green space, new retail, permeable pavement and, along Adams Street, a solar-powered digital display for news and event information.
* Lobby "learning center" to demonstrate the latest in energy production and conservation.
* Replacement of 16,000 windows and metal panels to save heating energy by up to 60 percent.
* New mechanical systems to incorporate fuel cell technology.
* Advanced lighting controls will adjust to movement and daylight.
* Elevators get new motors that go on or off almost instantly to adjust with demand.
* Escalators get motion detectors.
* Solar hot water panels on 90th floor roof will heat water for the restrooms.
* New plumbing fixtures will cut water use.
* Wind turbines and green roofs will be tested at various levels except the tower's antenna roof.
* Programs for tenants include bicycle sharing and recycling of paper and electronics.

Not part of the plan is changing the tower's color. A switch to silver had been contemplated, but the owners, working with noted architect Adrian Smith, decided it would be enough to change all 16,000 windows, introducing double-paned glass with an insulating layer of film in between.

The work on the 110 -story tower should cost about $350 million, said John Huston, principal with American Landmark Properties Ltd. The Skokie-based firm is part of the tower's ownership group.
Huston estimated the hotel, for which outside investors will be sought, could cost $225 million. He said the dual projects could be completed within five years.

"Our plans are very ambitious. Our plans are groundbreaking in many respects" and will "set new standards for the greening of existing buildings," Huston said.

Smith [along with partner Gordon Gill], of the firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, designed the hotel to include solar and wind power generation. He also is directing the changes to the tower.

He said the task is important because buildings worldwide account for more than 50 percent of carbon emissions. Smith said initiatives such as green roofs and advanced lighting controls will trim energy usage for a building that, with a population of 20,000 people, is a "good-sized village."

The plan is to make the tower attractive to tenants who care about the environment. That could justify higher rents down the line, markets conditions permitting.

Robert Wislow, chairman of U.S. Equities Realty, which manages Sears Tower, said an efficient building is a selling point to tenants. "They are demanding to occupy sustainable space," he said.
Conservation will help the tower's occupants by reducing what they pay toward the building's operating costs, said Katherine Scott, executive vice president at U.S. Equities.

Huston said the owners have requested a zoning change from the city to accommodate the hotel. A city subsidy also is under discussion, but Huston declined to get into details.

He noted that a Sears renewal would create 3,600 jobs, including short-term construction work. Based on formulas applied to other subsidy requests, the Sears owners could be asking for around $60 million under tax-increment financing, which provides developer subsidies from property taxes that otherwise would support local government.

Sears Tower is "the biggest taxpayer in the city" and has paid more than $750 million since it opened in 1973, Huston said.

A hotel building at Jackson and Wacker would fulfill original ideas for the property as developed by the architectural firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill in the 1960s. Lead architect Bruce Graham allowed for another building on the block, although current zoning doesn't permit it.

Owners of the tower include New York investors Joseph Chetrit and Joseph Moinian.

In the near term, the owners plans two other changes: a name change and a heart-thumping addition to its 103rd floor observation deck.

This summer, the building will be rechristened Willis Tower after an insurance brokerage, Willis Group Holdings Ltd., that is leasing 140,000 square feet there.

The observation deck is supposed to reopen in a few weeks with glass extensions from the building that will give visitors the illusion of stepping out into space, with a clear view down to Wacker Drive.