Practical Environmental Stewardship

While rummaging through a pile of green building literature, looking for material to write my first  blog around SERF’ s mission of Practical Environmental Stewardship ™,  I learned of 330 North Wabash’s recent SERF certification. 330 N. Wabash is the last American design of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and is one of Chicago’s finest architectural gems.   The owner/manager’s commitment to this goal makes this vital structure an exemplary  model of  SERF’s mission.

The level of intrusive retrofit that can be performed to green a historic and iconic structure is severely limited. Renovation of any nature must be performed without altering any of its historic features. The management could be forgiven if they didn’t attempt a green renovation given the complexity involved, but they did! Innovation on their part revealed the existence of several affordable, high impact and low intrusive greening strategies.

It is well-recognized that building occupant behavior plays an important role in the overall environmental impact.  Strangely, it is one of the most overlooked factors. Management’s decision to educate occupants on responsible energy usage, benefits of recycling, and shade control to limit or increase natural daylight had positive effects on waste reduction and energy efficiency without being a cost burden.  Others steps included vermiculite composting, a sustainable purchasing policy and mercury reduction in lamps. These strategies tremendously reduced the overall ecological footprint of this structure while offering superb payback.

On the contrary, life cycle analysis of several high cost and intrusive strategies (performed on other buildings) have revealed more harm than good for the environment. Several invasive retrofits like tearing up whole parking lots to replace them with permeable pavement, demolition and reconstruction to increase insulation by insignificant amounts, and so on require such high embodied energy to implement that it is impossible to obtain environmental or monetary payback during the life cycle of the building.

Examination of the greening effort of 330 N. Wabash reveals the following truth: In the quest to chase points and be green certified, simple and practical green strategies must not go unnoticed; failure to pluck these low hanging fruit can prove costly.

There is no “one size fits all” approach to building green and several factors restrict the level of sustainability one can strive for. The proper approach is to understand underlying limitations, payback, budget and life cycle impacts to determine what works and doesn’t. Proper understanding of these factors can ensure meaningful benefits to building green.  Prime Group Realty Trust, which owns and manages 330 N. Wabash understood these fully and hence proved to be the practical environmental stewards, true to SERF’s mission.