august 10 | Architect Magazine

2010 R+D Award in Sustainability: Chicago Central Area Decarbonization Plan

by Katie Gerfen

By now, most architects realize that in order to mitigate global warming, we need not only build more efficient new buildings, but also retrofit the existing building stock so that it meets modern standards of efficiency. But if that retrofitting is done in a scattershot way, who's to say what progress has been made?

The team at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, known for net-zero and positive energy designs, lent its expertise to its hometown of Chicago in an effort to help the city meet its carbon reduction goals, which include 25 percent reduction in carbon emissions below 1990 levels by 2020 and 100 percent reduction in carbon emissions for new and renovated buildings by 2030, in accordance with the 2030 Challenge.

The team created a 3D model of more than 550 downtown buildings, embedding information such as energy consumption, size, age, use, and estimated carbon footprint. This model helps determine which buildings need to be renovated to be brought up to standard, so that they can, potentially, gain new life as reprogrammed structures. Then the city can use the existing building stock rather than new construction to answer demand for more space. "I like the idea of operating on the scale of an entire city, and how you might be able to, in a piecemeal way, remedy" the carbon emissions problem, juror Frank Barkow said.

And the plan does not stop with buildings analysis. The architects propose a series of new infrastructure systems, reducing vehicular traffic to cut down on emissions, creating a series of new "pedways" (pedestrian walkways, both above and below ground, the latter to be used during Chicago's harsh winters), and more. There is even a recommendation to turn the Loop's existing underground tunnels into a pneumatic waste-disposal system that would handle trash without requiring gas-guzzling trucks to collect it.

"It [the plan] connects everybody together, and it creates this holistic idea about a neighborhood," juror Cristobal Correa said. "In terms of trying to find urban solutions to urban problems that relate to sustainability, I think it's really interesting." Our jury was not the only group to think so: Discussions are already under way with the city to discuss the adoption of some of the firm's proposals, as well as a possible implementation strategy and schedule.

See the Architect Magazine slideshow here