Plumbing and Mechanical

Sustainability In Chicago, Part 1

March 17, 2009
Touring Chicago's "greenest home."

More than 100,000 people went through the Smart Home last year, which sits on the east side of Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry. The 2,500-square-foot, pre-fab, modular home was built in Decatur, Ind., and assembled at the museum. (© Kelly Faloon/Plumbing & Mechanical)

It seems like everyone wants to be green these days.

Well, maybe not everyone, but a lot of people, companies and organizations in the construction industry seem to be touting their “green” products and services. In the past couple of years, there has been a green explosion in the industry.

The idea to write this blog came to me last summer. In the space of a few weeks, I toured a “smart home,” visited a solar-home-designed community and saw my first solar-powered fire station. And all just a few miles from where I live in Chicago.

Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Mayor Daley has done some great things for the city. (And yes, some not-so-great things, too. Let’s move on.) I moved here from Michigan almost 22 years ago, and I can see a big difference from the Chicago of 1987 to the Chicago of today. A positive difference.

When Daley is passionate about something, it gets done. I can’t say I agree with all of his ideas, but I do agree with his stance on sustainability issues, and applaud his efforts to make the Windy City one of the greenest in the world.

A big idea, yes, but this is a city of big ideas.

Anyway, I wanted to begin this blog by bringing the national debate on green/sustainable building and renewable energy closer to home, my home, and talk about some of the green ideas I noticed last summer.

Michelle Kaufmann, founder and chair of California-based Michelle Kaufmann Designs, designed the Smart Home. Her homes are built to “human scale” and includes open rooms, high ceilings and lots of day lighting. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago.)

The Smart Home

PM Editor Steve Smith and I made the trek to the south side to view the “Smart Home: Green + Wired” exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Only a certain amount of people were allowed in each group, and only a few groups were allowed at one time; the house is compact, so it’s difficult to accommodate a lot of large groups. And you want to be able to hear the docent explain all the features of the house.

To save on paper, only one brochure is given per family or group. But that’s OK; I downloaded my own pdf copy from the Web site.

The guided tour is through the main house; visitors are encouraged to view the garage and gardens on their own. A Honda Civic hybrid was parked in the garage - something I’ve had my eye on, if only the price would go down!

More than 100,000 people went through the home last year, which sits on the east side of the museum. Michelle Kaufmann, founder and chair of California-based Michelle Kaufmann Designs and a leader in the green design community, designed the home. Her homes are built to “human scale” - meaning no McMansions. The Smart Home design includes open rooms, high ceilings and lots of day lighting.

The 2,500-square-foot, pre-fab, modular home was built in Decatur, Ind., by All American Homes. A modular home is comprised of complex “modules” built off-site in a climate-controlled environment. The highly engineered components are then transported to the building site where they are set onto a permanent foundation. The three-story, two- bedroom (plus home office) Smart Home consists of five modules: four for the home and one for the garage.

Pre-fab construction cuts down on construction waste since most of the wood is delivered pre-cut. Any excess can be easily gathered up and recycled, along with other construction materials - drywall, wiring, sawdust and vinyl.

Factory-built homes can be completed in several weeks while in the factory, and finished on-site in three to eight weeks. A similar-sized site-built home could take four months or longer, depending on weather delays.

Another plus is that, since the homes are built from the inside out, plumbing, mechanical and electrical contractors have easy access to the walls. (No fighting with the drywall guys.)

Chicago's greenest home has under-floor radiant heating, water-conserving fixtures such as dual-flush toilets, renewable and recyclable materials, and spray-in foam insulation. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago.)

According to the requirements of Chicago’s Green Homes program (more on that in another blog), the Smart Home is the greenest house in Chicago. Here are some of its green highlights:

  • Radiant floor heat is used throughout the home.

  • To conserve water, the Smart Home uses many water-efficient technologies and appliances: low-flow showerheads, dual-flush toilets, rainwater and greywater systems for flushing toilets and irrigating the gardens.

  • The home uses solar photovoltaic film to produce enough electricity for most of the home’s power needs. No solar thermal, though.

  • The rooftop garden helps cool the house down in the summer, insulate the home in the winter, absorb rainwater and minimize runoff.

  • Renewable or recycled materials used in the home include bamboo flooring, Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood and recycled glass tiles.

  • Indoor air quality is improved with no- or low-VOC paints, air filtration and purification systems, and spray-in foam insulation (which minimizes mold).

  • The automated building control system allows homeowners to control heat, lighting, security sensors and cameras, as well as track electricity, gas and water consumption in real time.


The three-story, two- bedroom (plus home office) Smart Home consists of five modules: four for the home and one for the garage. (© Kelly Faloon/Plumbing & Mechanical)

It's Back!

The home is reopening its doors on March 19. If you live in the Chicago area, or are planning a visit this year, I highly recommend a tour of the Smart Home. Plus,  there are so many other interesting exhibits - for information and tickets, visit the Museum of Science and Industry.