Sometimes it takes only the kernel of an idea—a catalyst—to begin to change preconceptions of energy, urban planning, and healthy buildings.

While it was completed in 2003, the origins of the Chicago Center for Green Technology (CCGT)—a renovated 1952 warehouse on the city’s west side—predate both USGBC and its LEED system, which were founded in 1998. The project’s lead designer, Douglas Farr, AIA, founding principal of Chicago-based Farr Associates, recalls that when he joined the Chicago chapter of the AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE) in 1991, the concept of a green building was murky. “I was suddenly immersed in a tight group of friends who were all interested in a topic that wasn’t very well defined,” he recalls. “So we spent the ’90s debating each other, trying to understand what we meant by an ‘environmental building,’ incorporating little features into our projects now and again.”

In January 1999, a staffer from Chicago’s Department of the Environment attended the COTE chapter’s meeting to inquire about the then-new LEED rating system. This meeting led to a memorandum of understanding between the city and committee, and that same year, with the support of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the city settled on a vacant building and construction-waste-disposal site to create an energy-efficient building to display the highest standards of green technology. The COTE committee became a working design team, with each member contributing expertise from brownfield assessment to energy modeling, and materials selection to lighting design and LEED documentation. Four years later, the center became the third building the country to achieve LEED Platinum certification.

The two-story, 34,000-square-foot center provided a demonstration of sustainable design to the public, city planners, and the local AEC industry, starting with the site. In 1995, Sacramento Crushing Corp. purchased the land and an existing building to use as storage for limited construction and demolition debris. However, the company exceeded the scope of its permit, generating 70-foot-high piles of rubble, and the U.S. DOE took possession of the property. During a $9 million cleanup over 18 months, the 17-acre site was cleared of more than 600,000 tons of concrete.

The existing building’s shell was retained. Abundant daylight, tamed by exterior shading and insulated, low-E glazing that minimizes heat gain, is paired with high-efficiency electric lighting and daylight sensors to control energy use. Low-VOC paints and adhesives were used throughout the interior to improve indoor air quality, and 36 percent of building materials include recycled content.

To manage stormwater on site, interconnected design elements include a green roof, rainwater harvesting with four cisterns that store a total of 12,000 gallons of water for reuse in irrigation, a bioswale, and light-colored pervious pavers that also help to reduce the heat-island effect. A ground-source heat-pump system, supplied by 28 geothermal wells, each 200 feet deep, is located beneath the bioswale. Finally, a photovoltaic array—including both rooftop and building integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs)—was designed to meet approximately 20 percent of the center’s electrical needs.

Since the CCGT opened, it has added an additional 37 kilowatts of PV panels to the original installation, producing a total of 115 kilowatts on site. At this level, the installation at peak capacity can meet 40 percent of the center’s electrical needs.

In 2007, the CCGT further developed its second floor as the legacy project for Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, adding a Green Tech Resource Center and classroom that houses literature, products, and displays on green-building materials, renewable energy, sustainable landscaping, and other topics. Both spaces were rehabilitated primarily with recycled, renewable, or locally produced materials. As a result, the Resource Center features seven different kinds of flooring. The building also houses Green Tech U, which offers workshops and seminars on green technology, sustainability, and public policy for homeowners and building professionals, and several other environmentally focused tenants.

The center is currently going through LEED-EB certification and most recently added a green wall demonstration to its eastern façade. Work in progress includes a permeable parking lot demonstration and a residential-scale wind turbine. As for Farr, since completing CCGT, his team has designed four other LEED Platinum–certified buildings. And Chicago currently boasts the highest number of square feet of LEED-certified projects in the nation, with a total of 736 LEED projects already certified or currently in the certification process. Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, wants to double that number over the next four years. ?

David R. Macaulay is the author of Integrated Design: Mithun and the blog For more information on CCGT, visit