Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Chicago Green Homes Program

Today I signed the Chicago Green Homes Applicant Agreement. This is the first step in the process to get the house certified as a Chicago Green Home.

The purpose of the Chicago Green Homes Program is to encourage residential builders, developers and homeowners to use technologies, products and practices that will:
• Provide greater energy efficiency
• Provide healthier indoor air
• Reduce water usage
• Preserve natural resources
• Improve durability and reduce maintenance, and
• Reduce waste and pollution

The Chicago Green Homes Program, administered through the City of Chicago Department of Environment, provides tools and strategies for building homes and multi-family buildings that are energy-efficient and environmentally responsible. During the design phase, an architect or developer can reference the Chicago Green Homes Checklist to choose from a range of strategies, each with an associated point value. The intent of these guidelines is to provide a framework to reduce the environmental impact of single-family homes and multi-family buildings by those who develop and live in these buildings.

There are three possible target ratings (One Star, Two Star, Three Star) based upon the number of points earned in the following categories: 1) Sustainable Sites (e.g. developing on a brownfield site or a site accessible to public transportation within 1/2 mile), 2) Energy Efficiency (e.g. exceeding Chicago energy conservation code or using energy efficient mechanical systems), 3) Materials (e.g. sustainable and energy efficient materials used in construction), 4) Health and Safety (e.g. indoor environmental quality and ventilation), 5) Resource Conservation (e.g. water conservation or recycling of construction waste), 6) Homeowner Education and 7) Innovation (I think you have to come up with this yourself!).

There are numerous points that can be acheived (I stopped counting at 589), but for a single-family new construction home, which we are building, 200 points = One Star, 300 points = Two Stars and 350 points = Three Stars. I believe the U-C3, as designed, meets the Three Star criteria.

Those developments that qualify will receive a Chicago Green Homes Certificate from the City of Chicago Department of Environment. I know what you're thinking...so what? Well, besides the pride of knowing you have a sustainable and energy efficient home, I think the ultimate benefit is that projects that are certified Chicago Green Homes may also qualify for an expedited green permit process.

The City of Chicago's Green Permit Program offers an incentive to developers through 1) expedited permit review --- meaning that a building permit can potentially be turned around in approximately 30 days (a process that comparably could take 90 days), and 2) potential waiver or reduction of permitting fees.

The other benefit of being a certified Chicago Green Home is primarily for developers, who are able to market their homes using the Chicago Green Homes logo, and have their projects recognized on the City of Chicago's website. Certainly in this market, every little bit helps.

I believe these programs are a result of the Chicago Climate Action Plan (http://www.chicagoclimateaction.org) which "describes the major effects climate change could have on our city and suggests ways all of us can work together to address those challenges." Should you have the time, you can download the entire report and see what intiiatives have been planned already, and what programs the City is planning for the future.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

We Have Land!

Isn't it gorgeous! Okay, okay, but I see greatness in this land. Closing went without a hitch. So now it's real.

So things may slow down for a while until Jeff prepares the estimate and we sign a contract with Square Root. What I plan to do next is outline Square Roots principles for this house and all the great energy efficient technologies that are able to be tapped into, even at this affordable level.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Land Continued

So, I have to make one correction. I was told by Jeff Sommers that, in fact, this would not be the first prefab house in Chicago. He told me that prefab elements of certain homes have, indeed, been done before in Chicago, so to specify, this would be the first prefab modular home in Chicago. There, I feel better now.

So, to continue, we mentioned that we fell in love with a site in East Village. While I don't want to disclose the price, Abraham confirmed that, per square foot, it was very reasonably priced per square foot compared to other comparable properties in the neighborhood. That didn't mean that we didn't want to get a bargain! So, we decided to put in an offer. Our initial offer was at least 10% below asking price. Well, this didn't fly with the seller. Apparently the seller had found a buyer previously that they weren't please with, to say the least, and for over six months, continued to file for extensions for the closing, and he (she) had had enough. Here was our dilemma: we had the cash to close quickly on the property, and we could afford their asking price, but did we want to take a chance to buy property without knowing if we could get permits? Well, apparently the answer was yes (eventually). We loved this site, and we were willing to take the chance. So, as it goes, we are closing on the land tomorrow. Is this the smartest tactic? Well, probably not. But we're so optimistic that we will accomplish what we set out to do, that we're willing to take the chance.

As to the timing of the rest of this, we are waiting for Jeff to come up with an estimate of how much we will be expecting to pay for the house. Oh yes, we have grand ideas....we want a floating staircase and upgrades to appliances and kitchen cabinets and bathroom vanities. Can we do all this? Not sure yet. In fact, Jeff thought we were going to require major modifications to the model he's designed. But, in fact, we are happy with the layout. The only issue we have had with the existing layout is we feel that the living room is rather narrow. Not much to be done about that, but except for a few small modifications, I think we're happy with the model as designed. Jeff and his staff have done a bang up job at designing this home, and we're just thrilled to be a part of its "coming out." Hopefully this will be the first of many U-C3's in the city.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Through Square Root we were able to find a real estate broker that believes in this project as much as we do. Abraham McClurg, and co-owner Annie Coleman, run LivingRoom Realty, http://www.livingroomrealty.com/, a Chicago-based real estate brokerage which, as their website claims, "is founded upon the tenets of sustainability, creativity, and community." Abraham is a Certified EcoBroker.

EcoBroker is a provider of green designation training for real estate professionals. As their website states, EcoBroker "has built a solid foundation of environmental education and outreach helping consumers and communities take advantage of energy efficiency and environmentally sensitive design in real estate properties." Certified EcoBrokers assist clients in their pursuit of properties that provide affordability, comfort and a healthier environment, all the while reducing carbon footprints.

So Michael and I signed on with Abraham and Annie to help us find a site upon which we could build our dream home. Square Root's initial design was based on a 30' wide lot. While not impossible to find, essentially the standard city of Chicago residential lot is 25' x 125'. I think Square Root realized this might be challenging to have a prototype that only would fit this larger lot size, they decided to focus on the standard city lot size, and are currently designing that model.

So, in our land search our parameters were as follows: 1) no lot under 25' wide, 2) picking a community that would embrace modern design, and, 3) finding a site we could afford.

Anybody from Chicago knows the most likely place a home like this would fit in is the neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Bucktown, but as interesting as those neighborhoods are, they have pretty much priced us out. Our focus was then on Ukranian Village, East Village, Logan Square and the Smith Park area of Humboldt Park.

Abraham would send us listings that were both "improved" and vacant. Any site that was improved with a building, we usually limited to those in uninhabitable conditions, or those that would need substantial work to be habitable. Vacant land was more attractive to us so that we wouldn't have to assume the costs of demolition which was estimated to be around $20,000. Also, I had some ethical issues about tearing down an existing building that potentially could be rehabbed for further use. Abraham sent us listings in all of the above-mentioned neighborhoods, and occasionally would find sites, especially in Logan Square, that were amazingly affordable (within the $40k to $70k range). Michael and I eventually put together a list of sites we were interested and went on a tour.

As far as priorities go, we weren't going to be satisfied just having the perfect house, we wanted to have a community that we believed in as well. Other issues in our search were the amount of new investment in the neighborhood, proximity to public transportation, and also proximity to neighborhood amenities such as restaurants, shopping and cafes. Everytime to buy a new residence you have to be concerned about resale value, even if you plan on staying there for the rest of your life, as everyone knows, anything can change. While most of the really affordable sites were in Logan Square, after spending some time looking at the neighborhood, we didn't feel that this was where we wanted to plant our roots. We were most interested in Ukranian Village and East Village.

Actually, there is one gem of a street in Ukranian Village that we thought would be perfect. Race Street, which is south of Chicago Avenue and just north of Grand Avenue, seems to have been embraced by developers who have seemed to provide a lot of new investment in the street, and usually modern design. There were several available sites, some even vacant, in this area. Unfortunately, most of these sites were 24' wide, and usually no more than 90' deep. Again, part of our mission was to find a site no less than 25' wide, and with the modules of the U-C3 sized as they were (which I will get into more later), we wouldn't have enough room on a 24' lot including sideyard setbacks. Also, we really want a garage, and, ultimately a backyard. 90' just wasn't deep enough. This was definitely disappointing.

We ran into the problem of small site size with several properties, and Abraham, bless his heart, put up with me sending him emails of sites I had seen on line and asking for site sizes at all times of the night. To say I was obsessed is an understatement.

As our search continued, the price of land that we were interested in seemed to go up. This is our fault in that we really wanted to be in Ukranian Village or East Village. Fortunately we had the funds to consider those properties, but the dream of spending $50,000 on land was soon swept away.

We finally happened on a site in East Village that seemed to meet our criteria and our price point. The price was a little higher than we wanted to pay, but we thought that in this market we could get a good deal. It was a vacant site (the building had recently been torn down) although the foundations were still there. We literally took out our measuring tape and confirmed that it was, indeed, 25' wide. It is on a street that looks as though there is lots of new investment. It is close to several wonderful restaurants and cafes. As for public transportation, it wasn't as close as we would like, but not too bad. We fell in love.

Now that we found a site we liked, we had to make an offer. I'll discuss this process next time.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Is Prefab in Chicago Impossible?

Well, that's what I have been told by developers. My husband and I have been in love with modern prefab designs for years, but did not think it could ever be done in Chicago. We were actually thinking of relocating to Seattle --- well, for other reasons, really, but partially because they are sweet on prefab in Seattle. Not only do we love the modern design, but the sustainability features and cost are attractive as well.

Michael and I like clean lines and modern spaces. We had looked for homes that were "modern," but in our price range we could only find condos, and we really want a single-family home. There are many beautiful modern single-family homes, but they didn't fit our needs for several reasons: 1) they were over a million dollars, 2) they would have over 4,000 square feet of space, which is completely inefficient for two people who do not expect to have children, 3) they would often be attractive, but not necessarily energy efficient, and 4) did I mention that they are over a million dollars?

We toyed with the idea of buying an older home or two-flat and rehabbing it, but the expense and the inconvenience of living through it seemed overwhelming to us.

Well, lo and behold, I was able to find, through the help of some colleagues, an architecture firm in Chicago that has the same philosophy that we do. Square Root Architecture + Design http://www.squarerootarch.com/ is a local Chicago architecture and design firm headed by Jeff Sommers. Apparently he has this same prefab dream, and also is sustainability conscious, and has been working on a design for a prefab model for a while now. He and his staff have designed what they are calling the Urban C3 or U-C3 http://c3prefab.squarerootarch.com/. Take a look at the website and see what they're all about. We fell in love with it right away.

Square Root is ideally trying to design a model that not only is incredibly energy efficient, but also affordable. They are currently modifying the design to make the model as cost efficient as possible --- ideally the U-C3 baseline model will cost approximately $125 per square foot. Also, Square Root has designed the building to meet all the zoning and building codes in Chicago - no small task. I will continue to discuss this model in future posts.

So, long story short, Michael and I are signing on --- we want to build the first U-C3 in Chicago, and, as far as we know, the first prefab in Chicago. Our goal is to have this home built before the end of 2009! My hope for this blog is to highlight the process for anyone else who is interested in this type of architecture, so that they may learn from our successes and mistakes. More to come!