Pilot Project Design Principles

We live in a finite world with finite resources. The pilot project shall use such finite resources in a responsible, regenerative and cyclical fashion.

Natural resources:

The pilot project at 3141 W. 15th Street shall allow for responsible, regenerative or cyclical use of natural resources available across the property. Such include, but are not limited to, sunlight, wind and air, precipitation and ground water, land and thermal mass of the ground. Site resources shall further support and sustain biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Human resources:

The pilot project shall serve as a resource to homeowners interested in green upgrades and the community at large. The pilot project shall be developed as an educational resource. All aspects of the pilot project, including project cost, should be tenable to a large section of existing and future homeowners.

Capital resources:

Capital resources invested into the pilot project should not exceed the sum of the estimated or assessed resale value of the property after five years minus the initial property purchase price. Higher first or initial costs of some sustainable strategies are expected and shall be subject to a cost benefit analysis that assumes a steady rise in energy prices and other commodities.

Building structure:

The pilot project shall re-use an existing masonry building rather than constructing a new building. The goal is to re-use the embedded energy in the existing building core. The size of building or unit should be compact and efficient, not sprawling or oversized.


The pilot project shall eliminate the concept of waste where possible (i.e. the “cradle to cradle” principle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart). Any waste that cannot be eliminated will be re-used or recycled, and any remaining waste that cannot be re-used or recycled will be responsibly discharged.

Energy conservation:

The pilot project shall reduce energy consumption to the maximum extent possible. All energy conservation measures shall have a reasonable payback period. The goal is carbon-neutral operation of the building and site (reduction of carbon footprint).

Energy production:

The pilot project shall generate as much energy over the course of one year as it consumes (zero-energy building). Excess energy shall be fed back into the grid, or made available for other users. Over time, the excess energy shall allow the building and site to become carbon neutral, including the embedded energy in the original building structure and energy conservation measures from the rehabbing process.

Design Process and Implementation Strategies

We would like the rehabbed building to serve as a model to the community. The end product—the zero-energy building—is only one half of the story to tell. The other half defines the success of the end product and is the story of the process leading to get to a zero-energy building. I know from my professional experience as a landscape architect that the end product will only be as good as the design process, strategies and decisions. The following are steps and basic rules in that design process, which will help us with the implementation of the above-listed design principles:

Step 1: The building envelope

A super efficient building envelope is, in the long run, more cost-effective than alternative energy sources that are oversized and/or overworked due to an inefficient and leaky building. Thus, all initial building design and engineering efforts should prepare the path to lower or minimized energy consumption. Strategies could include:

  • Super insulation of the building envelope;
  • Air tight building envelope;
  • Solar orientation of the building and its consequences; and
  • Efficient but controlled natural ventilation methods (such as chimney effect to flush the building).

Step 2: Alternative energy sources

Any alternative energy source shall be sized in accordance to energy savings accomplished in Step 1. We expect that all energy sources (such as heating and cooling) will be significantly downsized. Energy sources we would like to consider are:

  • Solar hot water and heating;
  • Thermal mass for cooling (from a large underground cistern tank);
  • Heat recovery systems;
  • Optimizing indoor day lighting (solar tubes or hybrid solar lighting);
  • Wind turbine for electricity generation;
  • Photovoltaic panels for electricity generation;
  • Ventilation stack generators; and
  • Battery backup or storage systems.

Step 3: Alternative resources

Someone’s waste is somebody else’s treasure! We plan to carefully evaluate the project following this concept and identify opportunities were a waste product can become a resource:

  • Infiltration based stormwater management (turning the one-way runoff waste stream into a resource);
  • Gray water treatment and reuse (for toilet flushing and irrigation); and
  • Composting toilets (waste elimination).

We would also like to tap into existing resources and infrastructure items that allow us to cut back on our energy consumption and waste production:

  • Rain water harvesting for reuse (laundry, toilet flushing, irrigation, cooling);
  • Proximity to public transportation;
  • Proximity to retail stores and other services;
  • Use of wind energy (see also Step 2); and
  • Use of solar energy (see also Step 2).

Last but not least, we will take into consideration the “forgotten” resources or resources that are typically left unproductive. For example, the pilot project should include a green roof (intensive roof) for food production (i.e. vegetable garden).

Step 4: Sustainable material options/products

One of the last considerations, which is all about detailed design decisions, is the use of sustainable or green material options. We will leave these decisions to the end, because we feel it is important to focus on the fundamentals of energy conservation and effective resource use first. What is the point in purchasing a chaise with a natural, organic fiber finish that is standing next to a drafty window were it is unpleasant to sit? With that said, we would like to focus on the following for the finishing touches:

  • LED lighting (low voltage) rather than CFL’s;
  • Use of recycled or reclaimed materials (reclaimed lumber, furniture, particle board with 100% recycled content, recycled content insulation, etc.); and
  • Purchase used items rather than buying new.

Implementation strategies are not limited to the items listed under Steps 1 through 4. Nor may all items listed be feasible or realistic for immediate installation. Permitting may delay or prevent us from implementing some options. In such cases we would like the design to accommodate options for future installations (for example, plumbing for a gray water system that can easily be connected at a later date, or a toilet and sanitary plumbing that that can be switched to a composting toilet).

2 thoughts on “Pilot Project Design Principles

  1. Hi there – I live in a 100 year-old 6 Flat building in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. We are currently operating on a 1984 MaClain gas boiler to heat a steam radiant system. We will probably need to replace the boiler in the next few years. My partner and I are really pushing our neighbors to look into switching to a heat pump (mini split?) system to get off of the gas. I’ve been reaching out to several green non-for-profits and various HVAC companies in the city but have been unable to find a company that has the experience of working with a multi-family building. Would love to know which engineering /HVAC company you all used for your building on 15th street? It looks amazing! I recently came across your info on Reddit and found your blog. Thanks for all the great info.. Would appreciate any specific company recos you might have to become more green and efficient. Best, Nick DeVries

  2. Hi Nicolas, if you live in a 100 year-old 6 Flat in Chicago, switching from a steam boiler to a heat pump may not be a wise choice, unless you had done major improvements to your building envelope (insulation and air sealing). The energy load of your building would be so large that you would need a massive heat pump(s), and still loose a lot of that more efficient thermal energy to the outside, because of poor insulation and air sealing. Here is a link to a post that lays out a path to reduce your energy consumption: https://blog.delafleur.com/?p=6957

    Here is a link to another post that may be helpful: https://blog.delafleur.com/?p=6963

    You literally can replace “renewables” in the post with “heat pumps” – the same principles apply.

    In short, bringing your overall energy load down by improvements to your building envelope should give you the biggest bang for the buck. And the added advantage is that in the end, you would get away with a much smaller and more economic heat pump.

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