Challenging the Windy City To Use Its Wind

Today’s MHN Industry News postings included a story about a Chicago couple who recently renovated their house to include sustainable features — and a little flair.

Frank and Lisa Mauceri will be running Frank’s Smog Veil indie record label, which moved to Chicago about two years ago from Reno, out of their home in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.

As with many Chicago two- and three-flats that are now living spaces, the Mauceri’s building itself was a form of recycling; it had, in the 1880s, once been a tavern. Renovation plans included more material reuse,  grinding up old vinyl records with sledge hammers and blenders to use in the "new" flooring.

That’s a stylish twist on recycling materials to use in home construction — but the Mauceri home received a much more revolutionary addition during its redesign. The owners actually took the extra step to challenge local laws that, as a result of their redesign, have now become more green-friendly.

Chicago’s CBS affiliate reported that the home may be the only type of its kind in the country, due in large part to the rooftop wind turbines, which can provide energy with winds as low as 5 mph. The city zoning code previously did not allow such turbines; but these silent models have inspired the city to change the code and publicly endorse turbine usage.

"Their project paved the way for other people to do the same thing," Green Projects Administrator Erik Olsen, who certified the project through Chicago’s Green Permit building program, told the Chicago Tribune last year. "We basically went to the Department of Zoning and revised the code."

In fact, the revision was so successful that in the CBS news report, Executive Director of the Chicago Dept. of Construction and Permits Richard Rodriquez encouraged Chicagoans to "strongly consider" the technology.

The Mauceris figure the 10 megawatts of electricity generated annually will pay back the initial investment in seven and a half years — but the investment was as much social as it was financial.

"My goal is to set an example for the music industry that you can maintain your business, even grow it, by instituting sustainable practices," Frank Mauceri told local Web site Gapers Block last year during construction.

The area is the perfect fit for a sustainably influenced record label headquarters; long known for its bohemian culture, Wicker Park is part artists’ colony (thanks to the large artist studio in its center that began renting space for $1 a foot in 1985) and part residential investment oasis (the median value of single-family homes in the area rose 198 percent from 1990 to 2000).

Yet despite its hot real estate area tag, many locals are fiercely adamant about keeping the area diverse and full of independent retailers — expressing dismay when Starbucks moved in back in 2001 and throwing bricks through the windows of the Real World house when filming began the same year.

Green design is not a far cry from the area’s vegan coffeehouses and new solar-powered street signs, installed this summer to alert drivers as to whether or not a street has been swept and is safe to park on without fear of being towed. Still, the zoning laws needed to be changed.

The lesson learned: One homeowner can make a difference. When the Mauceris decided to add green design to their home/office during its renovation, they pushed the limits of what they anticipated was possible, and what the city did, too. As a result, Chicago homeowners can now explore adding wind turbine energy sources.

Green design has come a long way, but it is still a relatively new science to many. Cities are slowly beginning to accept and encourage its use, but the responsibility still in many cases lies on developers and project planners to request city ordinance revisions and work with the city officials as needed.

This is especially true in residential housing. Outside of large project LEED certification and similar programs — and remember, the LEED for Homes pilot project doesn’t even conclude until this fall; we’re still waiting for the final system — the rules are hazy at best.

And yet, as the Mauceris discovered, the possibilities are endless.