Incorporating sustainability in architecture and landscape in Chicago
Rahm Emanuel wants Chicago to be the greenest and most sustainable city in the world,”I am committed to fostering opportunities for Chicagoans to make sustainability a part of their lives and their experience in the city.” WRD Environmental is making the most of these opportunities.
WRD Environmental is a Chicago-based ecological consulting firm that works with organizations committed to sustainability realize their visions.You probably know some of their clients. WRD Environmental won awards for planning a new 5-acre campus for the Motorola headquarters in Schaumburg. They’ve worked with public and charter schools to create projects to benefit the children of the next generation. And they were also an integral part of the team behind the recently revamped Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo. They’re all over Chicago, helping to make it a better place for businesses, schools, residents, and wildlife. I had a chance to meet with Andi Cooper, Director, Business Development and Geoff Deigan, President to talk about WRD Environmental, their clients, and the future of Green Industry.
Operating from within one of their own projects, the Chicago Center for Green Technology, WRD Environmental has been around since 1997 when President, Geoff Deigan sought to be the change he wanted to see. “I worked with an environmental engineering firm for many years and we were always on the reactive side, we would come into places and help them fix things that were already problems. Through seeking to be a part of the solution before the problem and building a team of clients and staff that thought the same way, how do we get to the proactive side? that was the birth of WRD in a nutshell.” In addition to lessening the carbon footprint of construction and maintenance of the projects, WRD’s clients also aim to decrease the price tag of a sustainably oriented landscape project. According to Deigan, “most of our clients are sustainably interested in the environment, but as much so, they want to be more sustainable economically.” Through government grants and low maintenance construction materials, the savings add up over time. “What drives 90% of the decisions are the economic benefits, and if the environment gets a bit better off because of it, then that’s good too.”
Andi Cooper, Director, Business Development
Andi Cooper has been in the sustainable design industry for 15 years after getting her Master’s from University of Michigan in Landscape Architecture. She also came from a very unsuspecting background: golfing. Arguably one of the least sustainable sporting practices in the U.S., Cooper wanted to help change the environmental impact of the industry. Here in the U.S., we seem to have a certain standard of how a golf course should look, and unfortunately the aesthetics rely on a heavy amount of fertilizers, chemicals and heavy watering. “Much of it has to do with public perception. I studied golf courses in Ireland where the public enjoys a different type of upkeep. There are longer roughs that equates to less mowing, and they use less chemicals, and fertilizers.”
At WRD Environmental, Cooper uses her experience and insight to help clients achieve their vision. “10-15 years ago, sustainable design was a newer trend and less accepted design practice here in the States. Now, Chicago has more LEED certified buildings than any other city in the country.” As the technology and trends progress, the education, perception, and economics of sustainable architecture are flourishing. More contractors, businesses, and communities are seeing the benefits of sustainable design.
And what is the true future of Green Industry according to Cooper? The children. “When you think about changing your habits to a more sustainable lifestyle, it’s harder to make changes like that in an adult versus a child,” Cooper said. Many of WRD Environmental’s projects relate to educating the younger generation. Through programs and sustainable landscapes at both public and charter schools, WRD helps implement plans that integrate the classroom with the outdoors. Studies have shown that kids learn better, test better, and have a better attention span when they have ample outdoor time.
One of their biggest and most visible projects to hit Chicago recently was the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo. Like a modern-day Central Park, the goal was to create a sizeable piece of native land in an urban setting.
In light of creating a space for education for the next generation, WRD managed construction of three new environmentally conscious buildings to integrate learning and interaction with the landscape. Prairie Crossing Charter School were also the first school buildings in Illinois to be certified LEED Gold standard by the U.S. Green Building Council.
One of their several design and build projects, WRD gave the North Park Village Nature Center a massive renovation to the entrance of the preserve. The former entrance of 2 ½ acres of asphalt and turf grass was converted into a miniature yet elaborate ecosystem of native plants and animals to highlight the natural environment of the 46-acre preserve.
In what we can expect for future trends in Green Technology, Deigan explained that there is hard evidence of the benefits of sustainable landscapes and architecture. “Now there are metrics that show this isn’t just a good idea, but it is having economic and environmental benefits. It actually works. When you can show a return on a Green Roof saving you ‘X’ amount of dollars, it’s no longer a theory.” It took many innovative and early adopters such as WRD Environmental to generate measurable data, but it looks as if the industry is on track to change sustainable architecture from a niche to a mainstream practice.