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Green Living Set to Thrive in Ravenswood Manor

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The air around Ravenswood Manor, the charming northern Chicago neighborhood that's home to former governor Rod Blagojevich and his reality star wife, just got a little cleaner. Zach Maiorca and Green Door Development have put the finishing touches on a six-bedroom, 4,800 square-foot sustainable yin to Blago's nearby cloudy yang, and if the green luxury home at 2924 Wilson Avenue is any indication of what's in store for Chicago's future, then maybe the city will seem a little less dirty and unfair from afar.

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Zach Maiorca, owner of Green Door Development, walked me through all three levels, stopping to point out green technology every few steps.

Everything about the place, designed by the award-winning architect Nathan Kipnis, is cemented in energy efficiency and sustainability: The walls are framed with 2x6 boards (instead of the normal 2x4s, increasing the amount of insulation which helps reduce energy loss) and insulated with a soy-based foam. The solar panels on top of the garage heat the water for the house's shower, dishwasher and laundry machines. The basement's carpet is made of 100 percent recycled post-consumer plastic materials. All the windows and appliances are energy-efficient. There's a 48-gallon rain barrel in the backyard collecting rainwater runoff, reducing freshwater consumption, because this water can be used for landscaping. The deck lights are solar-powered. Kitchen cabinets, formaldehyde-free. And so on.

Maiorca and I discussed the house, the neighborhood and how Chicago has contributed to green living.

GB: You deconstructed the original home piece by piece and were able to salvage around 80 percent of the materials. Could you tell me more about the process of using the salvaged materials?

ZM: Instead of tearing down the pre-existing home that was on the site and sending everything to the landfill, we deconstructed it. That means we took the home apart piece-by-piece, basically reverse-engineering the home, and salvaged everything we could (~80 percent of the total materials). They've been doing this in California for years, but it's just now getting traction here in the Midwest. As part of this process, I was able to reuse the original hardwood floors and all the stained glass windows and integrate them into the new home. The windows are beautiful and the floors turned out amazing -- all they needed was a little love from my flooring contractor. The rest of the materials were recycled (aluminum, copper, steel) or donated to various non-profits like Habitat for Humanity or reuse warehouses like the Rebuilding Exchange on the South Side of Chicago.

GB: The street that the house stands on is lined with historic homes. How have the neighbors reacted?

ZM: My architect and I went to great lengths to ensure the home blended in well with its neighbors. From the front, the house is very similar to the house next door and it's overall design follows that of a traditional American Four-Square home. The people in the neighborhood love the house. I've had lots of people mention that when the house was first going up they were very worried what the home would look like and that they were all very pleasantly surprised at how well this house blends in with the historic homes in the area.

GB: Have the neighbors been stopping by for tours and green home tips?

ZM: Yes! Over the past five years, while living in the neighborhood, I have been involved with the local community organization, Ravenswood Manor Improvement Association, so I coordinated with them to offer a number of pre-completion showings to neighbors. I'd estimate that we've had over 100 people from the neighborhood come through to see the house -- all at various stages of construction -- and everyone has been so happy to see the house and how well it blends in with the surrounding homes. People have had a lot of questions about the green products and technology that's used in the home, and I'm more than happy to show them how things work or explain the benefits of the various green features. That's been very rewarding.

GB: Has the City of Chicago been a good incubator for green construction? It's well known that the former governor lives around the corner, but have any current Chicago officials offered their input or help with the home?

ZM: The City of Chicago has been an excellent partner throughout the building process, but they were never more helpful than at the inception of the project. Early on, I met with Erik Olsen, the creator of the Green Permit Program at Chicago's Department of Buildings. He was very receptive to my project and helped guide us through this new green permit program. Because the house met (and exceeded) the city's guidelines for green homes, we were able to get our building permit from the city in less than 24 hours -- something that's totally unheard of in the building community. Since then, they've even begun waiving permit fees for projects that meet their strict guidelines.

GB: What do you see as being the future of green homes, or living, in Ravenswood Manor and Chicago?

ZM: Green homes are going to become more and more commonplace in Chicago and around the country. There's a perceived premium for building green, but that's really a misconception. Often times, keeping the costs down is just a matter of product selection and value engineering. And when you factor in the long-term operating cost savings that are a direct result of a more energy-efficient home, it becomes a no-brainer. I think in the short-term, we're going to begin seeing more "green renovations" in areas like Ravenswood Manor where the housing stock has so much history and character. Often, a well-thought out renovation is greener (and more cost-effective) than starting from scratch.

GB: When we walked through ground level, you pointed out an electronic gauge on the living room wall that displayed how much energy, in dollars, was being spent. How does that work?

ZM: Our house features an LCD energy monitor that shows how much electricity the house consumes. The monitor, produced by Blueline Technology, requires that you configure it with your current electric rate and then it monitors the kilowatts you consume, converting that into dollars and cents. Studies have shown that having visibility into how much electricity you use helps reduce your overall consumption by 5 to 20 percent.

GB: You opted for multiple ceiling fans instead of central air conditioning to keep the energy consumption and inside temperature down. You also installed an interesting ventilation system called a thermal chimney. Are people going to be comfortable enough in the summer?

ZM: The house is designed to be cooled and heated by natural means to the greatest extent possible. This means taking advantage of orientation, using passive solar heating, window overhangs, advanced thermal chimney design, radiant heat, and ceiling fans. That said, we still integrated a multi-zone forced air system that is capable of cooling and heating the home to whatever comfort level the owner desires. Having lived in Chicago most of my life, I can attest to the fact that there will always be at least some days where air conditioning will come in handy.

GB: Looking down from the master bedroom's balcony one can get a good look of garage's roof and its solar panels that heats some of the house's water, but can you explain the benefits of the greenery that's growing up there?

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ZM: The green roof essentially provides two benefits: It decreases the burden on the city's drainage system by reducing stormwater runoff, and it also helps reduce the heat-island effect caused by rooftops in urban areas. And it looks pretty nice too.

GB: Where do you turn for inspiration in regards to what materials, colors and resources you use?

ZM: The final product that is this house is the result of a collaboration between myself, the architect and designer. The architect and designer really helped bring my vision for a traditional home with modern, sustainable technologies and amenities to fruition. In terms of inspiration, I think Ravenswood Manor is a terrific source of ideas for traditional design -- and I certainly borrowed heavily from other homes in the area.

GB: I read that this house has a HERS score of 50, meaning that it performs twice as efficiently as a residence complying with the 2004 International Energy Efficiency Code (IECC2004). What other certificates have been awarded based on the design and construction?

ZM: Achieving a HERS Index of 50 enabled me to achieve Energy Star certification on this home and it also qualifies me for the Builder's Challenge -- a selective set of building criteria issued by the U.S. Department of Energy. I'm also pursuing LEED Certification for this house, although the process is still ongoing. The home will also qualify under the City of Chicago's Green Homes program.

GB: Now that this house is completed, have you had any ideas that you'd like to take further with your next project? Or anything you would do differently?

ZM: I love the idea of re-using materials. My next project will certainly explore this concept more, and I'm confident that we'll be able to incorporate more previously used materials from other projects -- especially since the Rebuilding Exchange here in Chicago has provided a sort of clearinghouse for reusable materials.

GB: I know you're watching how this house on Wilson will be reacted to, but what do you see being your next project? Anything in Chicago you'd like to take a crack at to make it more efficient?

ZM: I'd love to tackle more green renovations. I think there's a lot of opportunity for people to rehab only certain portions of their homes, like a kitchen or bathroom, in environmentally sustainable ways that don't break the bank. On a larger scale, I'd love to see neighborhood institutions like the Old Town School of Folk Music or the Dank House make more of an effort to green their spaces. There's a lot of opportunity there to increase the quality of their environments by utilizing green materials and products. These places are such neighborhood icons and it would set a great example for other local businesses.