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Case Study:
Near North Apartments

Chicago, Illinois

Second Acts: Murphy/Jahn Rethinks Low-Income Housing For A Revitalized Cabrini-Green In Chicago

By David Sokol

Observant Chicagoans will note the aesthetic similarities between Near North Apartments, the Murphy/ Jahn-designed building in the city’s Near North neighborhood that opened in March, and the architect’s four-year-old student housing project at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Like State Street Village dormitory, Near North is a curvilinear wedge of a building—a giant bread loaf whose raked angles create a memorable presence along the streetfront. Both buildings have reinforced concrete structures with facades clad primarily in corrugated stainless steel and lined with punched windows to create what Murphy/Jahn principal architect Scott Pratt calls “a cellular expression of the building.” And the dormitory rooms, laid out with en-suite bathrooms and the occasional kitchenette, approximate the apartment living at Near North.

Near North Apartments
Photo © Doug Snower Photography
Near North Apartments

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LOCATION: Chicago, Illinois (Chicago River Watershed)
GROSS SQUARE FOOTAGE: 45,810 ft2 (4,260 m2)
COST: $11.2 million
COMPLETED: March 2007
ANNUAL CARBON FOOTPRINT (PREDICTED): 21 lbs. CO2/ft2 (100 kg CO2/m2)
PROGRAM: 96 Units SRO, Reception and Lobby, Community Room, Case Management Office, Building Management Offices, Support Facilities (Laundry, Bike Storage, Tenant Storage, etc)

DATA click on image to view larger

Sky Conditions   Temp./Dew Points   Heating/Cooling
Sky Conditions   Temp./Dew Points   Heating/Cooling

OWNER: Mercy Housing Lakefront ARCHITECT: Murphy/Jahn
ASSOCIATE ARCHITECT: Smith and Smith Architects
LANDSCAPE: Terry Guen Design Associates
ENGINEERS: Graeff, Anhalt, Schloemer & Associates (civil/structural); Environmental Systems Design (mechanical/electrical/plumbing)
COMMISSIONING AGENT: The Renschler Company

GLASS CURTAINWALL: Traco TR-7801 Curtainwall
GLASS: Pilkington Solar E Glass Insulated Units, fabricated by J.E. Berkowitz
WIND TURBINES: Aerotecture International
CHILLER: Carrier
BOILERS: Viessmann Vitodens 200 Condensing Boiler
GRAY WATER SYSTEM: Green Turtle Technologies

The buildings’ ambitions couldn’t be more different. If State Street Village is a temporary perch for ambitious students on the road to success, the 96-unit Near North Apartments is a place for starting over. The single-room occupancy (SRO) is operated by Mercy Housing Lakefront and offers permanent supportive housing for disabled, formerly homeless, and Chicago Housing Authority residents. While a student may be catching a movie in the communal lounge, 43-year-old Near North tenant Thomas Gooch visits his on-site case manager to discuss his recovery from substance abuse. Where the young guns crack the books in their rooms, people like 52-year-old Donnie Conner, who hopes to earn two associate degrees from local Harold Washington College, are living out a second chance.

Just as the members of the new community at Near North partake of very different privileges from the students at IIT, their buildings also differ in an important way. Unlike its predecessor, the SRO elegantly melds architectural form with an environmental agenda designed to achieve a LEED Silver rating.

Near North represents a do-over in other respects. The neighborhood had been home to Cabrini-Green, towers built and maintained by the housing authority and which exemplified everything that could go wrong with mid-century urban renewal. The city came to view the development’s social stigma and high crime as unacceptable. The zoning code was rewritten to encourage dispersed low-income housing, and in 2000 Cabrini-Green was scheduled for demolition. 

Barry Mullen, Mercy Housing Lakefront’s vice president of real estate development, explains that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley launched a corresponding initiative to build new supportive housing. In 2003, an RFP was issued for 32,500 square feet of remediated brownfield located in the heart of Near North, and Lakefront Supportive Housing, which merged with Mercy Housing Midwest in January 2006, received authorization to develop the site. “The city basically makes a donation of the land,” Mullen says, “and we go about putting the financing together. Our tenants pay a third of their income as rent, so these supportive-housing projects are almost always done with grants, subsidies, or tax-credit dollars.”

Such minimal rental income also galvanized the client’s move toward sustainability. “If we can reduce the operating cost on these buildings through green technology or any other tool, we will explore it and take it to its logical conclusion,” Mullen says.

Indeed, the organization had implemented green-building strategies in previous projects like Wentworth Commons Apartments, which included rooftop photovoltaics and bio-swales. For Near North, it would also incorporate great design—“to make a statement that housing for low-income people can strive for excellence as much as any other building,” Pratt says. Mercy Housing Lakefront board member and local construction executive Harold Schiff recommended teaming up with Murphy/Jahn principal Hemut Jahn, who agreed to work for a reduced fee.

To achieve such excellence, “Helmut always says that when nothing can be added and nothing can be taken away, you’ve got the right design,” Pratt says, pointing out that Near North’s bread-loaf form and sleek skin synthesized the client’s architectural and sustainability goals better than alternative design concepts. For example, the stainless-steel wall and roof cladding has a high albedo, reducing the urban heat island effect. The roof’s slightly peaked shape and orientation to the northeast and southwest are perfectly suited for drainage into a 1,500-gallon rainwater cistern used for landscape irrigation, too, and also to accommodate the placement of city-donated solar thermal panels that supply 30 percent of the building’s domestic and heating hot water.

The overall profile of the building also has green benefits. “You can see from fluid dynamic studies that airflow is very smooth over the center of the building,” Pratt says. To exploit that potential, Mercy Housing and Lakefront, with the Murphy/Jahn team reserved the roof’s peak for an innovative horizontal wind turbine system that currently meets 8 percent of the building’s electricity demand. 

The 520H Aeroturbine was invented by University of Illinois professor Bil Becker to generate power from the wind in urban settings. It sports a petite, modular design that can accommodate city rooftops of many sizes (Near North actually includes eight modules linked together). Functionally, the Aeroturbine features both Savonious and Darrieus rotors. These two different airfoils perform ideally at different wind speeds, so that the hybrid yields continuous energy production in variable city winds. Moreover, the helical Savonious does not rotate in excess of 400 revolutions per minute (rpm), which prevents electrical surges in high winds, ice throwing, or a level of vibration that could disturb tenants.

The clients used the cachet of a Murphy/Jahn-designed structure to change the perception of SRO buildings.

Although Becker has been working on the Aeroturbine and its sister, the vertical 510H, since earning a research grant from the Carter administration in 1979, the Near North installation represents only his second time installing a 520H system. Feeding directly to inverters, it also is the first battery-free wind turbine, he claims. “We have the opportunity to do things here that others might not,” Mullen says of Mercy Housing Lakefront’s willingness to try out the technology, which was paid for by a grant from Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. “We’re happy to share all performance data. Somebody had to do it first.”

Another first for Near North is its graywater system, which had not been attempted in the city. Despite Chicago’s green reputation, Sadhu Johnston, Deputy Chief of Staff to the Mayor and former commissioner of the Department of Environment, confirms, “I don’t think we’re leaders in this technology. A lot of people would think, ‘I don’t need to save water—the Great Lakes have 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.’ ” Drainage is collected from showers and sinks, and then filtered, treated, and reused to flush toilets. Project consultant Dan Murphy, PE, of Environmental Systems Design, says the measure should keep 45,000 gallons from being pumped from Lake Michigan every year. 

Unlike the rooftop wind turbines, Near North’s graywater technology was greeted with less alacrity. While the city’s Department of Construction and Permits breezed through approval with only a hint of caution, the Illinois Department of Public Health temporarily shut down the system earlier this spring. Johnston says the state’s slower acceptance owes to the rarity of the technology’s installation. He also notes, “We’re figuring out how we want to work with graywater in the future. [Near North] raised a whole series of questions that we’re developing answers to.”

While the city prepares its guidelines for future graywater systems, Near North continues improving itself. Inside the building, a touchscreen educates residents about green living. Meanwhile, Becker has been tweaking his Aeroturbines, admitting that the system passes along about 60 percent of the energy it captures. Part of the inefficiency has to do with the wind interface units, which play electronic middleman between the turbine and the inverter: “Our machines don’t spin up fast enough to create a voltage surge, but we’ve got all these capacitors and filters and buffers essentially braced to take it,” he says of the off-the-shelf parts. Currently, he is reprogramming the interface units’ maximum power point settings to complement Aeroturbines’ behavior, and says to expect a jump in average production from 200 kWh per module per month to 300 kWh.

Becker adds that other elements of the system could be improved—he’s still searching for an alternator optimized for lower rpm—but some of Chicago’s decision-makers are convinced already. Johnston says that an Aeroturbine installation will be mounted atop a municipal high-rise in the near future.

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This article appeared in the October 2007 print issue of GreenSource Magazine

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