Chicago’s first prefab home aims for LEED Platinum

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010
Photo courtesy of Square Root Architects.

Photo courtesy of Square Root Architects.

Location: West Town

Architect: Square Root Architecture

Contractor: Helios Design + Build

By Rosie Powers, Editor

As sustainable development has begun to spread its influence throughout Chicago, once again the city has grown a bit greener – this time welcoming its very first prefabricated home, which may earn LEED Platinum certification.

The project, headed by Square Root Architecture, broke ground in West Town in late August. After almost three years of planning, the module finally arrived on the foundation November 8.

Jeffrey Sommers of Square Root told that a separate crew prepared the site for the module by laying the foundation, utilities and gas work. Simultaneously, the module was being produced in an Indiana factory and was eventually transported to the site on truck beds.

“It speeds up the construction time when the processes are in parallel,” Sommers said.

The project focuses on the energy portion of LEED, with the home’s utilities using 50 percent less energy than the standard building.

“We’re targeting LEED Platinum,” he said. “This would be the first prefab home in Chicago to achieve that, and it seems like we’re on target to get Platinum.”

Photo courtesy of Square Root Architects.

Photo courtesy of Square Root Architects.

Passing the Chicago building code

Sommers said that unlike many cities, Chicago has a stricter building code with regards to electrical and plumbing standards. On-site building inspectors usually approve buildings, which was difficult for this project because the module was produced off-site. But Sommers and his team got the city to approve the project by submitting an extremely detailed representation of what it would look like, including photos and video segments from different stages throughout the process.

“We’re trying to be forthcoming with everything we’re doing, we’re not hiding anything,” Sommers said. “We’re trying to be careful. Once the module is on-site they can come see it.”

Why is prefab green?

Although the concept of prefab housing is nothing new, the design has often been utilized throughout history because of its use of sustainable material and fast construction speed.

This project in particular will include a well-insulated and energy-efficient building shell that is also cost-effective. The ceilings will have a R55-60 rating, approaching double of what the baseline standards are for the Chicago building code and the Energy Star standard.

“It’s important to start with a good infrastructure, then layer onto that,” Sommers said. “Recycled finishes are meaningless unless you have a good infrastructure.”

Square Root has planned to utilize a mini-split, ductless heating and cooling system. The heating system will feature units in each room that can be individually controlled, so if a room is not in use, the heating can be turned off.

Photo courtesy of Square Root Architects.

Photo courtesy of Square Root Architects.

A solar thermal system that provides hot water for the building will be used, while energy-efficient lighting and Energy Star appliances are planned for usage throughout. Recycled content finishes and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified wood are planned for flooring.

On the outside, the home will include six rainwater barrels and two solar thermal panels on the roof for hot water. A vegetative green roof and deck are planned for the roof of the home.

Sustainable yet monetarily attainable?

Sommers said that although sustainable building projects can be hard on the wallet, Square Root has striven to make this project affordable.

“We’re trying to get the best energy-reducing building we can on a budget,” he said. “This project has been an effort in balancing budgets with energy efficiency.”

Sommers said that cost-efficient prefab, such as this project, could be the answer to Chicagoans who want to live both sustainably and economically.

“We’re trying to be pioneers here and prove that it can be done, it can be one incremental step towards making a domino effect of these,” he said. “It’s the perfect time because of the economy and energy crisis we’re in. People are ready to receive a product like this.”

This home is being financed by Family Federal Savings of Illinois which was acquired by GreenChoice Bank this past summer and is in the process of green renovations for each of its existing locations before changing the name to GreenChoice Bank early in 2011.

Square Root’s blog for the prefab home can be found here.

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