Sustainable Airport Design Takes Flight: The O’Hare Modernization Program

Monday, January 4th, 2010

By William Olson

Introduced by the Office of Richard M. Daley in 2001, the O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP) is a plan to reconfigure O’Hare International Airport’s intersecting runways into a more modern layout and bring a new western terminal facility with additional airline gates and parking. The $6.6 billion program is intended to substantially reduce delays in all weather conditions and increase capacity at the airfield, allowing O’Hare to meet the region’s aviation needs well into the future.

In an effort consistent with the city’s vision to make Chicago a model for metropolitan environmentalism, in 2003 the OMP published its Sustainable Design Manual (SDM) as an integral part of the overall design and construction standards of the OMP. Its vision states that “O’Hare International Airport will continue to evolve as a benchmark for environmental stewardship in design and construction.” Spearheaded by the Executive Director of the OMP, Rosemarie Andolino, the SDM is a first for such a major international airport modernization project.

The 84-page manual is written with the organizational structure developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED™) green building rating system and applies the its concepts to all aspects of the OMP including both civil and unoccupied buildings. The manual requires a multitude of sustainable practices organized under the rubric of eight categories: Sustainable Site Management, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, Indoor Environmental Air Quality, O’Hare Facility Operations, OMP Intertask Resource Coordination and OMP Construction Practices.

Many of the provisions in the manual regarding the construction process itself are innovatively ambitious and mark a clear divergence from unsustainable practices, including the use of green power, clean-fuel/low sulfur diesel vehicles and opportunities for alternative transportation (bicycle racks) during construction. The site also features waste re-use and recycling, local materials procurement, water-efficient landscaping and innovative wastewater technologies (green roofs). The developers were conscious of sustainable energy design by using CFC reductions, rapidly renewable resources and brownfield redevelopment.

Also impressive are the more permanent sustainable designs planned for the airport facilities, particularly those relating to indoor air quality. Low-emitting materials, carbon dioxide monitoring and ventilation effectiveness will all be compliant with LEED rating and meet the minimum requirements for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality as defined by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). The manual also provides for the use of daylight harvesting, efficient lighting and HVAC refrigeration systems and appliances. Perhaps the most visible sign of a new era in airport development, the newly completed air traffic control tower is the first in the US to include a green roof. What is more, an estimated 100,000 square feet of green roofing is planned for subsequent phases in addition to the 10,000 square feet already installed.

While the inclusion of many of the sustainable features are commendable for a project of this scope and nature, the OMP nevertheless omits several conspicuous features as one of the region’s most significant economic engines and largest atmospheric polluters. Nothing in the way of clean sources of energy has yet gone into the project. Photovoltaic panels were deemed unsafe due to their reflectivity properties and no small-scale wind, geothermal or other clean energy systems have been incorporated to date while the “outsourcing” for green power for construction has yet to be realized. Tentative plans for such renewable systems have been envisioned.

Funding sources identified for the sustainable aspects of the project include the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, US Department of Energy and US EPA Brownfield Program.

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