Chicago’s winds are legendary. For people who live in subsidized housing, those winds often bring misery, driving winter’s icy air into homes through thin walls and leaky windows.

Such is not the case for the residents of a new housing project that opened yesterday on the city’s near north side. Called Near North Apartments, the 96-unit, 46,000-square-foot building houses formerly homeless Chicagoans.

For these residents, the wind is no foe, but an ally supplying a portion of their energy. Solar panels, rainwater collection, and gray-water recycling are other features that set this project apart from typical subsidized housing. The five-story building also meets LEED certification standards.

Near North is the newest of 11 housing projects built in Chicago by Mercy Housing Lakefront, the Chicago branch of Mercy Housing, a nonprofit group headquartered in Denver. The company used solar photovoltaic roof panels on one of its previously built SROs, but decided to go further in sustainable design with its latest project.

Perched on Near North's roof are eight cylindrical wind turbines, each about five feet high and 10 feet long, lined up in a row down the length of the building. “The site is oriented perfectly for the prevailing winds in Chicago,” says Barry Mullen, vice president for real estate development at Mercy Housing Lakefront.

He notes that the building, designed by Chicago architect Helmut Jahn, is specially designed to use wind power. The roof curves at the edges, like the top of a loaf of bread. As the wind flows over the curve, it accelerates on its way into the turbines.

The roof also houses solar hot-water panels. Rainwater runoff from the property collects in an underground cistern, into which also drains filtered gray water from the building’s showers. This is the first large-scale gray-water system in Chicago. The collected water is used to flush toilets and irrigate outdoor gardens.

In all, the green-design elements added about $1 million to Near North’s construction costs, which totaled $14.1 million. The expected payback period for the added costs is 16 to 18 years.

Part of Mercy Housing Lakefront’s motivation in opting for sustainable design at Near North was to save on operating costs, says Allen Hailey, regional director of resource development. Another important factor, he adds, is that “more resources are available now, either through private philanthropy or public funding, to incorporate green-design elements into our projects.”

Foundations and private businesses contributed money and materials to the project, and the city of Chicago donated the solar panels. The city, known for its eco urban planning, encourages developers to build green by expediting the plan review process. “It took us less than a month to get through the green-design review,” Mullen notes. “It can take six to nine times that long” for a review of regular building plans.

Mullen hopes that Near North will serve as a model for an innovative, sustainable way to approach housing built for low-income  people. “This project is our environmental university,” he says, “not only to learn for ourselves, but also to show others what can be done."

Story by Dianna Molvig. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in March 2007. 

Copyright Environ Press 2007