18 May, 2017
BUILDING A GREENER CHICAGO
For the average American, going “green” means buying hearty avocados from Whole Foods, recycling soda cans, and sending annual donations to a sustainable banana farm in Costa Rica. Others might compost yard waste, buy produce at local farmers markets, and opt for public transportation instead of cars. For most of us, sustainable living entails these small lifestyle changes that reduce our environmental footprint.
But people form only one component of a greater sustainability issue. Take an earnest look at the space around you, and you may find that Chicago needs more than a dash of recycle bins and solar panels to reduce its environmental impact. In fact, the concept of “sustainability” is so monumentally comprehensive that clean energy and improved transportation are only tiny pimples on a much larger face.
The Sustainability Council in Chicago, led by Mayor Emanuel, outlines seven sustainability categories:
- Economic Development and Job Creation
- Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy
- Transportation Options
- Water and Wastewater
- Parks, Open Space, and Healthy Food
- Waste and Recycling
- Climate Change
Goals include improving the bus and rail transit system, upgrading water and sewage, modernizing the electrical infrastructure, and increasing energy-efficient retrofits for Chicago businesses and neighborhoods. These objectives are undoubtedly as diverse as they are challenging, but one thing I realized during my research was that everything involved some kind of architectural or infrastructural component. In fact, there’s a word for it: urban design, or the process of “making connections between people and places, [drawing] together the many strands of place-making, environmental stewardship, social equity and economic viability into the creation of places with distinct beauty and identity” (Wikipedia).
With giant WTFs swirling in my head, I reached out to Matt Nardella—founder of moss, an architecture and design studio in Lakeview—for a bit more insight. By combining elements of sustainable design with a client’s functional needs, moss creates spaces that are functional, green, and aesthetically-pleasing. They’re a multidisciplinary firm with a simple yet lofty goal: to improve people’s connection with what they’re consuming by using the concept of space.
We meet at Bar Pastoral, one of moss’s past clients. Inspired by French wine caverns, the restaurant has barrel-vaulted ceilings made of earthen plaster, “which diffuse delicate ambient light from overhead and give the tall space a more intimate feel” (moss website). The light fixtures are made from milking machinery and butter churns, and all the wood is reclaimed lumber from the Northwest. I order an arugula salad topped with charred eggplant and crispy habas while Matt orders a glass of wine and charcuterie platter.
I ask Matt what green architecture is all about. “Whatever we build, we want to be merging with landscape instead of suppressing it,” he says, adding that “functionality is at the root—we don’t want to make anything overly fussy. We definitely want to keep things modern, clean, and necessary.” Matt says that anything consuming more than it gives is bound to fail. “There aren’t infinite resources on a finite planet. Practically, all of our buildings need to be consuming less than they take, or need to be giving back more than they take.” How can this be done? Wind, solar, and geothermal energy are popular alternatives, but there are also modest measures, such as harvesting rainwater or waste water for onsite building use.
When it comes to sustainability, I was born green. I recycle Ziploc bags and post-its, my bike is a prized fifth appendage, and I forage shrubbery for dinner. But before you plaster a gigantic hipster sign onto my forehead, let me just say that popular culture hardly influenced any of my current practices. Truth be told, it was growing up in an economically underprivileged household that taught me the value of sustainability. Ironically, the idea of sustainability has evolved from a basic necessity into something that’s a bit of a luxury. Matt says:
“A lot of what’s labeled as green architecture now is construed as something you have to buy your way into, which is why you get the impression that it costs more to do sustainable design.”
He says that sustainable design executed correctly is ultimately free. “I think there’s a tendency to reject sustainable living because it’s becoming popular or hip, but my only hope is that it does become mainstream. If we have to label it as hipster living or whatever it’s being called, so be it. I think it’s getting back to where we need to be.” In addition to the high-cost misconception, Matt says that people often mistake sustainable design as a novel concept when in fact, civilizations have been living off the land for thousands of years.
I ask Matt why people install fancy solar panels when building a smaller space could just as easily suit the purpose. He replies, “We think that we need more storage space, more need for junk. We’re a consumption civilization; our well being is figured by how much we’re consuming.” He also says that inefficient spaces like garages (aka “the most expensive parks in the city”) partition cities and disrupt meaningful interaction. An ideal urban environment should maximize the presence of people. Citing The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Matt states that the biggest deterrent to crime isn’t more police or streetlights—it’s simply having more people on the street. He also mentions Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, saying that “you can judge how successful society’s going to be just based on their geography.”
As I munch on my delightfully bitter arugula salad, I ask how Matt developed such a strong passion for sustainability. After all, one does not instantly transform into Captain Planet. He says that growing up in Chicago didn’t allow for an intimate connection with the natural world, but that moving to San Diego for nine years helped develop that relationship. He recalls his environmental awakening during an outdoor trek:
“I had a Maine Woods sort of experience—I was hiking in the mountains, it was quiet, nothing was there. There was no sound aside from the wind, and I don’t think I was ever been that in touch with nature before. That’s when it clicked that this was something that needed to be protected.”
Probing further, I ask Matt about the possible disconnections between espousing sustainability and creating structures that inevitably disrupt nature. Matt nods, saying that he “treads as lightly as possible.” Fortunately, architecture isn’t just about creating new buildings. Chicago has numerous inefficient structures that need to be retro-fitted, and moss particularly likes to work with existing buildings and infrastructure.
So how would Matt redesign Chicago? He says the first steps involve protecting the lakes and natural waterways, as well as establishing a growth boundary to control urban sprawl (check out Portland’S UGB). “We have the most fertile soil in the world. For every inch that we push out from Chicago, we take away fertile farmland.” But wouldn’t a boundary increase congestion within the city? Matt shrugs, adding that energy-sucking high-rises aren’t necessarily the solution either. He says that Chicago may reach a comfortable density by building structures that range between high-rises and single-family detached spaces. Regardless, Matt is confident that creative minds will eventually develop a sustainable solution. “The best design solution solves a lot of problems with one gesture. Like biking–which makes you happy, improves your well-being and health, gets you to where you need to go–all for a low cost.”
Though Matt’s an architect by training, his passion for creating spaces extends beyond the simple process of design. He says that modern architects “are so focused and myopic in our thinking that we’ve ignored some of the more important things like sustainability, like fabrication, like graphic design, like all those other disciplines that I think can be folded into architecture.” Furthermore, he says that architecture isn’t just about designing an attractive place—it’s about increasing productivity, improving one’s physical and mental well-being, and utilizing a holistic philosophy where our actions impact people and places downstream. His insights make my brain churn in an intellectual frenzy–if you truly think about how much time we spend in buildings and around buildings, the sheer power of space is…quite amazing and rather underappreciated.
Matt also states that good architects stay on top of research and the latest developments, such as biomimicry (applying natural models to structural design). “The ribs of a cactus are made to funnel water down to the roots, so a building can be designed to funnel water to where you want it to,” he says.
I like Matt—he exudes a quiet sort of passion, not the obnoxious hippie crap that makes you deplore humanity. Given our similar views on sustainability, I found myself nodding and agreeing like a dumb golden retriever. In fact, I only disagreed on one point. Matt defines sustainability as “giving more than you take” but I take a more economical perspective—consuming just enough so that future generations have the ability to be just as well off. But Matt says, “Earth doesn’t value things in money. It’s not really connected to the monetary system. It has a certain amount of resources to give, and that’s it. It doesn’t understand trade or capitalism or any of those things.” While I certainly respect his opinion (and deep-down subscribe to it), I’ve taken enough economics classes to realize that romanticism sometimes holds little value in the real world.
But what’s the point in being all gloom and doom? Sure, Chicago’s path to sustainability may twist and turn around giant piles of waste and pollution, but high hopes and small steps have been always been the general strategy for human success.