George and Susan Sullivan are rehabbing their 90-year-old brick three-flat in Rogers Park–gutting it and then some. They want to make it the city’s greenest Arts and Crafts building, as well as the first privately owned multiunit residential rehab in the country to get the federal government’s Energy Star certification. In three years and counting, they’ve caulked, insulated, replaced windows, added brick walls to soak up sunlight, and installed new heating and cooling systems. George figures these improvements have already saved them thousands of dollars a year in utility bills.

Yet the greenest thing the Sullivans have done is simple: they didn’t tear the building down. “Think of all the energy it took originally to fire these bricks, cut the wood, make the concrete, and ship them to Rogers Park,” says George. “By renovating, we doubled their useful life. However much oil or coal it took to fire one brick will now be spread over 200 years instead of 100.”

At a very rough average cost of $80 to $100 per square foot, gut rehabbing isn’t for everyone. The Sullivans’ project has cost significantly more–about $150 per square foot spread over almost 10,000 square feet or $1.5 million. That’s because they tore off the back of the building and enlarged it by 15 percent and replaced many of the building’s basics, including the wiring, plumbing, and roof. They also often chose high-end finishes and, in the interest of historic preservation, spent extra for custom-made tiles, millwork, and trim. Few people can afford to go that far, but almost anyone can afford to follow their fundamental principle: to alter their living space so that it uses fewer resources and produces less waste.

Last summer the Sullivans drew a crowd of 70 to the Chicago Center for Green Technology at 445 N. Sacramento to hear about their project. This Saturday they’ll be back at the center to talk about it again. “George and Susan have made the commitment and gone beyond what’s being done today,” says their architect, Michael Realmuto of Realmuto Steffen & Schwerin. He hopes to be a tenant in their building once the job is done.

If you want to green up your living space, says George, good intentions aren’t enough. You need to understand how it works. After getting an engineering degree, he worked at Republic Steel, and he’s worked as a general contractor since 1974, overseeing multiple gut rehabs. Susan works in property management, knows about gardening (an integral part of their project), and is good at paperwork. Anyone can start with a strategy they still use: scout bookstores for pertinent titles, check them out of the library (inherently green since it reuses books), and return to the bookstore to buy those that prove indispensable. “I think I’ve been to the library more often with my husband than when I was in college,” says Susan. They recommend two titles in particular, How to Redesign & Renovate Your House or Apartment by Phyllis Sperling and Lupe DiDonno and The City & Town Gardener: A Handbook for Planting Small Spaces and Containers by Linda Yang.

In the early 90s the Sullivans went shopping for a structurally sound building near the lake and mass transit. Nothing unusual there–but they also wanted one that ran east-west (presenting its long side to the sun) and wasn’t shaded by neighboring structures (so that being oriented to the sun would do some good). In 1994 they bought a building in the 7700 block of North Ashland for $150,000, an unthinkably low price today. “The day we closed,” George says, “there was an abandoned car out front with more than a dozen bullet holes in it, and the street was full of nine-millimeter shell casings.”

“The housing stock in Rogers Park is great,” says Susan. “The units are huge. Many Chicago neighborhoods have buildings like this. The question is whether anyone will come in to save them.”

Their building had suffered from the previous owners’ neglect and makeshift repairs. The wooden back stairs and porches were shaky, the wiring was of the antique cloth-covered variety, and most rooms had only one electrical outlet. The gigantic, elderly boiler–with an efficiency of 10 percent–had to have water manually added to it every day during the heating season. An equally elderly repairman advised them not to attempt any maintenance but to hope for the best until they could replace it. It was the center of a dilapidated steam-heating system controlled by a single thermostat. Where steam had corroded the right-angle joints, the pipes were cut and capped, eliminating several of the original radiators.

“The place had been rented as a cash cow,” says Susan, “like, ‘All I want is the income and then I’m out of here.’ It took us a year of reacting to maintenance emergencies before we could get to a proactive stance.”

The goal of creating a green home can be approached in many different ways. Some approaches are global: the Sullivans buy environmentally certified lumber, which may help save forests half a world away. Some are local: they buy paint and adhesives that don’t outgas organic solvents, making the air more breathable in and around their home (especially important in tightly insulated spaces). Some approaches save energy–no small thing given that residential and commercial buildings use more energy than all forms of transportation put together–and they save money: insulating their water pipes cost an extra $480, but George says it cut hot-water costs by two-thirds and paid for itself within six months. Some are expensive, and the return is less tangible: their roof garden cost more than a standard roof, but it adds value at resale and is pleasant in and of itself. It also has three environmental benefits: it reduces the urban heat-island effect, decreases the impermeable surface area that contributes to floods and the release of sewage into Lake Michigan, and acts as a wildlife minihabitat and a source of native seeds.

Going green also involves all kinds of trade-offs. Some are monetary: the Sullivans chose water heaters that were highly reliable but not tops in efficiency, on the grounds that the money they saved on maintenance would be greater than the money they would save on energy. Some are environmental: they chose to build their deck using “lumber” made from recycled number-two plastic rather than wood. There’s an ongoing debate over whether wood can be considered a green building material. George chose the recycled plastic because it’s reasonably priced, lasts longer (30 years versus 20 years for wood), requires no laborious annual sealing with petroleum-based chemicals, raises the useful lifetime of number-two plastic from two weeks to three decades, and contributes to the consumer demand necessary to make recycling plastic a profitable business.

The trickiest trade-off may be between money now and money later. The Sullivans complain that developers, designers, and consumers pay too much attention to up-front purchase costs and not enough to long-term operating costs–a bias that can lead to environmentally unsound decisions. Whether you’re buying a compact fluorescent lightbulb or a truckload of insulation, many green activities require dollars up front. You can think of that as an expense and ask how soon it will be paid back. Or you can think of it as an investment and ask what rate of return you’re getting on it compared to other choices.

In any case, being green doesn’t mean that you ignore money. It does mean that you don’t worship exclusively at that altar–that you sometimes pay extra to be environmentally friendly, whether or not you get every dime back the next year.

One of the first green things the Sullivans did when they bought the building was to sign up for the Resource Center’s every-other-week pickup of recyclables sorted into five categories: metals, glass, cardboard, white paper, and mixed waste paper such as junk mail and phone books. Taking that step cut the volume of their city garbage pickup in half. (Like most environmentalists, they’ve long abhorred the way the city’s blue-bag program wastes clean recyclables.) In addition George built a compost bin for yard and kitchen waste. Their tenants were mostly students, he recalls, and took to recycling and composting without a lot of persuasion.

Of course recycling trucks burn gas and oil and emit fumes, but that trade-off doesn’t worry the Sullivans. Susan says that Ken Dunn, head of the Resource Center, had a “huge route in Rogers Park already. When we signed up he was already coming down our alley.” And even if he hadn’t been, George says it still would have been worth doing to support the network of businesses that buy and use recycled metals, glass, and paper. He figures that if you add the energy embedded in the recyclables and the value of reducing the volume of solid waste, the overall benefit of source-separated recycling is greater than the energy expended picking up the items.

Even before the Sullivans started their project they had nonstandard discards to deal with. “We had rusted steel cabinets and several old stoves in the basement,” says George, a situation that called for recycling by alley entrepreneurs. “I caught the guys one day, and they were happy to haul it out.” He estimates that so far they’ve recycled 360 pounds of copper from the building, 2,800 pounds of ferrous metals, 200 pounds of aluminum, and 410 pounds of cardboard and similar paper products.

Most people are familiar with the idea of looking at the energy-efficiency labels on new appliances. Less obvious is what becomes of appliances later on, when they’re replaced. This concern motivated the Sullivans to buy cast-iron bathtubs, which are even more environmentally friendly than recyclables because they can be reused. Here again there’s a trade-off: cast iron costs more up front; fiberglass is cheaper, but it doesn’t last as long and then goes right to the landfill.

The quickest way to reduce the need for heating and cooling, says architect Michael Realmuto, is to plug your home’s air leaks. “There’s more heat lost through air changes than through [uninsulated] walls.” This is something anyone can do anywhere on any budget.

When most people think green, they think of insulation first. And yet it still doesn’t go without saying. George and Susan say they’ve seen plenty of “exposed brick” condos being sold without it. They look nice, until the buyers realize that only two bricks separate them from Chicago’s weather. They’ll pay sky-high fuel bills and still be shivering, just as if they lived in an uninsulated wood-frame building. The moral? Condo sellers can ignore operating costs and comfort only as long as their customers do.

Because the Sullivans’ building is brick, it didn’t have the built-in wall cavities of a wood-frame structure, which can be filled with fiberglass batts. Standard batts that fit inside a wall made of two-by-fours are three and a half inches thick and have an R value of 13–R values fall on a scale of zero to 100, where zero means heat passes through freely and 100 is a perfect vacuum, transmitting no heat whatsoever. George wanted to achieve R 18, which he knew could save him half again as much on his heating bill as R 13.

With brick, insulation has to be added to the inside, making the rooms smaller. Ordinarily you’d need six inches of insulation to achieve R 18, but that would have reduced the Sullivans’ floor area by more than 100 square feet per floor. George managed to get the same R value with just one and three-quarters inches. Against the brick wall he put a three-quarter-inch CertainTeed fiberglass batt that’s R 8, chosen because it meets the standards of two programs: Energy Star (it’s produced in an environmentally friendly fashion) and Green Seal (it doesn’t contain formaldehyde). Against that he put an extra-thick (ten mil) plastic vapor barrier. Finally he added two layers of a half-inch Dow Chemical board called TUFF-R. These boards, rated R 5, are made of closed-cell polyurethane faced with foil, and he arranged them so that the two layers overlapped, minimizing air leaks. All seams were sealed with foil tape before the drywall went up.

One reason the project has taken so long has been the Sullivans’ insistence on finding and adapting existing products to their goal. As yet there’s no book, no Web site, no Eco Home Depot that offers a full range of tested, cut-and-paste green solutions.

Standard single-pane windows with storm windows have an R value of about one, says George. The Sullivans bought high-end double-pane Marvin windows that are among the most efficient you can buy, with aluminum-clad wooden frames and an R value of three. They have argon gas between the panes, which provides invisible insulation, and a nearly invisible membrane and metallic coating that reflect heat, keeping more inside in the winter and more outside in the summer.

George recommends buying the most energy-efficient windows you can afford, but he says it’s critical that they be installed right. Most old wood-frame buildings have cavities on each side of window openings for the iron counterweights that make it easier to raise and lower the windows. He says these cavities should either be filled with latex-based insulating foam or ripped out. The Sullivans removed all their window woodwork right down to the brick opening, because the old wood was in bad shape and because they wanted a larger window area–another trade-off, since no window comes close to R 18.

George has little patience with contractors who try to get by with standard-size replacement windows, which are almost always too small or the wrong shape for the openings in old buildings. The customary way of dealing with the problem is to “buck out” the openings to fit the window using two-by-fours and plywood that’s covered on the outside with aluminum. He’s seen even high-end Marvin and Pella windows installed this way. The joints between the dissimilar materials are caulked, but because plywood, two-by-fours, and aluminum expand and contract at different rates, they create an ongoing maintenance migraine. The home owner often winds up with an expensive window in a frame that’s even less efficient than the original, wiping out any efficiency gains from the new window.

Home owners who want to go green are often captivated by photovoltaics. Sunlight may be free, but solar cells aren’t. They don’t make economic sense unless you’re the lucky recipient of a government grant. The Sullivans don’t have one, and besides, solar panels would have been incompatible with another one of their goals: an environmentally friendly house that looks normal from the street and will therefore retain its resale value.

Passive solar systems are a different story, and George favors them because they require a minimum of moving parts. “The simpler it is,” he says, “the faster the return.” Yet he chose not to install a solar system to preheat his hot water. He says such systems are more cost-efficient and simpler to install in open or rural settings, where the collectors can be indoors on the first floor. In an urban setting they have to be installed on the roof or on an upper floor in order to get much sun, and then you need extra pumps, check valves, antigravity siphons, and other equipment to move the water down to the point of use, all of which costs money and requires expert maintenance and repair.

The Sullivans settled for basic passive solar: storing the sun’s heat in four new indoor brick walls to provide supplementary space heating in the cool months (the building’s structure had to be reinforced to support them). Each of the three aboveground floors has one such wall, nine feet high and ten feet wide, running north to south near south- and west-facing windows. A fourth wall, on the top floor, is 20 feet high and 100 feet long and lined up to receive sunlight from a bank of new clerestory windows (the overhang they added outside is angled to block the summer sun). All four walls are “thermally broken” from the outside walls–insulated so that their heat isn’t conducted directly back outdoors. They’re made of handsome red Roman bricks, which cost 98 cents apiece three years ago; cheap Chicago common brick (38 cents apiece now) would have served just as well. The walls, says George, “look great, will never break, and work all the time.”

The primary heat source for the building is in the basement: four natural-gas-fired Weil-McLain boilers that are 90 percent efficient. They heat water that circulates through cast-iron baseboard radiators and a network of pipes embedded in the building’s floors. Radiant heating costs more to install than conventional forced air, but George says it’s cheaper to operate because the boilers don’t have to work as hard. Moreover, the thermostat can be turned a little lower because people are more comfortable when the heat source is under their feet.

According to the Sullivans’ records, the original building with its antiquated heating system and no insulation cost about $1.53 per square foot to heat for a year at current gas prices. Today they’re paying about 17 cents per square foot. That result didn’t come easy or cheap. It cost about $310,000 to superinsulate, replace all the old windows, replace the old heating system, add a cooling system, and add the passive-solar walls–though it’s worth bearing in mind that this sum is spread over three living units and the Sullivans often chose more expensive materials than necessary to achieve their goal.

Assuming, optimistically, that gas prices stabilize at current levels, their efforts will save them $1.36 per square foot every year. Spread over 10,000 square feet, that’s $13,600 a year, which means they’ll break even by 2027 (and earlier if prices go up). Here’s another way to look at it: This past December they kept their thermostat at 71 and paid a gas bill of $361, or 3.6 cents per square foot. In a typical 1,800-square-foot home that would work out to $65 for the month. “What was your gas bill for December?” asks George, grinning.

Exactly how much boiler, window, and insulation work it would take to get costs down that much will vary with every building and owner. George suggests that people on limited budgets upgrade their windows and heating systems first–but they can’t cheap out. As in the case of replacement windows, skimping results in waste and inefficiencies. When the Sullivans bought their building the hot-water piping wasn’t insulated where it ran through the outer walls, which made the heating system inefficient and caused heat damage to the plaster. By insulating the pipes, they not only saved energy but protected their new walls.

Outdoors, the Sullivans’ green plan began to evolve when they learned that city regulations would doom their small backyard. Nowadays, any renovation requires the owner to ensure that there’s one off-street parking space for each unit.

Rather than cover the backyard with asphalt, the Sullivans decided to cover it with an attached garage. They installed a heavy-duty roof, on top of which they built their recycled plastic deck and lined it with containers growing vegetables, native flowers, water plants, prairie grasses, shrubs, and small trees, which attract birds, bees, butterflies, and moths. In effect, says Susan, “we elevated our backyard.”

The deck garden moderates the heat of summer better than city-mandated light-colored roofs do. It helps prevent flooding, and it produces native plant seeds that the Sullivans contribute to North Park Village’s prairie restoration projects. (The roof of the main building will be two-thirds garden, and the rest will be covered with lead-washed copper so that they won’t have to put an odd-looking railing across the front of the building.)

They’ve also disconnected the downspouts on the garage and the building from the city sewer system, something that a few years ago was a fringe notion espoused only by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and other critics of the Deep Tunnel project. Now the city itself promotes the idea and offers do-it-yourself step-by-step instructions on its Web site. The cost of making this change is small if it’s done at the same time gutters are replaced, and the idea is much the same as the roof garden–to limit local flooding by allowing rainwater to soak into the ground gradually. The Sullivans have directed some of their downspouts into a sunless patch of ground on their building’s north side, where shade-loving jewelweed has taken root, and some into an 1,100-gallon cistern from which their roof gardens are watered. (Do-it-yourselfers should be careful not to aim downspouts at the neighbors’ property or at large expanses of concrete.) George estimates that if their building had a conventional roof, it would send 64,000 gallons of water into city sewers in an average year. When the roof gardens and cistern are complete, he expects to cut that amount to only 29,000 gallons.

One contractor who’d underbid a green-renovation job consulted with George afterward and couldn’t believe the Sullivans had reused lumber–two-by-fours and larger–they’d salvaged when gutting their building. “It’s cheaper to throw it away and buy new stuff,” the contractor said. Not if you count all the costs, George replied. He drew a lesson from that encounter: environmentally minded renovators should inquire carefully about their general contractor’s experience before signing anything. He recommends starting with contractors who are members of the U.S. Green Building Council.

The Sullivans couldn’t avoid causing the death of some trees when they enlarged the building, but they used lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as having been harvested in ways that are “environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable.” (The council’s ten guiding principles are at These days certified lumber can be ordered through big-box stores–just make sure it’s stamped accordingly and is accompanied by certification papers. The first morning I visited the Sullivans’ building, George wasn’t there. He was at Home Depot, refusing a shipment of lumber that had no paperwork. “We got clear-cut lumber by mistake, not what was specified,” he says. “Big boxes are there to sell you stuff. It’s your job to tell them what you want.”

The Sullivans have had to pay for much of their rehab out of pocket, so they’ve saved money by limiting other purchases and by living on-site, which is chaotic but does provide security for the building. They got construction loans when they could. But with loans come regular bank appraisals of the planned improvements as they’re installed, and banks often don’t understand green calculations. “The appraisal on this building was 30 percent lower than it should be,” George says, “because the appraiser wouldn’t look at what we’re saving on operating costs. He said I was wasting my money on insulation: ‘That doesn’t sell houses.'” Michael Realmuto points out that “most buildings are built for a 60-to-100-year lifespan. In that time energy prices will double or triple, and at some point it will make economic sense for it to be insulated well.”

Once the construction is done, probably early this summer, the Sullivans’ construction loans can be converted into a mortgage. They’d like to take advantage of Fannie Mae’s “green mortgages,” which allow borrowers with energy-efficient dwellings to add projected savings to their income for the purpose of qualifying for a loan. By contrast, conventional underwriting assumes that utility costs will be a standard percentage of expenses. The Fannie Mae program is aimed at single-family dwellings, but George is working with a Michigan lender, Indigo Financial Group, to see if there’s a way to apply it to multifamily buildings. Indigo’s Joel Wiese says such mortgages are rare in any case because lenders have to know more about energy use than usual and because the demand for them is minuscule. George says that a sympathetic Chicago banker told him he was the first person to ask about a green mortgage.

That makes the Sullivans’ final point: bankers will come around when enough consumers express an interest. So will developers, real estate salespeople, home-improvement retailers, contractors, and tradespeople. Consumers will have to demand that the professionals they hire stop following time-honored routines and thinking short-term. “Right now people are buying without asking the right questions about operating costs,” says George. “It’s all about voting green with your dollars.”

The Sullivan Residence: A Green Building Case Study

When: Sat 3/19, 10 AM

Where: Chicago Center for Green Technology, 445 N. Sacramento

Price: free

Info: 312-746-9642,

Useful URLs

Best Practices for Green Building in Chicago by OWP/P Architects pdf/BestPracticesforGB.pdf

City of Chicago links for home owners

Conserve Chicago Together

Energy Star (EPA and Department of Energy ratings and awards)

Environmental Building News

Green Seal (nonprofit independent product evaluations)

Home Energy Saver Answer Desk

Native plant information

Peoples Energy (click on “residential,” then click on “managing your energy at home”)

Resource Center

The Sullivans’ building

U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Dolan; original plan courtesy Michael Realmuto; photos/Eric Futran, Robert Murphy, Susan Sullivan.