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Building Reuse: How NRDC's New Chicago Office will Help Fill in the Blanks

Janie Chen

Posted March 22, 2013

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When NRDC started looking for a home for our new office, we wanted a location that provided the same destination accessibility and public transportation benefits as our current office.  We also knew we wanted to move into a pre-existing building instead of constructing a new space.  Reuse, whether it is materials (glass and paper), products (shopping bags and water bottles), or even buildings, comes with significant environmental benefits.

Kaid Benfield, Director of NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Program, highlights these benefits in his blog posts. Using pre-existing buildings in already developed areas prevents urban sprawl and conserves precious green space and natural landscapes.  Keeping our office in the city center, accessible by public transportation, minimizes automobile trips and its associated air pollutants. Building reuse can also have a positive impact on water resources because it doesn’t require building additional pavement, especially around watersheds.  Rainwater runoff that falls on these hard surfaces can exasperate water infrastructure and carry pollutants into water sources.  This is especially true in Chicago, where combined sewer overflows plague the city’s river.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation quantified the environmental benefits of building reuse in its recent publication, “The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse.” 

“This study examines indicators within four environmental impact categories, including climate change, human health, ecosystem quality, and resource depletion. It tests six different building typologies, including a single-family home, multifamily building, commercial office, urban village mixed-use building, elementary school, and warehouse conversion. The study evaluates these building types across four U.S. cities, each representing a different climate zone, i.e., Portland, Phoenix, Chicago, and Atlanta.”


Researchers found that while “the range of environmental savings from building reuse varies widely, based on building type, location, and assumed level of energy efficiency.  Savings from reuse are between 4 and 46 percent over new construction when comparing buildings with the same energy performance levels.”  If building re-use were incorporated into city-wide or even state-wide policies, the cumulative environmental savings would be tremendous.

Closely related to building re-use, infill development builds upon and utilizes previously developed land within existing urban areas. It has recently gained traction in California with the approval of SB 226’s infill streamlining regulations.  The proportion of infill development in Chicago has also grown, from 40.2 percent to 43.3 percent between 2000 and 2009.  Though no regulations currently exist for the area, there are still many opportunities for reinvesting within the metropolitan area.

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NRDC is proud to be a part of this positive trend by moving our office to the Civic Opera building.  Located just across the Chicago River, the Civic Opera sits right in the heart of Chicago’s “Loop” and has been very supportive of our plan to renovate the space into a sustainable office.  However, that’s not to say that we haven’t had our share of struggles and difficulties in “going green”.  Follow my upcoming blog posts to see how we lowered our energy and water consumption (and at times, had to accept our limits), stuck to a strict sustainable materials list (oftentimes with creative results), and worked with Studio Gang, an ingenious architecture team to build a sustainable and innovative office right here in the Midwest.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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