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CHICAGO-Denver-based Mercy Housing’s Environmental Stewardship Initiative has led to significant utilization of green building technologies in new and redeveloped low-income housing properties across the country. The company’s 96-unit single-room-occupancy Margot and Harold Schiff Residences here broke new ground for the company in both the application of green design strategies and the use of energy efficient building systems.

It was completed in March last year at a hard cost of approximately $11.9 million on land donated by the city. Cindy Holler, president of Mercy Housing Lakefront, which is Mercy’s Chicago-area region, tells GlobeSt.com this building represents the first time its full complement of green systems and elements have been used in combination.

The roof has 16 wind turbines and 40 solar collectors. There is a gray water system to collect runoff from sinks, tubs and showers and a storm-water runoff that channels excess rain to surrounding natural foliage where it is absorbed and utilized rather than overwhelming the city’s sewers.

“In comparing this building with a comparable one with no green building systems, this one produces a nearly 25% savings on utility costs,” Holler reports. Yet, “payback is still too long,” she acknowledges, estimating it will occur within 16 to 18 years. “We’d like to get it down to five to seven years,” she says, a timeframe that would encourage developers.

Mercy’s green initiatives are based on the corporate belief that the not-for-profit company not only lead in conserving energy but also prove to others that conserving energy can save money. “The first folks out never save money,” Holler notes. “As we use green technologies, we want to share them with everyone.”

Evaluations are underway. “The system we’re most satisfied with now is the photovoltaic cells that collect energy from the sun,” she says. “The wind turbines appear to be working, but we’re not sure they’re as efficient as they could be.”

It took awhile to get the gray water system up and running, because building codes are not yet set up for it. The public health office shut the system down just as it was about to go online, and it took four months for Mercy’s engineers to obtain approvals.

“Some of the systems were designed for the first time,” Holler explains. “They are often very complex and not user friendly. We have had to develop training manuals so a janitor can use the systems to actually achieve the savings.”

She calls the Schiff Residences a “stigma smasher,” because it replaces drab public housing with an esthetic design that provides stable housing to the chronically homeless and integrates it with the surrounding community. The architect is Helmut Jahn.

While it has LEED’s silver certification, Holler insists, “that is not our goal. Our overriding aim is to demonstrate to the market that savings in energy can result in real cost savings, so these energy saving systems will be used and, ultimately, we will save the planet.” Mercy Housing has developed more than 19,100 affordable units nationwide, and an additional 8,153 are in some phase of development.

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