Inside Chicago's Building Decarbonization Policy Working Group

October 15, 2022 by Rachel Dortin and Jeannette LeZaks

In June 2021 Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot activated the Chicago Building Decarbonization Policy Working Group (CBDPWG) to develop recommendations for an equity-centered strategy to reduce carbon emissions from the city's buildings sector.

Released in October 2022, the CBDPWG's recommendation report includes 26 recommendations to achieve four main goals:

  1. Leverage known pathways to achieve net carbon neutrality in all new buildings
  2. Help building owners navigate pathways to improve building energy use and performance
  3. Build, develop and support the social, financial, and technical resources that result in a self-sustaining clean energy economy
  4. Fund and prioritize equitable community engagement that cultivates resilient partnerships and advances hyperlocal benefits

Jeannette LeZaks, Slipstream Director of Research + Innovation, served on the CBDPWG with Saranya Gunasingh, an architect who worked as a Senior Energy Engineer for Slipstream during her tenure on the working group. Both are here to give us the inside scoop on the City of Chicago's plan to decarbonize its building stock.

Let's start with an easy question. What can you tell us about the CBDPWG and its main goals?

Jeannette LeZaks: More than 50 representatives from community groups, different subject matter experts, and people in the built environment met biweekly to hash out the building carbon reduction strategies we would recommend for new construction, existing buildings, technical resources, and financing.

We developed eleven "big ideas" that Elevate and the City of Chicago used to develop a draft report. The CBDPWG went through several rounds of feedback before the final version was released. Now we depend on the City to turn our recommendations into action.

Saranya Gunasingh: Chicago's building stock is responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The CBDPWG brought together experts who know about cold climates and urban environments to help Chicago lower that percentage.

Obviously the city can't implement these all at once. Which recommendations do you think they'll tackle first?

JL: One recommendation suggests policy for developing low-energy, high-performance new construction. We can easily do this because of the statewide stretch codes that will soon be available based on the recently passed Illinois Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) legislation. Chicago can adapt these codes to meet that goal of carbon neutral new buildings.

SG: One of the biggest challenges we face is that the existing workforce lacks the skillset to do the work. Building owners need to purchase and install high performance equipment, so we need skilled technicians to install, manage and optimize building systems.

Several recommendations focus on workforce development and training to upskill contractors. It's important to start here so we can achieve the other recommendations.

Two things come up that I want to dig into here: building codes and community involvement.

Let's start with community. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and one of the most segregated cities in America. How has that factored into the working group's planning?

JL: Elevate led community conversations and focus groups to make sure every part of the city was involved before the CBDPWG was organized. We kept equity at the front and center of our conversations.

We recommend that the City develop a decarbonization hub with decentralized nodes where people can access resources to do this work. The nodes will help community groups use networks that already exist to give everyone access to solutions and help historically marginalized communities become more resilient and provide support for workforce, career, and small business development.

We often deliver resources to the hub of the wheel, but the neighborhoods on the spokes on the frontlines of the climate fight. Will there be any collaboration with community members about how they'll use the resources?

SG: CBDPWG kept our recommendations in line with CEJA's focus to accelerate equity focused funding, jobs, and benefits across the state. We advocate for an "Equity First" implementation plan which means that the City should prioritize giving access to workforce development trainings and opportunities and financial assistance for high performance buildings to communities that are often underserved.

JL: The CBDPWG also urges the City to partner with existing workforce development organizations, labor unions, trade programs, city colleges, and community organizations to develop a cohesive approach.

I'm glad to hear how thoughtfully the CBDPWG approached community engagement. Now let's shift gears to talk about how building codes fit into the recommendations. Does the working group suggest a strategy to help Chicago address their existing building stock?

JL: This is where a building performance standard (BPS) recommendation comes in. Chicago asks every building over 50,000 square feet to disclose their energy use annually. This benchmarking policy means Chicago has a robust data set of all building energy use over time. If adopted, the BPS policy will require a portion of Chicago's highest energy users reduce usage by a target amount over several years.

Design teams and contractors consistently miss the compliance mark with some code elements, like controls. Utility financing, training, and technical assistance can improve compliance. In Illinois, each municipality must adopt statewide codes.

CEJA presents an opportunity to adopt a more efficient stretch code for new construction. Utilities can turn policy into action through research, market analysis, cost analysis, and information about technologies.

SG: As an example, New York City has a great BPS. 5% of the building stock accounts for 60% of all building energy use. NYC set carbon intensity limits for 20% of the worst performing buildings from 2024–2029. Then for 75% of the worst performing buildings from 2030–2034. NYC shows how to address the worst performing existing building stock and create a continuous cycle of improvement.

The Retrofit Chicago challenge is another great option to help accelerate decarbonization. Once a building enrolls in the optional program, they pledge to reduce energy use by 20% over five years. Buildings reduce energy use by 22% and see an average energy cost savings of $254,000 annually.

A BPS and more programs like this one can help Chicago advance decarbonization efforts in existing buildings.

Any last thoughts to share before we wrap up?

JL: I'm honored to be a part of the CBDPWG. I learned a lot from what other people are doing in the city. There's a lot of enthusiasm to make this work. It's ambitious, but we made sure it's realistic.

With any document like this the challenge is moving forward. But we're committed to action.

SG: One of the most difficult tasks was to find a balance that would meet needs at all levels, from local community members to policymakers. I'm proud to say our team found as much as a middle ground as was possible.

As one of the largest midwestern cities, we should set the example for other cities. Compared to the East and West Coasts, we're still behind.

The CBDWC makes solid recommendations to accelerate its implementation. Now we need the muscle to turn the recommendations into action.

To learn more about Slipstream's involvement in the planning process, contact Jeannette LeZaks.