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Suzanne Malec-McKenna is Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Environment. In this interview, Commissioner Malec-McKenna discusses the successes, benefits and impact of Chicago’s green development and building initiatives.

Please provide a brief description of your professional background and of your position as Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Environment.

I hold a bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture and a master’s degree in managerial communications. I am also a Ph.D. candidate for communications at Northwestern University. I served as Assistant and Deputy Commissioner prior to my current position as Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Environment.

How has Chicago’s Green Building initiative impacted commercial and residential construction operations in the city thus far? How has the Chicago community responded to the initiative?

Very much so. The mayor and city look at new technologies and opportunities and research them before building and testing pilots, evaluating them and working on a larger scale. Our first project, the Chicago Center for Green Technology (Chicago Green Tech), has been a great success. Our municipal building rehab project was the first in the nation, and although it took two years to get the necessary permits for the project because the city had never built that way before, we now have a green permit process in place. We help assign teams, and developers can receive permits in about six weeks. This initiative offers many incentives and has improved operations considerably. For green building, we require a minimum of LEED Silver certification for public and publicly funded buildings.

What types of businesses are pursuing green development in Chicago—established industries, newer cutting-edge firms or a mixture of both?

Many types of businesses are aggressively pursuing green development in Chicago. These include museums, restaurants and hotels. Real estate management companies are jumping on board as well, which is wonderful because it recognizes the importance of environmental conservation. It also makes good economic sense to carry out green development, as it can improve staff productivity and is an excellent investment upfront.

Stakeholders in the green building process include homeowners, designers, developers/owners and facility managers. How does Chicago’s Green Building initiative work to meet the needs of each group?

We have relationships with each of these different groups, and we are doing our best to facilitate conversations and opportunities for them to achieve green development. This could be as simple as awareness building, training, partnering and incentivizing. We can engage these different players in many ways to encourage them to build, maintain or operate green.

Green building best practices take the following into account:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Water conservation and water quality
  • Resource conservation
  • Indoor air quality
  • Site design

Does the Chicago area’s landscape or climate present any challenges or limitations when addressing the above items during a green building project?

Chicago’s extreme heat and cold can present energy efficiency challenges. Energy efficiency for heat is a target for us—it can be increased by 30% with nominal investment.

Water conservation is linked to energy usage because of the amount of energy needed to pump and treat water. We must remember that Lake Michigan is not an infinite resource. The recent water crises in several eastern and southwestern states show that we cannot take water for granted and underscore the importance of protecting our resources.

We have developed a waste-to-profit network because one business’s waste could be another one’s resource. One hundred companies that had 16 byproduct synergy projects helped reduce landfill waste by 22,000 tons, which in turn contributed $4.5 million to resource conservation.

Energy efficiency and indoor air quality are connected. If rooms are sealed to save energy, no fresh air can circulate. Our department has the right “technical heads” working on how to resolve such issues.

Best management practices as well as soil types (clay versus sand) must be addressed in site design.

Does green building create any occupational risks or hazards that are different from those found in traditional construction and demolition operations? What measures does the City of Chicago take to protect workers involved in Green Building initiative projects? How are safety standards, practices, procedures and training enforced?

No, it is healthier. For example, traditional paint contains volatile organic and inorganic compounds. Green development equals healthier development across the board.

Do different rules exist for green development with respect to new building projects versus retrofits?

No different rules exist, but new construction and rehab include many of the same principles and can apply no matter if you are starting from scratch.

How much personnel and expertise are needed to support the Green Building initiative?

A lot more than we have. Our partnership with businesses and residences is imperative. The Chicago Chamber of Commerce, Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) and residential associations all combine and learn from each other and drive forward an aggressive agenda to make developments green.

What efforts does Chicago’s Green Building initiative make to encourage and support owner buy-in? Has the initiative encountered any resistance in this area? Please explain.

I think incentives and ease of implementation are factors in encouraging and supporting owner buy-in. Green permits and homes achieve a certain level of environmental sustenance or consistency. You can gain benefits from the city in cost and time savings. We are working to demonstrate the economic viability of building green. Many think it costs more money, but in our perspective, it does not cost more, and it can save money in building operations.

In what ways does Chicago’s Green Building initiative balance best practices with code restrictions? For example, ventilation in mechanical systems is based on maximum occupancy rather than on actual occupancy, and no adjustments are allowed. Is it still possible to conserve energy and resources when working with these types of restrictions?

To achieve goals within code restrictions, we monitor codes and regulations to ensure that no conflicts exist, and we carry out model projects. Conflicts between code and best management practices have dramatically reduced. I would say that our departments’ green building capacity has increased, which has allowed us to make projects happen and to create a market for this type of construction process.

On average, what kind of financial return can a green building in Chicago expect?

Many variables are tied to financial return—it depends on what kind of project you undertake. It is also tied to building operations. We have seen anywhere from two- to 20-year paybacks with substantial savings afterward.

The Chicago Center for Green Technology is the first municipal building in the U.S. to receive a LEED Platinum rating, the highest rating for green design awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council. How did the Center qualify for this rating and have any other municipal buildings in Chicago followed suit?

We have a triple-platinum scenario with two rehabs and one brand new project as well as the Center for Neighborhood Technology and Christy Webber Landscaping’s new headquarters.

A new platinum project has been completed in the Chicago Center for Green Technology. What was green five years ago can be challenged with new technology and new opportunities. We will continue to implement new technology into the Center and to discuss successes and failures.

Steps other municipal buildings are taking include recycling, reducing waste, using non-volatile organic compound-emitting caulks, glues and paints. We also now require any publicly funded building to meet a minimum of LEED Silver certification.

How can safety, health and environmental (SH&E) professionals in the Chicago area take part in the Green Building initiative?

The easiest way is to attend any of the Chicago Center for Green Technology’s 400 free public programs offered each year. Many of these programs address SH&E practices, and SH&E professionals can better see the connection between their work and green building’s goals and mission.

What are the Chicago Green Building initiative’s goals for 2008?

Overall, we will continue to expand offerings, potential incentives, education awareness and access to green building resources. We are on a steady path to build green and to engage others, and we will leverage support and other opportunities to get more buildings and residences to build green.

Does the City of Chicago have any suggested case studies or lessons learned for other cities that wish to start a green building initiative?

Good examples from which to learn include the Chicago Center for Green Technology, Chicago public buildings built in the last six years, Green Homes for Chicago and the Green Bungalows initiative. I believe the Chicago Center for Green Technology makes an excellent case study because we are always updating what we know. It is a great place to learn from the ground up how to go green.


Suzanne Malec-McKenna has served as Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Environment (DOE) since September 2007. As Commissioner, Malec-McKenna is responsible for achieving DOE’s mission of protecting human health and the environment, improving the urban quality of life and promoting economic development in Chicago. This mission is achieved through work that specifically addresses energy management and air quality, permitting and enforcement, natural resources and water quality, urban management and Brownfields redevelopment and government relations and policy.

Prior to becoming Commissioner, Malec-McKenna was the Deputy Commissioner of Natural Resources and Water Quality for the department. Over the past 14 years, she was responsible for the Greencorps Chicago program, a job-training and community landscaping program and Mayor Daley’s Landscape Awards program. She managed operations and programming for the Chicago Center for Green Technology, the first platinum LEED building rehabilitation in the nation. She oversaw efforts to rehabilitate the ecological parcels of the Calumet region, including coordination of the Calumet Government Working Group, communications for the Calumet Stewardship Initiative and the development of the Ecotoxicology Protocol, Hydrologic Master Plan and the Ecological Management Strategy, as well as fundraising for and construction of the Ford Calumet Environmental Center.

Malec-McKenna was also responsible for the Water Quality Unit, which is working to engage Chicago residents, community organizations, businesses, government agencies and industry in carrying out best management practices that conserve water, manage stormwater and manage or eliminate pollution. She has also been involved in many natural resources policy and programming initiatives, including Chicago Wilderness, habitat preservation and enhancement and nature/urban interface issues such as bird strikes on buildings during migration.

During her last year as Deputy Commissioner, she also assumed responsibility for the Department of Environment’s communications and fundraising strategies.

Malec-McKenna holds a bachelor of science degree in ornamental horticulture from the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) and a master of science degree in managerial communication from Northwestern University. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in communication studies at Northwestern University.