Exterior of El Centro building

Monday, September 26, 2016

Northeastern Illinois University’s El Centro building in the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago has been awarded LEED Gold certification. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), is the premier green building rating system program for buildings, homes and communities that are designed, constructed, maintained and operated for improved environmental and human health performance.

“As a university with a long-standing commitment to environmental stewardship, Northeastern Illinois University is proud that El Centro will represent the latest and most high-profile example of that commitment,” Northeastern President Sharon Hahs said. “Creating a green university is a community effort, and we celebrate this honor not just with our students, employees and communities we serve, but also the partners who helped us along the way.”

The building was designed by Juan Moreno’s Chicago-based architecture firm, JGMA.

“Sustainability represents a heightened environmental awareness in the building design,” Moreno said. “However, it is the project’s ability to inspire youths to attend an institution of higher education that creates an undeniable cultural sustainability.”

The building’s general contractor was The George Sollitt Construction Company. Broadway Electric Company, Wolf Mechanical Industries, F.E. Moran, Forefront Structural Engineers, Primera, Prism, USA Fire Protection and Site Design Group also contributed to the project.

“It’s very gratifying to be part of the transformation from the isolated industrial site to the enhancement of the community with El Centro being the nucleus of a sustainable built environment for generations to come,” said Henry Ryan, Sollitt Construction senior project manager.

El Centro achieved LEED Gold certification for implementing practical and measurable strategies and solutions aimed at achieving high performance in sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

LEED is the foremost program for the design, construction and operation of green buildings. More than 79,600 commercial and institutional projects are currently participating in LEED, comprising more than 185 million square feet of construction space in all 50 states and more than 161 countries and territories.

“Buildings are a prime example of how human systems integrate with natural systems,” said Rick Fedrizzi, CEO and founding chair, USGBC. “The El Centro project efficiently uses our natural resources and makes an immediate, positive impact on our planet, which will tremendously benefit future generations to come.”

Situated along the Kennedy Expressway, El Centro opened on Sept. 30, 2014, with a ribbon-cutting event attended by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, among other dignitaries.

With the capacity to serve 2,500 students, the $27 million facility has enabled Northeastern to significantly expand its academic and community programming.

Here are some of the strategies employed in the various aspects of design and construction broken down by the LEED categories:

Sustainable Sites

  • Heat Island Effect, Non Roof: The permeable paver parking lot reduces storm runoff by allowing rainwater to percolate through.
  • Public Transportation Access: The site is located near two “L” stations, three bus lines and bike-friendly streets—transit options that 60 percent of El Centro students use.
  • Brownfield Redevelopment: El Centro has helped transform the Avondale neighborhood in which it resides. Prior to construction, the site was a semi-abandoned warehouse location that was a frequent target for gang activity and illegal dumping. Northeastern worked for more than a year with the city of Chicago and Union Pacific to clean up the area surrounding the track bed, improving safety in the area by repairing broken fences and cutting down scrub bushes. These efforts, along with major sidewalk repairs and other improvements, have created a more pedestrian-friendly area in Avondale.

Energy and Atmosphere

  • Optimized Energy Performance: The integrated design process allowed the team to select synergistic systems that optimize energy performance and improve the thermal envelope. The LED lighting and occupancy sensors have tremendously reduced the interior lighting power density. Consequently, El Centro has achieved an energy cost savings of about 30 percent.
  • On-Site Renewable Energy: The 80-kilowatt array by ET Solar that covers the cantilevered roof reduces El Centro’s reliance on alternate sources of nonrenewable energy by harvesting and generating its own electrical power.

Indoor Environmental Quality

  • Optimal indoor environmental quality was obtained by implementing specific methods to prevent the spread of airborne dust and odors throughout the building, around its vicinity, and to those on the site. Preventing and controlling the spread of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) throughout the project was also imperative. Therefore, all of the potential VOC-emitting materials were carefully examined prior to use.
  • Environmental Tobacco Smoke Control: By state law, smoking is not permitted on any Northeastern property.
  • Daylight and Views: Natural daylight is harvested in virtually every space due to the building’s orientation and glass walls.
  • Thermal Comfort: Its sculptural form and strategically located fins create an efficient sun-shading and acoustical-buffering barrier, protecting students from the intensity of the setting western sun and the roar of rush-hour traffic.

Other Sustainable Features

  • Innovation in Design: The building’s design is inspired by the unique site geometry and creates a dialogue with expressway passengers who are the captive audience during their inbound and outbound commutes. The architecture asserts its presence, through twisting roof forms and the bold school colors prominent on the vertical louvers rhythmically arrayed along the building’s exterior. The energy-efficient glass, strategically located sun-shading fins, location of corridors, use of solar panels and daylight harvesting are all integrated to respond to each other and provide a completely integrated building design.
  • Recycled Content: A construction waste management plan for El Centro allowed the team to divert 91 percent of construction materials from being landfilled. The clean, heavy debris, for example, was reused for roads and land reclamation, the non-hazardous lumber was used for mulch, compost and feedstock and all types of metal remnants were recycled through local scrap metal processors. In addition, many of the building materials were designed locally, including the glazed curtain wall and laminated acoustical glass. To further reduce its ecological footprint, El Centro has designated approximately 252 square feet to handle daily recycling activities.
  • Rapidly-Renewable Bamboo Cork: The flooring encompasses sustainable bamboo cork, glass, granite and carpet tiles in addition to resinous flooring.
  • Water-Efficient Landscaping: The surrounding landscape requires very little maintenance and is self-irrigated in order to conserve water.
  • Electric Charging Station: There is an electric car-charging station in the parking lot paid for by the student-run Green Fee Committee.

El Centro offers degree programs in Social Work, Computer Science, Justice Studies and Special Education, plus an array of general education courses. El Centro also serves the surrounding community through programs such as English as a second language, health and financial seminars, and computer literacy courses. El Centro serves nontraditional, part-time and returning adult student populations as well as traditional first-year and transfer students.

The building has won a number of prestigious awards for its design and sustainability: