2) The Chicago Architecture Foundation: How Design Starts Sustainability.

Started by preservationists in 1966 and known until the end of the 20th Century for its docents proudly -- even lovingly -- giving tours of Chicago’s architectural gems, CAF today has set an added course as innovators in educating the public to interact with the 21st Century’s built environment.

In its new emphasis, CAF’s skills in explaining architecture’s visual appeal now also suggest how buildings -- and their supporting infrastructure-- contribute to our economic and social goals.

The old maxim that “you can’t tell a book by its cover” now applies to buildings as well.

Adding to its core curriculum of describing architectural styles, CAF played a key role in popularizing how each building’s energy efficiency was important in reducing carbon emissions. CAF’s success indicates the leverage of its impact.

CAF started its role as synthesizer around 2003 when designers were producing successful experiments on energy efficiency. The idea quickly was picked-up by entrepreneurs and could spread quickly because its economic benefits were so obvious and the payout so fast because of rising energy costs. Because it serves as a nexus between architects and the public, CAF could sort through the vast body of knowledge for conserving energy and, then, synthesize a few programs that fed developers’ and the public’s motivation; which includes saving money.

Today, private sector efficiency standards have spread widely and government agencies are bringing the change to those weaker markets so they benefit. This transformation from an idea to a standard practice has taken less than a decade, an unprecedented short period of time in the usually cautious building industry.


img This schematic from the Introduction to the “Guide” reinforces how an idea (in this case energy efficiency) gains acceptance by the early adopters (in this case, design professionals) and then spreads its competitive advantage (developers and building operators) to become mainstream. In this instance and in future instances to be described, CAF proved this classic theory of how innovations are adopted.


Boosting its transition to describe design’s economic goals, CAF started giving awards to developers who invested in good design. “The Patron Of The Year” awards help shape a more comprehensive practice of using good design to enhance a building’s value and improve the productivity of its occupants; while adding to its surroundings by being a good neighbor. Announced at a business luncheon, these annual awards also add to CAF’s quiet role in shaping a new cooperative balance between private developers and the public interest. This balance is necessary for quickly solving the new Century’s challenges of updating the built environment.

To follow-up these successes in highlighting economic and social goals, CAF recently started the transition to sustainable design; looking at the range of elements from the minutia of crosswalks to a community’s streetscapes to our region’s transportation infrastructure. Led mostly by some ground-breaking exhibits and accompanying seminars, CAF has expanded its descriptions of the urban environment to suggest how the 21st Century also will change the design of suburbs.

In mid-2007, CAF developed a pivotal exhibition with the American Society of Civil Engineers called “Me, Myself and Infrastructure: Private Lives and Public Works” that helped popularize all that stuff that supports the usefulness of buildings. Good infrastructure efficiently moves us, our goods and, even, our waste. The exhibit comprehensively personalized the public’s perception of the infrastructure that our taxes buy. This exhibit was an early CAF probe into expanding the definition of the built environment and highlighting the public’s investment.


The left photo explains crosswalks and jay-walking and then, in the right photo, asks about pedestrian safety. Given that our auto-dominated society remains an unsustainable cost and that public safety is the chief rationale for government, these two photos help the exhibit pose the two fundamental questions of our era.


img Broadening the personalized act of walking across the street and multiplying its impact in suburbs dominated by the automobile, the exhibit gives us an aerial photo of Naperville (Chicago’s largest suburb.) Broadening the subject still further, the exhibit’s next subtly begs the question of how local sprawl gets built by asking the question of “Who Is Responsible?”



CAF gets to the exhibit’s bottom line and asks how long the infrastructure will last. These questions were posed right as Chicagoland’s second biggest building boom ended. Today faced with the real estate doldrums-of-a-lifetime and recurring fiscal crises and deepened by our tendency to sprawl, our leaders need to start answering these questions if we are to get to a bright future. Design, at least, is getting to the bottom-line.


In the above and subsequent exhibitions and programs, CAF collaboratively lent its expertise in design education to various programs and policy initiatives ranging from livability issues such as placemaking to cutting- edge sustainable infrastructure. Importantly, CAF has been able to sensitize real estate developers and policymakers to the nuances of how design can be green and cost-effective; succeeding first in buildings and, as a future goal suggested by the above 2007 exhibit, how design improves infrastructure, communities and even households.

A related example of CAF collaboration would be with MPC on the contest “What Makes Your Place Great? Your Secret Corner of Chicagoland”. For a second time, contestants (both laypeople and design professionals) sent photos and descriptions of their favorite places. Winners are selected by popular vote. Everyone participates in active learning, the most effective way to change how spaces get built and rebuilt and how to update the values that sustain places.

In autumn 2009, CAF also co-sponsored with MPC a three-part seminar on “Reinvesting In Infrastructure.” It was one more connection in the long process of reshaping the metropolis.

Also changing is CAF’s most traditional education methods: its tours and 450+ volunteer docents who show so much love for their city. One of the best examples of expanding CAF’s repertory of 100+ tours is its new tour called Elevated Architecture. The tour starts by showing how one late 19th Century transit entrepreneur united four elevated lines by building the elevated Loop. This radically improved the efficiencies of moving people into and through the Central Business District. The relative ease of transferring to different lines increased transit ridership by over 50% as the Loop became completed. This 19th Century lesson is not be lost on us in the 21st Century as we listen to transit agencies talking about the benefits of interconnectedness via the proposed Circle Line, but having yet to put a shovel in the ground.

It’s time to feel good again. Whether you are a skeptic who thinks that updating the disparate, desperate and disconnected elements of the built environment is an overwhelming task in light of the gross mismanagement of the public’s finances… Or whether you just think all this infrastructure needs some good glue….. Or whether your state-of-mind is somewhere in-between these two extremes….

Wherever your head is at… the CAF’s “Chicago Model City” will make you feel good again about today. This exhibit weaves together planning, transportation, housing and just about everything else the metropolis needs. Most visitors are totally impressed by the exhibit. And in learning more about our past accomplishments after stumbles and bumbles, feel better about our future chances of success.


img This was Opening Night of the “Model City” blockbuster in CAF’s offices. The sizzle for the crowd was Chicago’s downtown, long awaited and worth the wait to some 71,000 visitors during its first six months. Annualized, these numbers nearly equal CAF’s perennial breadwinner: the river boat tours.


Yet the exhibit’s unspoken importance is seeing the model of downtown buildings accompanied by photos and explanations of the supporting infrastructure along with the plans that made both possible. But if the model of the downtown’s buildings was the exhibit’s visual sizzle, then the steak and substance are the eight mini-tower exhibits describing the infrastructure that supports Chicagoland. Put together this way, it is a neat package for the public to see how the supporting infrastructure must also be updated so the sizzle stays that way.


img Five themes of the mini-towers are described in this photo and are developed among the eight mini-towers which serve as complementary sub-exhibits.


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These photos suggest the content for three sub-exhibits: the “Elevated”; the role of Freight; and the future theme of “The Green City.” The sub-exhibits follow this educational 3-step process of: posing specific questions of the original plan; then, explaining how the infrastructure got carried out; and, then, suggesting our lessons for a sustainable future.


From Models To Manuals To Money. In addition to exhibits, CAF’s work ranges from contemporary issues seminars for adults to manuals for elementary and secondary schools. In all these ways, CAF engineers the adaptive reuse of its network by taking the innovations of professional design organizations and synthesizing a public understanding of how the public-private mix shapes the built environment: from design practice to planning to constructing to renovation.

CAF’s exhibits, programs and collaborations reinforce how good design is essential if the region – and not just Chicago – is to prosper in the sustainable economy. As such, intelligent design is a great investment yielding the long-term benefits of lower operating costs and efficient movement within buildings, on the street and, most important, between communities.

At its core, CAF’s programs have evolved by showing how good design gives the public visual cues and uses them, hopefully, for more productive daily movements that, many think, will be a strategic ingredient of the emerging economy’s regimen for sustainability.

Who Wins And Why? Intelligent design will best favor those municipalities that embrace it now for their redevelopment. Municipal benefits accrued will be: developers who return for future projects; and households who have alternatives to the automobile and, thus, are more efficient and, hopefully, save for the future.

In turn, these savings can be used, at least partially, to invest in more cost-effective public services so that, at least in the mid-term, municipal budgets can be balanced.

As a strategy to find our way out of these tight economic times (that many think to be on-going), good design increasingly is recognized as one of the best strategic ways to reduce costs. As such, designing for long-term value yields much to an economy struggling for global competitiveness.

Acknowledging how good design of the past can be updated for the future’s sustainable design, CAF’s work also suggests how balancing public guidance and private investments can reduce public and private costs together. Or at least, that is this author’s generalized take-away from observing CAF up-close for a decade.

Expanding the public’s mind to include infrastructure is entering the mainstream quickly. Synthesizing this new order for the public mind will help our region’s 250+ municipalities -- who control our built environment -- to transcend their individual worlds and know that their local role in shaping the region is the key to everyone’s growth. While CAF is unlikely to advocate legal and political issues such as land use, CAF is changing how the public thinks about their built environment.

What happens when good design comes to your neighborhood? As yet one more example of CAF's collaboration in changing our built environment, a new permanent exhibition opened in CAF's lecture room (the photo on the left shows about half the exhibition.) This exhibition elevates sustainable design beyond the energy efficiency standard for buildings, called LEED. This is the first public exhibition dedicated to LEED-ND and adds Neighborhood Development as a new standard for green community certification. Entitled "Neighborhoods Go Green: Scaling Up Sustainability", the exhibition describes the major elements of efficient neighborhoods (summarized by the photo on the right) and gives examples in Chicagoland and elsewhere. The exhibition also introduces "The Chicago Challenge" which urges each of the 250+ communities in Chicagoland to have at least one LEED-ND certified neighborhood within the next 5 years. (This "Challenge" will be detailed in Step 1, "Ideas & Entrepreneurs.")


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Transforming CAF over the past 12 years has been Lynn Osmond, its President. She represents the design skills of our composite Sustainable Susan who, on a macro-level, will help Chicagoland compete better while, on a very practical micro-level, will help households save money.

If you don’t have time to visit the Chicago Model City -- but want to see the synthesis of the key elements of how Chicago made its plans and what we got and how the City is leading the metropolis into the next century -- then click on the Model City’s web page at http://tours.architecture.org/cmc/.

For information on CAF’s other programs and tours, click on logo

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