CHAMPAIGN – There may not be room to plant a forest in downtown Champaign, but local developers found a place to add an island.
A green one, 44 feet off the ground.
Work on a "green roof" that will top a two-story building undergoing redevelopment at 112 E. Washington St. started Thursday, when five Hicksii yews and two large clumps of prairie grass were installed.
Green roofs – which are actually traditional roofs with plantings on top – benefit the environment by helping reduce pollution and summer heat effects in urban areas.
This one will be half-covered in plantings by the time the space below is ready for occupancy next summer, developer Michael Markstahler said.
The plants and trees will be scattered around the perimeter of the building so they will be noticed, and hopefully get passers-by to start thinking about what they can do at their own buildings to help the environment, Markstahler said.
He and his partner, Janice Juraska, bought the Washington Street building last spring and are converting it to 11 apartments upstairs and commercial space on the ground floor.
And the rooftop is only the tip of the green iceberg. Energy-efficient, environmentally friendly features are being used throughout the building, all the way down to the recycled fibers used to soundproof the floors, Markstahler said.
More of the green features include all high-efficiency appliances, duct systems free of fiberglass linings, paints and sealers free of carcinogens and volatile organic compounds, high-efficiency lighting and windows and soundproofing and insulation made from recycled cellulose and soybean-based foam.
The finished flooring will be bamboo and carpeting with recycled content. The water heaters will be the tankless, high-efficiency kind, and the bedrooms will feature skylights with solar-operated light shades.
An old hand at restoring vintage buildings, Markstahler said he has never tried this much green construction before, but there are many new and proven products that have become available in recent years.
"Before then, if you tried, you were really experimenting," he said.
What's more, he and Juraska felt they had no choice other than to build green given global warming concerns.
Green roofs help the environment because they help reduce the heat generated by buildings and pavement in urban areas. They also help clean the air, reduce noise, remove nitrogen pollution in rain and provide habitat for song birds. What's more, they can extend the life of roofs and reduce summer air conditioning and winter heat demands, according to the Penn State Center for Green Roof Research.
Green roofs are still most common in institutional and governmental buildings, but they're becoming more popular all the time in commercial projects, said Robert Berghage, a Penn State associate professor of horticulture.
"A lot more are putting them on," he said.
Chicago has been particularly green-roof friendly to both private- and public-sector projects. Two of the many green roofs that have sprouted there in recent years are on a Wal-Mart store and City Hall.
Locally, the new University of Illinois College of Business building under construction will have a partial green roof.
The Champaign Public Library board considered a green roof for part of the new building set to open soon, Director Marsha Grove said, but the concept was still untried in the local community at the time the project was designed.
"There were too many unknowns," she said.
The new library does, however, meet all the requirements for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for green building, Grove said, adding the library isn't seeking official certification because of the expense involved.
Markstahler said he and Juraska have applied for LEED certification for the Washington Street building. Going the green construction route is adding about $6,000 to the building cost of each apartment, he added, but that's not enough to kick the rent prices over what other similar-size units are renting for downtown.
The rents at this building, which he and Juraska are calling The Hickory, will range from $980 to $1,400 a month for apartments ranging from 748 square feet to about 1,400 square feet.
"We're basically setting them to be competitive with everything else in downtown Champaign," he said.
Markstahler said he also has long-term plans to develop two more green roof systems downtown: for his Uptown on Columbia condominiums and for Escobar's restaurant on East Columbia Avenue.