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Iconic buildings get green overhauls

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Steve Chiotakis: We’ve known it for 3.5 decades as the Sears Tower. But today, it has a new name: Willis Tower, after a British insurance company that’s leased a bunch of space inside. There’s another perhaps more significant change on the way: a big, $350 million green makeover. From Chicago Public Radio, Adriene Hill reports.

Adriene Hill: Chicago’s Sears, soon to be Willis Tower, is an icon on the Chicago skyline. And its owners also want to make it a symbol of environmental sustainability.

John Huston is one of the building’s co-owners. He takes me out onto the roof of the 90th floor.

John Huston: We’re looking at Lake Michigan to the east here and right in front of us is the beginning of a green roof.

Red, white, and green plants fill out a test-planter box. The plan is to cover the entire area with similar plants to help cool the building in summer. But the roof isn’t where the big energy savings will come from. That’ll be from changing out the buildings mechanical systems, and replacing its exterior, including each of the 16,000 windows.

Huston: It’s interesting what happens when you walk into a window vendor, when you say we’re interesting in ordering 16,000 windows you get a different level of attention.

Huston and his partners are hoping to pay for the makeover with public and private money. They declined to discuss amounts.

The Sears Tower isn’t the only skyline marvel set to get an environmental re-do. The Empire State building in New York City has announced a more modest $20 million overhaul. They’re the sort of projects that can make environmentalists feel all fuzzy inside.

Scott Hurst: The potential that they represent as icons is really the potential of our country to rebuild itself in this green way.

That’s Scott Horst from the U.S. Green Building Council. He says greening iconic buildings like Sears Tower and the Empire State Building could inspire other building owners to do the same.

But these projects aren’t just about doing good, they also make business sense, according to Melissa Pionek with commercial real estate company CB Richard Ellis:

Melissa Pionek: With the way the economy has been in the last couple of years and recently, buildings are really looking for a way to stand out in the world of leasing from their neighbor.

Pionek says environmentally efficient buildings often have lower operating costs for tenants — which is a lot easier on the bottom line.

In Chicago, I’m Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

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