Wind Power's Allure For Architects, Engineers

April 1, 2008

Download Story

Right now, wind power is mostly generated out in the country. It makes sense—there's no room in cities for sprawling wind farms. But that's not stopping some Chicago thinkers and tinkerers from adapting wind-power machines for the urban landscape. As part of our series Chicago Matters: Growing Forward, Shawn Allee shows us who's developing wind-power in Chicago, and what obstacles they face.

My wind-power tour begins at a building architects are excited about, but to see the prize, so-to-speak, I've got to get to the roof. An architect's beside me, we both crane our necks up a narrow, twenty foot ladder.

ALLEE: Who's first?
PRATT: I'll go first.

This brave soul is Scott Pratt. Pratt's with Murphy/Jahn, an architectural firm that designed the building.

PRATT: We're on the roof of the building, overlooking the Cabrini Green development. And we're standing right next to the sixteen wind generators.

ALLEE: Here they go.
PRATT: The wind's picking up …
ALLEE: They're silent.
PRATT: That's the idea.

These wind turbines look nothing like ones on wind-farms. Those are like airplane propellers on sticks; these are cylinders of steel tubes placed horizontally.

You see, many architects want turbines with low profiles, but no one's fully tested their power output in real world-conditions. So, it's an experiment— for Pratt's firm and a local engineer.

PRATT: The subcontractor that built the wind turbines is a Chicago-based company named Aerotecture. It's founded by the turbine's inventer, Bil Becker.

ambi: RING, RING

BECKER: I'll just turn that off.

Bil Becker would like to be building wind turbines right now. Instead, Becker's moving into a new workshop, cleaning, and chasing repair guys.

BECKER: These just gnaw away at your creative juices, these constant, little wiggling things.

And so, he's got time to explain why he builds wind turbines on buildings.

BECKER: One of the problems with putting our power plants … is there's an efficiency loss the farther away power's produced and where it's sent. When you can reduce the distance, because it's right there at the roof of the building where it's going to be used, your losses in transmission are almost zero.

Bil Becker's gotten accolades for his work, but engineering prowess isn't always enough. Sometimes logistics and economics trip him up. Two years ago, Chicago asked Becker to put turbines on the Daley Center. That building's 650 feet tall. No turbine's been installed that high.

BECKER: Even though we had two or three studies that showed the wind machines would be safe and durable, and not have any problem—the insurance guys wouldn't buckle. They said you can do it, but you're gonna have to pay five figures for insurance every year.  And it's a skyscraper filled with a thousand lawyers. If one piece of equipment flies off that roof and lands down on the plaza and hurts somebody, we'd have a thousand attorneys calling us, saying, 'Where do we meet in court?'

Industry reps say other engineers have encountered problems with insurance, too.

Again, engineers and architects are looking for wind-power breakthroughs for homes and small commercial buildings, but some Chicagoans plan to have enormous skyscrapers harness wind power.

One professor's promised to show me designs, after we get some privacy.

ambi: DOOR SLAM, DOOR SLAM

ALLEE: You have a lot of students knocking on the door throughout the day?

LAND: I have a private library in here, and they come in all the time. My name is Peter Land. I'm lucky to do my interesting things at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the college of architecture.

ALLEE: Let's see some of these, as you say, great ideas, that you guys have come up with. 

LAND: Thanks for the compliment, so we'll look at a few of them. This is for an office or residential tower on three legs.

ALLEE: Like a camera tripod, instead of a camera on the top, it has a spinning wind turbine.

LAND: You've got it.
ALLEE: And the rentable space in here is in the legs of the tripod. That's where you would rent and sell the space.
LAND: That's right, that's correct.

And that design's the easiest to describe—I won't even try with the others. They all function the same, though, they all channel wind to turbines that generate power with as little pollution as possible.

LAND: We want to build a better world, a more healthy world. A world we have to build, because I tell my young students I will not live to see the end of the petroleum age, but my younger students, I tell them, they will see the beginning of the end of the petroleum age. And now's the time to pioneer new ideas and to experiment and plan for fifty years down the line.

Massive skyscrapers with wind turbines are attracting attention across the globe. One's nearly finished in the Middle East. Another's going up in China, but how does Chicago compare? To get a sense, I visit architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill. They helped design the Chinese building.

ALLEE: We're in this courtyard in the middle of downtown Chicago, we can see high-rises all around us. Adrian Smith, why don't we see the kind of wind turbine technology that Peter Land and others have been talking about here in Chicago?

SMITH: I think a lot of this has to do with pure economics. Chicago is driven by developers who are trying to produce buildings of the lowest cost structure to hit the lowest rents that compete with the existing stock of buildings here.

ALLEE: Mr. Gill, your thoughts?

GILL: I think it also has to do with mandates or policies that are set forth, in terms of the standards of the country. If you look at Germany and France, there are standards and expectations on energy usage, and there're mandates that require architects and developers to have certain buildings perform at certain levels.

ALLEE: Do either of you want to take a stab at the earliest moment we might be able to see one of these skyscrapers with wind turbines built into them in Chicago?

Smith and Gill say right now, they're investigating putting some on a famous building, and their eyes gravitate toward the Sears Tower.

ALLEE: We might as well just say, 'There it is.'

GILL: An icon like Sears is a fantastic example to take the next step in kind of representing itself as an energy generator. That would be a wonderful project for Chicago.

From the center of this courtyard, the edges of the buildings and the rooftops seem solid, unyielding. It takes imagination to see turbines rising from them or to see graceful shapes that can channel wind power, but that's the kind of imagination that built Chicago's skyline in the first place.

More on:
Economics of Wind Power