A rendering of the Energy Revolution climate exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Center. Credit: Chicago Architecture Center / Courtesy

Chicago exhibit explores technology’s role in carbon-free buildings

Buildings account for nearly 40% of global carbon emissions each year — 28% from building operations, and another 11% from building materials and construction. An upcoming exhibit in Chicago will examine the role that design and technology have played in reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment.

Energy Revolution, which runs from April 9 through Oct. 17 at the Chicago Architecture Center, includes multiple activities and lectures, summer camps for young people, and specialized walking tours. Interactive exhibits incorporated throughout the walk-through gallery illustrate tools and approaches created by architects and urban planners that are being tested and used around the world to achieve a carbon-free urban environment.

Doug Farr, founder and principal of Chicago-based architecture and design firm Farr Associates, and Eve Fineman, director of exhibitions for the Chicago Architecture Center, co-curated the exhibit. Along with CAC staff, they designed Energy Revolution to illustrate the necessity of replacing outdated building materials and methods with 21st-century technologies — along with replacing or retrofitting energy-intensive structures that comprise so much of the city’s building stock.

“Climate change is the most serious issue of our time, and we’re the last generation that can do something about it,” said Lynn Osmond, outgoing president and CEO of CAC, in a press release.

“Energy Revolution serves as a warning but also hopes to inspire individuals, places and communities to transform how we use energy in the built environment and innovate towards a sustainable future.”

As an internationally recognized institution devoted to architecture and the built environment, CAC was a natural fit for the exhibition. The second-floor Skyscraper Gallery proved to be an ideal setting, despite early questions about how to work around its built-to-scale models of notable supertall buildings located around the world. The solution was to incorporate some of the models as elements in multidimensional presentations related to their carbon footprints, Fineman said.

“So how do we use the elements in the Skyscraper Gallery to be part of this current exhibition and part of that conversation? Because that’s not really what they were [created] for initially,” Fineman said. “And the space is so stunning, it’s a backdrop against the river and the skyline just helps to situate it in its environment, as we’re talking about Chicago architecture. So, you’re looking at it, [and] you’re surrounded by it.” 

The exhibition also focuses on how actors at various levels, from city leaders to neighborhood organizations and individuals, can make a significant impact on reducing the adverse effects of climate change. 

“We’re going to have a pledge wall where people can write down what they are pledging to do as soon as they leave,” Fineman said. “And it could be something as small as ‘I’m going to turn my thermostat down a few degrees; I’m going to plant a tree or tear out my lawn or ride my bike more often than driving.’ But we’re hoping that this pledge wall will make people feel a little bit more accountable. It’s written down. We’re documenting it; we’ll be sharing it on social media. 

“And it’s sometimes just as simple as you saying it out loud or writing it down, that’ll be that last push to get people to start taking steps in the right direction.”