The Growing Pains of Going Green

It’s been called one of the greenest homes in the country. But the net-zero energy home, on Chicago’s Northwest side is also spotlighting growing pains in city zoning and the effect some green technology has on neighboring residents.

On a quiet, tree-lined street in the Edgebrook neighborhood rests the extreme green dream home of Jacek Helenowski and his wife Marta.

“The idea is to build a modern, clean, environmentally friendly project, in an urban environment on a small city lot that’s very comfortable, that hopefully more people will be doing soon,” says Helenowski.

Helenowski says it took more than 10 years to design and construct the home that uses a rooftop turbine as well as solar panels for power generation.

“They work in concert when it’s windy and sunny. And it helps make the house basically a net-zero energy house. So we produce what we use,” explains Helenowski.

Net-Zero Energy House

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The geo-thermal design heats and cools the home using an exchange system that utilizes the existing temperature deep within the earth.

Helenowski says it doesn’t take much to make the house comfortable, which gets to between 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit from the ground temperature heat exchanger system.

A pellet burner in the basement helps provide hot water for the house. Interestingly, the pellets used in the home were manufactured using sawdust from the home’s construction.

The house is also insulated with triple pane windows. Shades are electronically controlled to help manage the desired room temperature.

“I hope that people look at it as a positive project and something to look forward to in the future,” says Marta Helenowski. “So, there are maybe more homes which are built this way, and hopefully it will become more efficient price-wise and better for our planet.”

One of the most eye-catching features of the home is a basement spa, which draws additional heat from sunlight let in through skylights and actually retains and transfers it to warm the home.

The Helenowskis installed energy-efficient lighting throughout the home and used eco-friendly bamboo for their wood flooring.

The house was built around a portion of an existing home. And the new plan aimed to incorporate salvaged and recycled materials wherever possible.

“We have the recycled car tires on the roof. Most of the dimensional lumber of the house is reclaimed from the previous structure which was deconstructed, and also back in 1995 from a building downtown,” points out Jacek Helenowski. “We spent about a year and a half shaving, sanding, re-working that wood and that’s most of the lumber of this house. So it’s reclaimed instead of going into a landfill and causing an environmental impact.”

The net-zero home has gotten quite a lot of attention since it was finished this past winter.

“Well, the publicity has been a lot greater than I ever thought,” says Helenowski.

But not everyone in the neighborhood is as excited about the green house as the media seem to be.

The main issue some neighbors have is with the rotating wind turbine.

“When it’s sunny, it’s breezy and it spins. It creates strobe lights, reflections, shadows in my kitchen, my family room, both of my children’s bedrooms, my patio,” says Jean Mamola, who lives in the house directly next to the Helenowski home.

Mamola says she provided video of the strobe effect to Jacek Helenowski but he says it can’t be helped.

“Well, flashing, shadow depending on the sun angle, summer, winter, whatever time of day, of course the thing will shadow on somebody’s property occasionally, like it will on the street; just like a tree will shadow on a high wind, just like a flag on a flagpole in high wind will shadow,” says Helenowski.

It’s an issue these neighbors have taken directly to the city.

We obtained a letter written by the Department of Buildings Commissioner in December 2009. In it, Commissioner Richard Monocchio writes that “while the wind turbine, as installed, complies with the Zoning code the affect [sic] of the spinning turbine on the adjacent properties is unacceptable.”

“I think the city should find some way of remedying this,” says neighbor James Sachay. “Either by outlawing it all together and having him remove it from the roof, even if the permit allowed him to put it up.”

The Buildings Department sent us a statement regarding the dispute.

“The Department of Buildings encourages the use of green technologies, including wind turbines, but we also encourage building owners to minimize the impacts of these technologies on nearby buildings. This was the first instance in which a wind turbine caused a disturbance, and we have since changed our requirements…”

Those requirements now include that a light study be conducted to measure the effect of a proposed wind turbine on surrounding buildings. A new form was drafted to acknowledge that turbine owners would be required to remedy any potential disturbances that may be caused to their neighbors by the installation, including the possible removal of a turbine.

But the new policies do little for these residents who may be out of luck.

“That does not help us in our dilemma,” says neighbor Donna Gralak. “If we have to live with our drapes drawn, which still does not remedy it, but our lights on, how is that helping the environment from our perspective? It’s not.”

And so, even though it’s received worldwide attention and may in fact be the greenest home in the country, the final challenge to the architectural wonder may not be in its effect on the planet, but the effect on its neighbors.

Neighbors’ letter to Helenowski

Letter from Buildings Commissioner

We want to know what you think. Would you want to live next to the net-zero energy house’s wind turbine? Post your comments below or sound off on our discussion board.


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9 responses to “The Growing Pains of Going Green”

  1. Jolanta Kielar says:

    I would be happy to live next to this great house.


  2. Karen Klein says:

    I would. Wind turbine no problem!!!!!!

  3. Lilianna Bauers says:

    I would live next to.

  4. Maria Plachcinski says:

    Great house and I would live happy next to.Wind turbine would not be a problem.

  5. Magda says:

    Why do people are sooooo negative. This is a very nice house they should be proud of it. The neighbors house values are probably up by now they should be happy :-) also, they may get some great ideas form the Helenowski family!!!

  6. Eva says:

    All new ideas are received with skepticism, it’s human nature. So, let’s give new ideas a try and applaud individuals who have the guts to make their dreams come true.

  7. margaret lotito says:

    I would. The wind turbine located on top of the toll house can’t cost problems. Please use some imagination!

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  9. Jim says:

    When the cars came along, the horse and buggy folks were all upset. Times are a changing folks, and there ain’t no going back. Get used to the modern world guys.