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COMFORT ZONE | Smart Designs for Pleasure and Planet

Energetic Art

"Two beehives share the roof with the wind turbines," Frances Whitehead says. "The 'machine for urban living' is now a complex network, an urban ecology."

Atop Jim Elniski and Frances Whitehead's Chicago home, a former warehouse, two graceful wind turbines spin, feeding two kilowatts of electricity into the power grid. The devices are part of a grand art project whose aim is to collect a "complete set" of alternative-energy technologies.

Both working artists and faculty members at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Elniski and Whitehead purchased and renovated the abandoned warehouse to demonstrate how smart reuse can breathe new life into old buildings. They carved out the structure's center to create an open courtyard, enabling light to penetrate a space bordered on either side by other buildings. Upstairs, a walkway overlooks the courtyard and connects a guest room, a greenhouse, and an art studio.

"Be passionate, but watch things like thermal barriers," Whitehead advises. "Your vision can be realized only if you also pay attention to the details."

When it came to powering the home, Whitehead says, her desire for solar panels verged on self-indulgence. "Some people want a fur coat," she says. "For me, it's solar panels."

As the couple debated whether their solar panels should be photovoltaic or thermal, Whitehead had a lightbulb moment. "We opted for one of each," she says. "And as soon as we said 'one of each,' we thought, 'What is the full range of things you could do?' That's the moment when this became a demonstration home. That's when the house became an art project."

Atop the building, a "green roof" surrounds sleek photovoltaic panels. The vertical wind turbines inspire passersby to stop and inquire about the home's "sculptures." Radiant heat powered by geothermal pipes warms the thick concrete floors. Solar-thermal technology supplies hot water. Two cisterns collect rainwater for the plants. And the locally sourced materials, Energy Star appliances, and recycled-content insulation round out the green amenities.

Elniski and Whitehead didn't simply build a home; they completed their "collection" of sustainable technologies. "If you collected Harlequin dinnerware, you would want the whole set—cups, saucers, plates," Whitehead says. "This concept of the collection is something we've played with in our art practice."

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