Walk the Green Talk

Nov. 18, 2013
Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino shares airports can launch a successful green journey

Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino walks the green talk. From goats and llama lawn maintenance to green roofs, apiaries and environmentally friendly concessions and earth moving, the CDA, under her guidance, stays on sustainability’s bleeding edge.

Andolino admits she’s always looking for new ways to be green, both at work and at home. She recycles her grocery bags, uses energy efficient lighting, turns the water off while brushing her teeth, and washes her clothes at night—in cold water no less. “Being part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s overall sustainability vision is something I take very seriously both at work and at home,” she says.

Airport Business recently talked sustainability with this innovative leader of two airports—Chicago O’Hare International Airport and Chicago Midway International Airport—both of which have led the way to greater airport sustainability both nationally and abroad.

For many people, the word sustainability calls to mind bricks and mortar and green construction, but when you look at what the CDA is doing, it’s clear it’s far more than that. Can you talk about what sustainability means to airports?

Most people think sustainability is only about green buildings and vertical construction. But how do you build a massive earthwork project in a sustainable manner? Runways are just thicker roads; they are a 3-foot cross-section of earth, asphalt and concrete. When we build roads we should think sustainability too; the use of warm mix asphalt, recycling aggregate, and minimizing the amount of dirt we haul offsite. If you think about all of the greenfield sites created to support new housing developments, commercial centers, industrial parks or office buildings, all of those projects had to have roads, storm water management systems, and water mains. But as everyone looked to build these structures in a sustainable manner, few were looking for those horizontal movements to be sustainable. That is starting to change.

So what should an airport’s sustainability goals really be?

Minimizing the impacts to your community and on the built environment. For me sustainability is like safety. It should be inherent. You wouldn’t say, ‘Oh you’re building a runway, will it be safe? It’s expected that you’re building that runway in the safest manner possible and that it’s going to meet all safety requirements. It should be the same with sustainability. Here, those two things go hand and hand in whatever we do. Safety is first and foremost, and sustainability is right up there with it.

Going above and beyond, that’s where I believe sustainability tries to push us. It pushes us to be good neighbors and to employ the best practices and technologies that give us the best return on investment (ROI). But ROI can be evaluated in many ways. Is it the financial benefits? Is it the community buy-in and support? Is it the marketing and the goodwill and the accolades you get for going above and beyond? One of our initiatives truly reflects this concept. For our apiary we worked with an organization called Sweet Beginnings, with the North Lawndale Employment Network. This organization trains ex-offenders to cultivate and harvest honey. We brought 50 beehives out to undisturbed areas around the airport. Sweet Beginnings members harvest the honey and produce products from it. Our concessionaires and retailers use the honey and sell the products. This project hits the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. It helps the bees, which are in jeopardy; it helps a disadvantaged population of workers; and it produces a product for profit.

How did you build a team that puts sustainability up there with safety?

When we started this, there was a lot of doubt. Today, it has become everyone's goal and something they get excited about. I think it’s because we celebrated our accomplishments, whether it was recognizing the designers, the contractors or the construction managers and engineers. We continued to build buy-in and to recognize them for going above and beyond. We issued certificates based upon the point system we put in place. We recognized people for doing this and we talked up the benefits of every project. Over time, it became something that not only came from the top down but percolated from the bottom up. We’ve gotten better and smarter because of that.

Every time we complete a project, we sit down and do a lessons learned amongst ourselves. What types of things do we have to change? What worked? What didn’t work? By evaluating ourselves in this way, we continually raise the bar. It’s important to continually challenge ourselves to be the best neighbors we can be and build a project of national significance in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

Sustainability’s naysayers claim going green costs more. How do you respond to those comments?

Green doesn’t have to cost more. It actually can save you money. With the earthwork management programs we put in place, we have saved close to $120 million, because we didn’t haul dirt offsite; we didn’t dump into a landfill, and by keeping things onsite we minimized trips on local roadways, wear and tear on those roadways, and community impacts.

There are some cases where there’s a delta between the cost today and savings later on. A white reflective roof, for example, might cost more today than a green roof. However, as the owner of the airport and a landlord, we have a commitment in terms of longevity, and a green roof has a greater life cycle. If we can put on a green roof and extend the life expectancy of that roof by 20 years, you’ve made a 20-year-roof, a 40-year roof. And, you’ve mitigated storm water management, reduced the heat island effect, and the tenants benefit from lower heating and cooling bills as well.

How do you gain support on a sustainable project that might cost more initially?

You have to sit down with your partners and showcase the benefits. People are becoming more acclimated with sustainability. They get the benefits now. It’s an easier sell or explanation than it was 10 years ago. The benefits for customers and to the bottom line are clearly there. With certain things it may not exactly make sense, but you need to evaluate everything carefully, and remember that what works in Denver may not work in Chicago, and what works in Florida may not work in Denver. You have to figure out what works for your area, your climate, your environment.

When renovating or building a new facility, what sustainable features should be included?

Make sure you have energy efficient lighting, heating and cooling systems where your passengers are. Most airports have very high roofs and you want to make sure you’re not heating and cooling air that doesn’t need to be. You also want to be sure you’re reusing, repurposing or getting your products from within 500 miles so that you’re not hauling product in from all over the world. Sustainability involves trying to think differently, thinking outside the box, and including greenery and other things that help the customer.

What’s CDA’s next sustainability step?

We just put into place a green concessions policy. But to be smart about it, we didn’t tell our concessionaires that starting tomorrow they had to throw out their old products and begin using green ones. We told them they needed to phase out all products made with petroleum or Styrofoam, and bring in environmentally friendly containers, bags and utensils, by year’s end. The last thing we want them to do is throw a bunch of products into the landfill, so we gave them a long lead time. We asked them to work on sustainability sourcing or local sourcing as well. We also asked for a program that donates surplus food to charity so we don’t have waste.

We recently were awarded a $288 million TIFIA loan as part of the Map-21 initiative out of the DOT. This money will be used to build an intermodal car rental facility as well as public parking and concessions. The project will have a green roof. There will be cisterns to collect rain water so the water can be used to wash vehicles. The airport train system will move people back and forth. The bus shuttles will drop off at this facility too. By getting these modes of transportation together in one facility, and off the main terminal roadway, we are going to eliminate 1.3 million vehicle trips annually. This project will break ground next year, and is expected to achieve the highest rating system in our sustainable airport manual.


Concessionaires use herbs and vegetables grown in airport aeroponic gardens, as kind of a farm-to-table initiative.

The Chicago Department of Aviation has new employees—goats, sheep and lamas. The animals clear out vegetation in hard-to-reach and rocky areas that cannot be mowed.

Apiaries on airport property provide an opportunity for displaced workers to learn a new skill, and to harvest honey for products used by concessionaires and sold at airport retail outlets.