As part of our Earth Week festivities, today we welcome Chris Dillion to the Water Jobs series. An advocate of sustainability, Chris has worked with Vermilion Development for five years, where he strives to make green building part of their multi-use real estate projects. Chris is a graduate from the University of Illinois and has kindly taken a moment out of his crazy schedule to share with us what LEED certification is and how he views sustainability.
Since you and Vermilion Development are interested in sustainable development, can we start off with a definition of what that means? And what is LEED certification, anyway?
On a practical basis, sustainable development involves incorporating green strategies into a project’s design, construction, operations and maintenance. There are a variety of certifications and tools available to measure sustainability. When it comes to development, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program is widely accepted as a good measure of sustainability.
LEED is a voluntary, consensus-based, market-driven program that provides third-party verification of green buildings.
The certification process is largely driven by the design team and other consultants engaged by the development team. I view my role as a steward and champion of the green building movement, ensuring that our impact on the environment is a consideration in all that we do.
With a degree in business and a career in real estate development, you aren’t the typical interviewee in our careers series. Tell us about what you do and how you have made sustainability a part of your career.
As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, I had a strong desire to merge my background in Entrepreneurship (College of Business) with my interest in environmental sustainability. This initially led me to diversify my degree by becoming an Environmental Fellow at Illinois. Through this specialty, I became aware of the green building movement, which in many respects was still in its infancy.
Upon graduation, I started my career in retail development, working on projects throughout the United States. During that time I became a LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP), which was an emerging professional credential for the green building industry through the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).
Several years later my work evolved to include large-scale, mixed-use developments primarily in micro-urban cities throughout the Midwest. These projects were inherently sustainable and major economic development drivers for the municipalities in which they were located. As my work continued to evolve, sustainability became an increasingly important factor in my projects.
Your title is managing director. What does that mean for your responsibilities in both the day-to-day and big picture?
As a real estate developer, I help establish a vision for a prospective development (with joint venture partners, community stakeholders, tenants and others) and orchestrate the process, concept to completion. The activities associated with development are wide ranging and varied, including property acquisition, financing, public relations/community engagement, construction management, leasing, among many other responsibilities.
You have an elevator ride to describe Vermilion Development and its projects to win over a community member of a neighborhood in which you’re working: what do you say?
Vermilion Development works with universities, communities and other entities to effectuate transformative change. Vermilion has successfully elevated the economies of a growing number of communities with projects that blend creativity, thoughtful planning, and design. Our developments extend beyond the built environment, stimulating economic growth and enhancing community sustainability.
Of the projects you just described, which one are you most proud of, and why?
Harper Court is a two-phase, 1.1 million square foot mixed-use development located at 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The project is a public-private partnership among the City of Chicago, the University of Chicago and Harper Court Partners, LLC (comprised of Vermilion Development and JFJ Development Company).
The first phase is nearing completion. It includes a 150,000 square foot University of Chicago office tower that will serve as a prominent gateway to both campus and community. It also includes a Hyatt Place hotel (being developed by a third-party) and nearly 75,000 SF of retail space. The project’s ground floor retail will have an emphasis on dining and entertainment. The project’s first phase is valued at approximately $137 million.
Harper Court has been particularly rewarding for several reasons. First, the community’s vision for the project was articulated in a series of workshops and visioning documents. This provided a strong foundation for the project’s eventual plan. Second, the community recognized the importance of sustainability. The project has achieved a LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) gold rating (for the entire project area) and anticipates additional certifications under the LEED for Core & Shell (LEED-CS) (for the office and retail components), LEED for New Construction (LEED-NC) (for the hotel component) and LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI) (for the University of Chicago and several retail interiors) designations. We anticipate that we will be the first to achieve all four ratings within one master development in the United States.
And since we’re the Illinois Water Resources Center, would you talk about what sustainable development means for water and water resources?
A sustainable development addresses water efficiency and storm water runoff. On a practical basis, we employ a variety of strategies that reduce potable water consumption, including water efficient landscaping and water efficient fixtures. At a larger scale, we’re now looking at how green infrastructure can better handle storm water runoff, which is a significant issue in the Chicagoland area.
Where does the inspiration for your projects come from?
For me, inspiration comes from the community surrounding the development – the people, businesses and organizations that contribute to a community’s identity. I go to great lengths to ensure that the things we do are complementary and additive to the community fabric that already exists. I am also inspired when a community or university speaks with one voice on its vision and the role a thoughtful development can play in achieving shared objectives.
How do you get picked to design a building or project?
At times, it can be as simple as identifying an opportunity to create a development that addresses a community need that isn’t currently being served. Alternatively, we are often directed to development opportunities through a client, generally a university or community, that has a need or wishes to fulfill a strategic objective. For a number of Vermilion Development’s projects, we enter bidding competitions where we present our qualifications and expertise in an effort to secure the rights to develop a project. Under that scenario, the vision or strategic priority for the university or community is often well articulated as part of the institution or community’s request.
Is it harder to build LEED certified developments? If so, why do you do it?
To achieve high levels of certification it certainly requires added coordination and depending on the corresponding requirements, additional expense. Low levels of certification are easily attained in urban areas, where infill development is inherently more sustainable than greenfield development.
In terms of why this is important to me, it’s simple really, environmental sustainability is something I value. It’s part of who I am.
There are exciting things happening in the green building industry. A building that uses energy and water while creating waste is still unsustainable, no matter how green it might be by today’s standards. The Living Building Challenge is a new standard that is emerging that I am eager to participate in when a project opportunity emerges.
Do you have any education or certifications beyond your degree that have helped you?
I am a LEED Accredited Professional. I originally received the designation in 2005. The LEED AP credential affirms an individual’s advanced knowledge of green building and the LEED rating system.
More recently, the Green Building Certification Institute implemented changes to the LEED AP program. At that time, I elected to specialize my credential in Building Design and Construction, LEED AP BD+C.
The LEED AP BD+C credential is appropriate for individuals with expertise in the design and construction phases of green buildings serving the commercial, residential, education and healthcare sectors. The specialty denotes practical knowledge in the LEED for Core and Shell, LEED for New Construction and LEED for Schools rating systems.
How did your education prepare you for your job now? Any experiences or adventures you wish you’d had in high school or college?
My time at the University of Illinois provided me with an incredible amount of personal and professional growth, both inside and outside of the classroom. At Illinois, I received a rigorous education through the College of Business. My time as an Environmental Fellow provided me an outlet to focus my academics on the issues that were important to me.
Since my undergraduate days, I’ve supplemented my education with a program through the University of Cambridge, a global leader in sustainability education. Through the Prince of Wales’s Business & The Environment Programme, I’ve had the opportunity to further enhance my knowledge and leadership on sustainability.
All told, I wouldn’t change a thing.
We always like to ask our guests if they have any advice to offer our fifth grade friends at Cesar E. Chavez should they also be interested in becoming sustainable developers. What do you wish you’d known when you were making school and career choices?
It’s surprisingly simple: show up, set measurable goals, work hard and seek out opportunities for advancement. These are the components that allow an individual to live their best life.