Chicago architect helped put Illinois on top-10 lists for green design newstrendslive

Gleaming white, with dark brown accents and tall windows that shine sea-glass green in the winter sun, the Northbrook Park District’s 2-year-old Techny Prairie fitness center issues an unmistakable invitation: Come inside! Run! Lift! Stretch! Play!

Beyond the front doors, there’s a spacious gym with dozens of children shooting hoops on shiny maple floors, as well as a busy fitness area and an elevated indoor track with sweeping views of mature trees, green playing fields, a shimmering pond and a nine-hole golf course.

But Techny Prairie’s biggest claim to fame lies largely hidden from view: 833 rooftop solar panels that helped the building become the third in the state to be verified as net-zero energy, or able to produce as much energy as it uses.

The Techny Prairie fitness center in Northbrook, shown on Dec. 19, 2022, was designed by green architect Lois Vitt Sale. She has played key roles in the design of over 100 green buildings.

“It’s really fun to see how many people come in because it’s a fitness center, but then become really interested because of the environmental aspect of it,” said Jake Vest, the Northbrook Park District trades manager. “It’s a great educational opportunity for the public.”

The 44,000-square-foot fitness center is just one of many highlights in the 25-year career of Chicago architect Lois Vitt Sale, who retired last month at age 64.

In the late 1990s, she led the team that designed the technical and environmental aspects of the Bachelor Enlisted Quarters at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago, the fourth building in the world to achieve the U.S. Green Building Council’s coveted LEED certification for sustainable design and construction. Vitt Sale also led the team overseeing the sustainable aspects of the first verified net-zero energy building in Illinois certified by the International Living Future Institute, the Adlai E. Stevenson High School East Building addition in Lincolnshire.

In all, she has played key roles in the design of over 100 green buildings, most of them in Illinois, but some as far away as the Persian Gulf city of Doha, Qatar.

She’s also received national recognition for her volunteer work in the field, which has included helping to found the Illinois chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council and chairing the host committee for the 2007 Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in Chicago, which drew a record-breaking 23,000 people.

“The word that comes to mind is pioneering,” said U.S. Green Buildings Council President and CEO Peter Templeton. “She really has been at the forefront of sustainability and been a complete champion of looking at ways we can improve the built environment and its relationship to people and the planet.”

At the International WELL Building Institute, which certifies spaces based on their ability to enhance human health and well-being, Executive Vice President Kimberly Lewis said Vitt Sale is one of the leaders who has transformed our understanding of green buildings.

“I’m like, ‘You can’t retire; you’re our North Star. You’re always pushing. You’re always relentless in telling us what’s next,’” Lewis said.

Vest, who worked with Vitt Sale on the Techny Prairie project and accompanied her on a recent tour with a reporter, smiled when Vitt Sale dodged a compliment, refusing to take credit for Illinois’ frequent showings on lists of the top states for LEED-certified buildings.

“It takes a lot of people,” Vitt Sale said. “You can stand up and sing loudly, but if people don’t join you, and the instruments don’t weigh in, it doesn’t happen. So it’s a team sport, right, Jake?”

“It’s a team sport,” Vest replied with a chuckle, “but it needs superstars.”

The woman at the center of all the fuss arrived at the recent interview at the Techny Prairie fitness center with a smooth salt and pepper bob, fashionably oversize red glasses, and an air of well-modulated enthusiasm. Vitt Sale doesn’t raise her voice or pound tables. Her charisma is quieter, drawing from passion, good cheer, seemingly unshakable conviction, and an easy command of the relevant facts and figures.

“She’s larger than life,” Vest said. “You can just tell, when she comes in a room, she grabs the attention. It doesn’t take a loud voice.”

Vitt Sale had a big title — senior vice president and chief sustainability officer — at a big-city architecture firm, Chicago’s Wight & Company. But she’s just as passionate about her small projects as she is about her big ones.

During the tour of Techny Prairie, which she designed, she reminisced about working on the 3000-square-foot Evelyn Pease Tyner Interpretive Center in Glenview.

The fitness area inside the Techny Prairie center in Northbrook. It has 833 solar panels on its roof.
A walker moves around the indoor track, which overlooks prairie lands, sports facilities and a golf course, at Techny Prairie fitness center in Northbrook. The center is one of many highlights in the 25-year career of architect Lois Vitt Sale.

The center, which received LEED Platinum certification — the highest rating — has solar shingles, a geothermal heat pump and a distinctive roof with a swooping outline.

One of the board members, Vitt Sale recalled, wasn’t so sure about that roof.

“Why are you doing the swoop?” she remembered him saying.

“You gotta have the swoop,” Vitt Sale told him.

“I was passionate about it, so he let it go through,” Vitt Sale said, smiling. “And afterward, he came up to me and goes, ‘You were completely right about the swoop.’”

Her favorite client, she said, was a sound engineer for whom she designed a 1,200-square-foot house with a one-car garage. An early adopter with a passion for sustainability, the client ended up with a nearly net-zero energy home in 2009, due to features such as triple-paned windows, solar panels, batteries for energy storage, and geothermal heat and cooling drawn from pipes reaching deep underground.

She fondly recalled specific details of the project, such as a skylight in the shower that allowed the bathroom to be lit entirely by moonlight.

“I want (my buildings) to be places where people thrive and I want them to be places that are integrated into nature,” said Vitt Sale, who drives an all-electric Chevy Bolt and lives in a house with rain barrels and a green roof on the garage. “Unfortunately, too often we talk about integrating nature into buildings instead of integrating buildings into nature. The natural environment is first. It’s primary, but that’s not the way we approach our environment.”

Vitt Sale was born in Washington, D.C., grew up on the East Coast and graduated from Indiana University with a degree in French before deciding to pursue a career in architecture. She had a day job after college and was doing her art — clay sculpture — at night, when the signs started accumulating.

“I was always dreaming about buildings,” Vitt Sale recalled. Sometimes her dreams involved exploring a skyscraper; often she found new rooms in the spaces she came upon.

She took a test to find out what jobs she might be suited for, and her best match was marketing executive. But this was the 1980s, and recommendations were sorted by gender. According to the test, a man with her skills and interests would have been best suited for architecture.

Vitt Sale, who lives with her husband in Downer’s Grove, got her master’s degree in architecture at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and entered the profession in 1988.

At first, she had trouble picking just one area to specialize in. “If you would just focus, you would be so good,” she recalled people telling her.

But that was before she came back from maternity leave to work on the Bachelor Enlisted Quarters at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, one of the first projects in the world to receive LEED certification for sustainable design and construction.

That accomplishment was all the more remarkable because when Vitt Sale started work on the sustainable aspects of the project in the late 1990s, there was no such thing as LEED certification. She relied on preliminary information about plans for certification, which was available online, as well as her own knowledge, research and resources.

For instance, the project’s roofs came from a study at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which found that white metal roofs are more energy-efficient because they reflect heat and light.

The nine-building, $65 million project was LEED certified in 2001, and won a White House Closing the Circle Award for model facility demonstration.

LEED went on to become the most widely used green buildings ranking system in the world, with over 100,000 projects certified.

As for Vitt Sale, she had found her focus: sustainable architecture.

“That made all the difference in the world,” Vitt Sale said of LEED’s clear definitions of green building practices. “As soon as I came across that, there was no turning back.”

At the time, sustainability was a tough sell. Climate change hadn’t yet burst into the public consciousness, generating excitement about solar panels and wind farms, and leading states such as Illinois to set specific deadlines for drastically curtailing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

“It was hard,” Vitt Sale recalled. “It was a constant campaign to get people on board. The question was always, ‘How much does it cost? How much does it cost?’ There were plenty of buildings where somebody would say, ‘I want a marble floor. I want granite this and gilded that.’ And nobody ever said, ‘How much does it cost?’”

Vitt Sale had to educate her clients about what was possible, at a time when there were no local examples to point to, according to Gabriela Martin, the energy program director at the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, which awards grants supporting natural areas, clean energy and energy efficiency.

“It’s hard work being the first, and also a woman in a male-dominated field,” Martin said. “She’s a first on many levels.”

A high point of those early years came in 2007 when the popular Greenbuild International Conference and Expo came to Chicago after plans to hold the conference in Los Angeles had fallen through. The problem was, Chicago had only about eight months to prepare for an event that had drawn 13,500 people the previous year.

Lewis, the founder of Greenbuild, recalled how Vitt Sale, who led the 2007 Chicago host committee, faced down fears that there wasn’t enough time.

“Her point was, not only are we going to do this, but this is the season. Chicago is doing amazing things and we want the world to understand those best practices. From day one, she was the woman who calmed everyone’s fears,” Lewis said.

The conference drew a record crowd of 23,000, with President Bill Clinton as the keynote speaker. Chicago went on to host another record-breaking Greenbuild in 2010, with Vitt Sale once again chairing the host committee.

Asked why she’s retiring, Vitt Sale said, “It’s time for a new chapter.”

In the last several years, she’d been pursuing her long-held interest in clay sculpture. She has a kiln and pottery wheels in her basement studio in Downers Grove, and she’s looking forward to “pushing that to where I can take it.”

But there are other factors at play as well. Twenty-five years ago, when she began her career in green architecture, electric cars weren’t widely available, residential solar panels couldn’t provide 400 watts of power, and if you wanted a dual-flush toilet, you had to go to Australia.

Now, those technologies are commonplace, along with clear goals and targets for green architects — guideposts her generation initially didn’t have. It’s an exciting moment for young people, she said, and it’s their turn to step forward and make their mark.

“I’ll never stop being interested in sustainability but I’m interested to see what all those bright young minds come up with,” Vitt Sale said. “I’ll be rooting for them.”

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