Breaking new ground: How Willowbrook Wildlife Center will cut energy use

A red-shouldered hawk with a broken humerus bone and a fox squirrel with head trauma have been recuperating in recent weeks at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn.

Patients like that feisty raptor will be able to spread their wings in a new and much larger clinic after years of overcrowding at the wildlife hospital that takes in thousands of injured birds and animals native to the region.

The structure itself will serve as a model of energy efficiency and bird-friendly architecture.

Once completed, the 27,000-square-foot building will rely on a geothermal heating and cooling system. Heavily insulated walls will keep heat from escaping outside. Rooftop solar panels will convert the sun's energy into electricity.

"They did such a phenomenal job in trying to design what is basically a very energy-intensive facility in a very energy-efficient way," said Gabriela Martin, a program director at the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.

The nonprofit will provide up to $2 million to support the "net-zero energy" project - meaning the new clinic and visitor center will produce at least as much energy as it consumes.

Few structures in Illinois have achieved net-zero status. The New Buildings Institute recognizes 16 verified and emerging net-zero energy buildings statewide. The wildlife clinic will be the first net-zero development in the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County as part of a $29.2 million transformation of Willowbrook.

"We have tried to set the bar high and really try to kind of transform the way folks build because it is totally feasible with the materials that we have today, with the technology that we have today, to design net-zero buildings," Martin said.

The foundation has awarded grants to help schools, affordable housing complexes, wastewater treatment plants and municipal offices go net zero. Buildings must, at a minimum, offset their energy consumption with renewable sources of power.

"The net-zero program really forces projects from the beginning to design as energy efficient a facility as possible," Martin said. "And then you end up with a relatively small energy demand load, and then you meet that with on-site renewables."

Forest preserve leaders, spurred by concerns over climate change from the burning of fossil fuels, want to go a step further. The energy generated by renewable sources should exceed the energy consumed by the new building. The solar array will produce about 550 kilowatts of power.

"It's a commitment for your long-term agency to save dollars, to show leadership," DuPage County Forest Preserve President Daniel Hebreard said. "In the end, the environment is the big winner because we know we need to get away from fossil fuels."

The two-story building will use a geothermal system that circulates liquid through underground pipes, taking advantage of the natural ground temperature to provide more efficient heating and cooling. During the winter, the system extracts heat from the liquid and distributes it into the building.

"Instead of preheating outside air from minus 20 degrees to 60 or 70 degrees for inside, you essentially are taking the heat from the ground, which is already at 55 degrees," Martin explained.

The building will be landscaped with drought-tolerant plantings. Wight & Company, a district-hired firm, also designed the building to maximize natural light and blend in with the natural surroundings. Special glass will keep birds from striking windows.

"As a public destination, this project at Willowbrook will help advance the idea of sustainable building as a standard for our communities," Wight project director Scott Steffes said at a ceremonial groundbreaking last summer.

'An ambitious goal'

The forest preserve district plans to start construction on the clinic and visitor center this spring. A new raptor barn is already taking shape on the north side of the property.

Forest preserve leaders aim to raise at least $10 million in grants and donations for the project - about 30% of the total cost. To date, about $8.2 million in grants and private donations have been received or pledged.

"We have an ambitious goal. This is our largest single construction project at any given time at one point," said Kevin Horsfall, manager of the district's planning department.

The district will obtain the grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation in two installments. Sixty percent of the grant, or $1.2 million, will be paid when the construction of the clinic is complete. The remaining $800,000 will be reimbursed only if the facility has shown at least 12 months of net-zero energy performance.

The new clinic and visitor center are expected to open in mid-2024.

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