The R4 Pursuit, manufactured by Renovo's Hardwood Bicycles, Commissioned by the Collins Companies. The powerful yet lightweight bike is made of 100 percent-responsibly harvested wood.

The largest Expo dedicated to green building was in Chicago again last week as part of the U.S. Green Building Council’s annual international conference. Since 2007, when the conference was last in Chicago, the size of the Expo has increased considerably, with many of the same companies adding more products for the green market, and new companies working their way into that market. This column takes a brief look at three companies – two established companies and one start-up – with products ranging from skylights to certified wood to energy monitoring devices.

Among the familiar companies at the Expo was Velux, the 65-year-old skylight company, which had its new solar water-heating system on display.  Designed to look like the Velux skylight, the rooftop installation is more commonly used in new construction than in remodelings. The Velux exhibit also emphasized how well its traditional skylight product and its new “sun tunnel” skylights (also known as light tubes) provide natural light deep into interior spaces. The 10-inch- and 14-inch-diameter sun tunnels can be used to provide light in spaces where a skylight would not fit. Federal tax credits of 30 percent currently apply to the purchase of the sun tunnel skylights.

Another familiar green supplier is the Collins Companies (family-owned since 1855). “Not all forests are created equal,” according to a sign at the Collins Companies booth which featured a bike made from sustainably harvested maple, black cherry and birch. 

The Collins Companies, suppliers of responsibly harvested lumber and wood products, commissioned the first 100
percent FSC-certified bicycle in the country. (FSC wood is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as having been cut from forests managed in an environmental and socially responsible way.)

The bike, manufactured by Renovo Hardwood Bicycles, is an “R4 Pursuit” model that features a stiff, powerful and lightweight frame. According to the Renovo bike website,, these bikes are wonderful for riders who want to have the stiffness and smoothness of their ride adjusted to suit their riding style. Renovo is one of the few companies in the world that manufactures wood bicycles (and some in bamboo) and the only one making them with hollow frames.

A new product from the new company ThinkEco, Inc. is the “modlet,” a “wirelessly communicating electric outlet system,” which shows the business user, via the user’s web browser, how much power each piece of office equipment is using in real-time. 

Energy-use monitoring devices are becoming more common as a way for business-owners and residential users to reduce their electricity use. Many products already on the market use web-based software to measure a home’s energy consumption to help homeowners reduce their power usage. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, plugged-in office equipment now makes up 26 percent of commercial energy use, and this usage is growing. With monitoring devices such as the modlet, its brochure says, the idea is that opportunities for businesses to save energy and money become obvious because “waste becomes more visual and tangible.” For a business there are benefits in knowing how much certain pieces of electronic equipment are being used by which employees and which pieces of poor-performing equipment are becoming outdated.

Monitoring devices such as ThinkEco’s modlet also help prove the electrical cost of the “vampire effect,” the energy used by electronic devices and appliances in standby mode. Many stereos, TVs, cable boxes, appliances and especially computers use a small amount of electrical energy even after the power switch is turned off.

Though some of this power is critical for the functioning of these items, it is estimated that 5 percent of all power used in the U.S. is for standby power. The amount of energy used by lots of small vampire devices is currently featured in ComEd ads on the CTA that note “vampire power is sucking you dry.” The ability to monitor how much vampire power is “sucking you dry” is what sets these products apart from energy-saving surge protectors that automatically turn off all the plugged-in devices when they are not in use.

Ellen Galland

Ellen Galland has had an architectural practice in Evanston since 1983. For more than 20 years, she has written articles for the RoundTable, including the column “Ask An Architect" and "The Green Column"...