Chicago Regulation Change Provides Opportunity for Phius Professionals

Al Mitchell

Al Mitchell

Phius Technical Staff Member Al Mitchell wrote this week’s blog post, which discusses the recent change in regulations related to coach houses in Chicago, and how designing these new buildings to Phius standards is a win-win for all parties.

The City of Chicago has lifted a nearly half-century ban on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), opening up a door for some people to build additional units on their property. The pilot program for ADU construction pertains to rentable units, occupiable by relatives, tenants, or even to be used as additional space from the primary home. There are two types of ADUs acknowledged by this regulation: a detached dwelling unit, such as a coach house or apartment on top of the garage, or a conversion unit, such as a built-out attic or basement.

However, there are a handful of caveats to consider. First, the allowances for ADUs, whether coach houses or conversion units, are limited to select pilot zones. There are five pilot zones: North, Northwest, West, South, and Southeast. These zones cover portions of 25 of the 77 Chicago community areas. Each area has a few special requirements for different types of ADU. For example, the North and Northwest zones can have a coach house built on the property before a primary house is built, while the other three zones require a primary house to be built on the lot before a coach house can be built. In the West, South, and Southwest zones, buildings must be owner-occupied in order to add a conversion unit. All ADUs in Chicago are to be rented for a minimum period of 1 month, and there is a requirement for a certain number of affordable units on larger properties where more units can be added.


Blog Pic 1This offers a great opportunity for people to add value to their property, create flexible living spaces (especially to take advantage of the benefits of multi-generational housing) or build a unit that can provide additional income for the owner while providing right-sized, cost-effective housing for another person. Approximately 70% of the lots in Chicago are 25 feet wide and face broadside south, making the applicability of this format broad. The aim of this blog is to make the case for building these newly allowed accessory dwelling units following the Phius passive building standards to create comfortable spaces, save energy and operational costs, and provide spaces that can weather inclement weather conditions, especially during a failure of space conditioning.


Conversion units like the ones proposed in Chicago, would likely require a complete building retrofit to achieve the maximum cost and energy saving potential. This study is going to focus on detached coach houses, of maximum permitted dimensions. This comes at an apt time for Phius, as 2021 has marked the release of a user-friendly and streamlined prescriptive compliance path, as well as the performance target curves have been reworked to include allowances for small living spaces (in response to the tiny home craze).

Looking at coach house potentials, four cases were selected for evaluation. Three of the cases represent a single-story unit, one in the place of the garage, one pushed forward with open parking on the alley, and one built on top of the garage. The fourth case is a two-story coach house with no garage. The smaller units are studios, with no bedroom considered, one occupant, and the two-story coach house has one bedroom and two occupants. The standard kit of appliances is a dishwasher, refrigerator, and an induction range. Electric resistance water heaters are used in the base cases and a split heat pump system provides space conditioning.

The base cases follow code minimum constructions and windows per IECC 2018.  An envelope airtightness of 0.31 CFM50/sqft was used to match typical construction. The Phius CORE Prescriptive Path follows the prescriptive requirements per Chicago – Midway airport, and uses the default airtightness of 0.04 CFM50/sqft. The prescriptive path windows are whole window U-Values, and are set based on the required prescriptive comfort standards. Per the water heater efficiency requirements, the water heater was upgraded to a small heat pump water heater. The performance path uses 0.06 CFM50/sqft as the required airtightness metric, and follows the same window set as the prescriptive path. A heat pump water heater was used.  The other opaque assemblies were backed off from the conservative prescriptive path to meet the required calculated targets. Please reference the table below for the envelope performance specs in the study.


Case Wall R Roof R Slab R Window-U Airtightness CFM50/sf
IECC 2018 18.4 44.0 10.6 0.3 0.31
Phius 2021 CORE Prescriptive 40.0 71.0 21.6 0.16 0.04
Phius 2021 CORE 26.8 52.0 17.2 0.16 0.06
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The cases designed to Phius standards prove to reduce the space conditioning loads significantly, as shown in the Space Conditioning Results Chart. These outputs are specific per area, making it easy to compare different building sizes. Per the Source Energy Chart, the Prescriptive and Performance averages save 35% and 30% respectively. These source energy savings directly reflect the anticipated savings on an electrical power bill for the tenant of these coach houses.

Coach houses built to these passive building guidelines project significant energy savings that will directly benefit the occupants of these buildings, on top of the other comfort and passive survivability (what happens during a power failure – stay tuned for a part two blog). The required upgrades to meet the performance path is principally based around better windows and airtightness, saving on other insulation requirements per the prescriptive path. 

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