Anyone who has worked in preservation eventually gets a little bit tired of seeing the insides of old, restored Victorians (admit it), and good lord, once you’ve seen a dozen green buildings, you’re pretty much over the typically installed measures and upgrades. But occasionally, I still get to be surprised–the tour I went on today was astonishing, and showed how preservation and efficiency are important because they simply make way more sense than the alternative. I’m sure I’m leaving so much out from the tour, so by all means, add or correct me after this has posted.
The 93,000 sf warehouse, now called The Plant, is so unbelievably innovative that I won’t pretend to fully understand everything that I’m going to mention. The Plant describes itself as “a project combining adaptive industrial reuse and aquaponics to create Chicago’s first vertical farm.” While “aquaponics” and “vertical farm” seem innovative enough, there is so much more to this place. The ultimate goal of The Plant is, according to it’s developer, “to create sustainable food and energy systems in urban areas that can be reproduced at a grass roots level by others with few resources,” and that is accomplished through the cooperation of many entities and ideas.
The building was sold for the scrap value by the time it was purchased this summer by John Edel, the owner and developer of this project. Edel also recently converted a burned-out 24,000 sf warehouse in Bridgeport into the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, proving his point that “no building is too derelict to be sustainably renovated and made productive again. It doesn’t necessarily require large amounts of money, just creativity.” BOOYAH. His new project could likely be an excellent and unprescedented model for other cities and depressed areas around the country like Detroit, and could finally help keep big box stores out with the work space and food it creates. And yes, it’s a former meat plant, and yes, it still smells meaty (they are cleaning it) and has cage rails on the ceilings that pigs would swing from. And yes, meat plants apparently make for damned good garden spaces, but I’ll explain that later.
How the space will be used:
-Energy-efficient brewery (the idea is to be even more efficient than Fat Tire)
-Community (“shared use”) kitchen, which apparently there is a dire need for. For more on issues with this in the city, please see a Chicago Reader article and extremely sad Chicago Tribune article and video.
-Conference rooms and offices
-Research offices to test effectiveness of hydroponics, vertical farming, condensers, etc. so that The Plant can be an effective and tested model and help other communities to do this work
-Rentable office space (that can sometimes be bartered for when times are tough)
-Some retail space
So all of this is really great, of course, but it gets so much better, folks. These are all noble ideas, but the expense of heating and cooling a 93,000 sf facility with all of these plants and processes would be insane…well, it would if you weren’t terrifically smart like Edel and friends.
How The Plant closes the energy loop:
-Everything in the building is being salvaged, with the exception of some plastic walls that were put in and are unrecyclable. Everything.
-Windows are being replaced with triple-pane windows that are produced locally. I know, I hate window replacement, too, but these are mostly just glass block at this point and painted or boarded over. This is bringing in local business and actually will be a huge improvement in this case.
-Floor drainage for vertical gardening would normally be insanely expensive to put in, but existing drainage from the meat plant (don’t think about it too much) will take care of all that and is in great condition
-The building is already extremely well insulated because 70% of it was used as a cooler for the meat. I know, right?
-Tens of thousands of dollars in plumbing equipment was left inside the building when John bought it. And this is a building that has some pretty intense plumbing needs.
-Before the last company moved out, they updated all of the electrical wiring, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrades
-There will be an anaerobic digester, which will make biogas, which will feed the turbines, which will provide waste heat that will help heat the building. I hope I got that right, and it obviously deserves more attention than this bullet point.
-All electricity will be generated on site, so there will be no transmission loses. Vertical garden plans are often thwarted by electricity needs, so that problem is solved.
–Fish breading and aquaponics will create fish waste, which is primarily comprised of ammonia, and use it to feed the plants. The plants then filter that same water so that it can return to the fish tanks.
-An 8,000 sf greenhouse and small orchard will be installed on the rooftop
I’m sure I’ve missed a million other ways of closing the energy loop within the building, but the bottom line is that if we want successful, green adaptive reuse projects, we need to find buildings that already have systems built into them that help serve the purposes of the new use(s). Buying a giant warehouse and completely gutting it to the brick shell just isn’t that impressive, green, historic, or cost-effective. Seriously. We all know this intuitively, but as preservationists, we are accustomed to taking what we can get. Being creative with what already exists is so much more effective and rewarding. And involving the community and providing organic produce, work spaces, educational opportunities and more is essential to the success of reuse projects, especially those in areas that have very few places to eat, shop, and work. That’s why we keep seeing the Big Box of Despair going up in depressed areas, knocking out all independent thinking, lowering wages, and destroying the remaining ma and pa businesses that give neighborhoods character. I hate you, Walmart. But I kind of like to think that if humans join forces with plants and fish, we may create a large enough army to beat you, not unlike a Tolkien novel where the good always prevail in the end.