Posts Tagged ‘Adaptive Reuse’

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 Plant, located at 1400 W. 46th Street in Chicago at the Stockyards.

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.

This is how I was greeted at 11 a.m., as if I wasn't already happy to be there. They don't do this on SOM tours.

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.

Mushroom columns hold the weight for organic farming--fitting, no? Note if you can the floor drainage here from the meat packing plant. The floor pavers are durable and dip down to drains in the center of the floor. This drainage would have been astronomically expensive to put in for urban farming. Fortunately, it was already here and in tact!

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

-Nonprofit farm

-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

Visionary and developer John Edel explaining the meat cage rails that still exist--and will be preserved--in a future conference room and office 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.

Because this was still used for meat production up until four years ago, lots of coolers and stainless steel remains for these new projects, cutting costs considerably.

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

Donated containers--I believe from a bakery--will become tanks for thousands of fish.

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.

The rooftop, which will eventually house 8,000 sf of greenhouse space.


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In the fall, Preservation Chicago will be having what will no doubt be an incredible fundraiser at the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center (aka the old Sears Power Plant that underwent a $40 million dollar restoration and rehabilitation). The building originally supplied heat and electricity to the massive Sears, Roebuck and Co. campus on the city’s West Side, and is one of four main buildings of the George C. Nimmons designed Sears, Roebuck and Co. complex and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. I’m on the Preservation Chicago board and pretended that it was necessary to tag along and scope out the venue because it’s something I have been wanting to do for quite some time now.

Historic view of what is now the large entry room and dining hall of the charter school. There was a whole lot of giant, heavy equipment that had to be removed for this project. A whole lot.

The 1905 structure in North Lawndale was originally 30,000 square feet (now expanded even further), and is a creative example of adaptive reuse that resulted from a partnership with Chicago Public Schools’ Renaissance 2010 project and the Henry Ford Learning Institute. The Power House was slated to become an energy efficient charter high school in what has been a terribly under-served area. I guess if you’re going to spend $40 mil, that’s a good place to spend it. Because of the unusual space and the way that classrooms were carved into the existing structure, the setup of each room is, well, atypical. I thought this was especially cool in that it helps break the hierarchy and traditional layout of classrooms and only reinforces the mission of the school and it’s progressive curriculum. For some reason, this analogy came to mind: if Stevie Nicks wasn’t spiritual on the inside, her lyrics wouldn’t seem as magical, right? Be kind, it’s Friday at 3:30 and I still have much work to do today.

The main room after the restoration with some Preservation Chicago people digging the tour. The strip of flooring that is clay colored is restored flooring from the original room. The dining hall area is actually in the far background behind the large piece of equipment, which acts as a kind of wall. Yes, this room is massive.

While the website says that the building is aiming to achieve LEED Gold status, I was told on the tour that they may actually end up achieving LEED Platinum. While I love to raise a suspicious (let’s be honest, even condescending) eyebrow at the LEED rating system, the fact that this structure is used by thousands of people, and the fact that it is an adaptive reuse project makes me glad to see it is getting such recognition. The project architects were from Chicago–based Farr & Associates, who began the assessments in 2005. Work was completed in time for the 2009 school year. For more incredible historical, before, and after photos of the powerhouse, look here.

Windows were beautifully restored and the glass was replaced with more energy efficient glazing. Tons of natural light in this building!

Here are some highlights of the building that I pulled from the website:

• Geothermal Heating and Cooling – The HVAC system capitalizes on a half-acre geothermal well field of 84, 350′-deep vertical ground loops circulating water with glycol to reject heat in summer and extract heat in winter. Coupled with an integrated DDC controls system and 42 individual water-to-air heat pumps the system will allow greater temperature control and reduced energy consumption.

• Energy Efficient Historic Windows – The historically regulated windows on the west and north facades are retrofitted with insulated glass, thus retaining the historic character of true divided lite windows, while simultaneously enhancing the energy performance.

• Movement and Control of Conditioned and Ventilation Air – Mechanical systems employ heat recovery and demand-based ventilation. Two energy recovery units on the roof will temper outside air intake with exhaust air utilizing an enthalpy wheel.

• Preservation – The walls of the Great Hall are lined with white glazed brick. Original terra cotta floor tiles were lifted and reinstalled as part of the new floor plan. The original 40-ton gantry crane and rail system remain in place and the skylights spanning the space were refitted with an energy-efficient, natural daylighting system. Large pieces of heating, cooling, and power generation equipment from throughout the building’s lifespan have been left in place, including sections of the original coal conveyor system, coal hoppers, a diesel generator and other “mementos” of the building’s history.

The history of the building is honored in many ways, like the above enlarged photographs of what the spaces lookedl like before the rehab. Many of these hang in the main room of the building. There is original equipment and painted coal shoots all around the building as well, which give it a cool, industrial feel and add to the magic of the spaces.

A hallway with a built in classroom wall on the right.

Super awesome interior stairwell.

Apparently, I didn't take any pictures that do these classroom spaces justice, but trust me, they are considerably more interesting than any classrooms that you or I have ever spent time in. There are painted coal chutes and I-beams along the ceilings, giant, arched windows that bring in light, and a giant, preserved coal chute in an exterior light well that students can look at up close and personal. Table configurations are generally non-traditional so that teachers walk around the room instead of stand in front the entire time, allowing for more interaction with students and less of a traditional, heirarchical way of teaching.

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Every February I start thinking about leaving Chicago. Historically, this has been because I am so incredibly tired of the weather here by February—the fact that my eyeballs freeze when I walk too quicky, the slush soaking my socks, the generally crabbiness of the population, the inability to ride my bike because I’m afraid of hitting black ice on Clark Street and doing irreparable damage to my brain—but this year my reasons are evolving. I have lived in, or on the cusp of, a huge metropolis my entire life, and lately I just find the work that I hear about in smaller cities to be much more inspiring that the battles we face in larger, more populous cities.

I'm not sure this requires a caption. (FLICKR/M.V. Jantzen)

If you’ve read this blog with any consistency, you have no doubt picked up on my obsession with New Orleans. But beyond my general love of the culture, history, iconoclasm, music, and live oaks, I like the crazy sense of possibility of that city. Essentially, the city government has been incredibly ineffective there (most notably during the past 5 years), so it has effectively turned over many of the basic functions of the city to non-profits and anyone willing to take charge on a project. But other places are doing this as well. Places like Detroit, which is described by many as a wasteland and is now inspiring incredibly cool urban gardening and preservation programs, and smaller communities that focus on local economies, are drawing more and more people tired of trying to work within the constraints of – or without any support from— their larger government. These places are also beginning to draw those who are tired of paying through the nose to live in a large city that just isn’t providing the quality of life that most people would expect during their blip of time on this planet.

Detroit, a former industrial giant, is now turning some of its blighted land into vegetable gardens and becoming a leader in the urban farming movement. (Photo taken from http://www.thelateralhippogriff.com)

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon an article about Braddock, Pennsylvania, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. At its height, Braddock was a thriving city of 20,000, but lost 90% of it’s population due to the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s and 90s. Enter John Fetterman, a Harvard Public Policy grad who, though creativity and tireless, enthusiastic focus on community, is slowly turning this forgotten city around. Read about this guy—he’s 6’9’’, 300 pounds, bald, tattooed, and inspiring countless public programs through education, art, environmental and preservation initiatives. Seriously, if you’re feeling stuck, read more about this place and get inspired.

Braddock has a whole lot of room to grow and welcomes countless progressive initiatives, like this Fossil Free Fuel station that powers diesel vehicles with vegetable oil. Why have I not done this in my life yet? Why? (Photo by Anne O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

What I think is so appealing about places like Braddock is the focus on local efforts and community. The culture in the U.S. is increasingly focused on the individual. We have lost our neighborliness across the board, from cities to farmlands, and are almost completely without a safety net in most areas of our lives. Now that pensions are being yanked and companies are increasingly unable to provide health insurance, honestly, what do we have to lose? My best days working at the Chicago Center for Green Technology were days when someone would come in asking for help with their plans to build a community garden or how to start up groups to educate their neighborhood about sustainability. People who wanted to know how to clean up their tiny local strip of green space so that their kids literally didn’t have to play on broken glass or so they could get some fresh veggies that summer. I’ve seen pamphlets of countless new green communities and most of the pictures are of people working together on gardens and running around outside. None, I might add, are pictures of someone sitting in front of their 50” plasma screen t.v., alone, bored, and eating takeout. Obviously the images of community, connectedness, and fresh food are effective because more and more of these communities keep sprouting up. Granted, I feel that we should first use the existing buildings and infrastructures of countless towns that have been abandoned as their industry has left, but the point is that having more of a connection to your space and working together with your neighbors to create or recreate a thriving local community is where we need—and I would argue want—to head in this country.

So, anybody out there want to revive an old town? Some day soon, I might just be tempted to lead the charge.

I've had my eye on Cairo, Illinois for a while now. Tell me that's not tempting. (Photo by Michael Eastman, who has put together an amazing collection of photos called Vanishing America - http://www.eastmanimages.com)

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What are the predictions?

As the green building movements continues to gain momentum, there is a growing perception that a “green” house is made of straw bales, powered by wind turbines, and surrounded by an endless green landscape. This kind of thinking can get us into a lot of trouble as it promotes sprawl, new construction (along with a need to build new infrastructures), and encourages building new, which uses a tremendous amount of energy and creates a whole lot of waste.

hotel sprawl

Is this green? Not so much.

According to a 2004 report from the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, by 2030, about half of the buildings in which Americans live, work, and shop will have been built after the year 2000. Instead of responding to growth projections through creativity and adaptive reuse, 82 billion square feet will be created to replace existing space. The largest component of this building will be residential, with over 100 billion square feet of new residential space created by 2030.

What should we do?

Nobody is disputing that buildings will need to be replaced over time, and that new buildings are sometimes necessary. But why not respond by downsizing our lifestyles a bit? Why not focus on creating jobs that will renovate and retrofit buildings with energy efficient systems? It’s less expensive and more sustainable. Though I would also like to caution against gut rehabs, which produces exorbitant amounts of waste, and let’s be honest, often divide living space into ridiculous little hamster cage layouts to tout more bedrooms in real estate listings.

vintage interior

Preservationists need to work with designers and promote vintage buildings as a outlet for creative and forward-thinking people.

Let’s jump on the “vintage is cool” bandwagon, which is still going strong. Get young designers to stage rooms that mix old and new and get these images spread across pages in magazines that 30-somethings are reading. Let’s do a little research and find out who is buying homes now, get a demographic down, and target it. So much energy is spend defending ourselves as preservationists. It’s time to be on the offense.

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