Posts Tagged ‘Salvage’

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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A couple of months ago I blogged about how a turn-of-the-century wrecking company used the wood salvaged from World’s Fairs to create a stock of building materials to accompany the architectural plans that they sold. These were some of the earliest kit homes, and many still survive because the materials, while recycled, consisted of tight-grain, old growth wood or brick. Basically, these kickass materials had a whole lot of strength and as a result were much more sustainable than the engineered products we tend to build with today.

One of a zillion awesome Sears kit homes, still in incredible shape. There are countless pre-fab homes like this from the early 1900s-1940s around the country in every shape and size. They are remarkably durable. Image from an article in Cottage Living, 2008.

But, these are different times. Because we cut down all of the aforementioned kickass trees over the past 150 years, we have to be more innovative than we once were. Enter the 30-something couple who wants to buy a house. In particular, a “sleek modular home like the ones they’d been obsessing over in Dwell magazine,” like the couple featured in a recent Chicago Tribune article. I’m in my 30s. I like to think that my friends and I are smart enough to never buy super crappy new construction or homes that are insanely inefficient non-sustainable energy suckers, so I appreciate that this couple wants an energy efficient home that isn’t jammed full of “luxury items” and marked up to some ridiculous amount as a result. But honestly, I’m still a little leery of modular housing today.

Mithun and HyBrid Architects, based in the Northwest, have designed pre-fab modular homes like this one as an affordable alternative. Such models are always described as being sustainable, but usually because they decrease waste, not because they are necessarily built to last. Only time will tell and in case it wasn't obviously, I'm not terribly hopeful that many of these will age well. Photo copyright Mithun, Juan Hernandez

The author of the Tribune article compares Sears mail order homes to double-wide trailers–which is ridiculous as Sears homes could stop a tank–but she does touch on my concerns about sustainability. Sure, fill those walls up with insulation and slap some solar panels on the roof, but will these new, boxy-chic, affordable modular homes last more than 10 years? What is the structure made of? I’ve watched a modular home in Chicago fall apart after only a couple of winters, and it ain’t pretty. In fact, the last time I was in it I was literally trapped inside because the doors wouldn’t open due to shifting. Fortunately, I have the ability to push hard, suck in my stomach to rib level, and wiggle with great focus when threatened.

The article also points, out that “modular home construction leaves behind 50 percent to 75 percent less waste than traditional building, causes less impact on neighborhoods, costs less and is safer for builders.” Well, I would say this all depends. Is it a better alternative to most typical new construction? Absolutely. Are you tearing down an existing home to build a modular home? Most likely, considering how dense this city is. If you are building new, will a new infrastructure (plumbing, electrical lines, driveway, road, etc. etc.) need to be built for this new, modular building? Likely yes.

I really don’t mean to be a Negative Nancy, but I can’t help but get a wee bit irritated when I see too many dramatic statistics in an article because they are always skewed. Yes, if you have to build new, you should build smaller and smarter than the way we’ve been building for the past 50 years, but you’ll just never convince me that it’s a better alternative to simply improving what already exists, provided it was built back when homes were built well.

Think about it.

In conclusion, I guarantee you that if the Big Bad Wolf came into the neighborhood and wanted to huff and puff, I’d run into the Sears home, open the windows wide, and like a child at a parade watch the Dwell-icious modules blow apart and down the street like brightly colored bowling pins. Sustainability–and by “sustainable,” I mean homes that will LAST, not just homes that use less raw materials–is still where it’s at. Clearly there is a faction of people who fetishize kit homes that are a century old, so, why not just caulk around the edges and upgrade the furnace? And if you’re still on the fence, take your time. They’ll still be there when you’re ready to buy.

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So a few days ago I went to a “Train the Trainer” course for the new lead safety rules that are going to be imposed by the US EPA as of April 22. It seemed a wise thing to do, seeing as it will likely have a substantial impact on preservation issues. Also, as many restoration/rebuild projects as I have done, I have honestly never paid much attention to Lead safe practices, so I figured it would be a good thing to know. Fortunately, one thing I learned is that children 6 and under are much more susceptible to lead poisoning than adults, so I think I’ve got a few years left in me. And, of course, it’s all about me.

Happily scraping lead paint off of a column. New laws will affect any properties that were built before 1978--the year lead paint use was banned in the U.S. In other words, this includes any properties that any preservationists will be working on, and millions more.

Preservationists, remodeling professionals, and deconstruction advocates really need to start paying attention to these new laws as they will raise the cost of repairs and restoration projects by a substantial amount, and may also impact the existing warehouse stock of materials used for restoration and rebuilding. The class I took was only eight hours long and there we only had time to cover about 1/10th the amount of material that was in the manual, so I am still trying to figure out where the lines are drawn in terms of project size, regulation, etc., but it sure does seem that the EPA is tightening up regulations in a very major way. If there is existing lead paint on stock materials, they may well have to go bye-bye and into a hazardous waste landfill (vs. a typical landfill, which will add yet another added expense). Also, any time a contractor is hired to do work–even minor things like window removal and adjustment, they will have to be certified as someone who practices Lead safe practices and may well have to quarantine themselves into the room that they are working on, wear a full body plastic suit, mask, goggles, two layers of gloves…the whole bit. For real. So this will obviously take some getting used to, and preservationists and deconstruction advocates will have to find creative ways to deal with this issue.

Organizing hundreds of salvaged items painted with the leadiest of lead paints. Fortunately, I was older than 6 when this was taken. It is unclear as to whether any damage was done, especially considering the level of disfunction in my Irish/French/Sicilian family.

As I mentioned, I am still learning what all of the restrictions and protocol will be as of April, but wanted to give readers a taste of what they can expect. I am sitting here going through my enormous Lead Safety for Renovation, Repair, and Painting binder (this is referred to as RRP for short, by the way), and thought that to make the list of needed “safe practice” supplies more digestible, I would call upon my undergraduate creative writing education and provide you with a poem. Glad that degree is still serving me. This is perhaps the worst poem I have ever written–and this includes my 15 and 16-year old angsty years where every other poem featured either the word “crimson” or “abyss”–but what the hell.

Barriers, Signs, Entry Doors

When you said that you needed me to leave,
When you said that you wanted clearance,
When you put the barrier tape
Around your heart,
I had no choice but to leave this toxic space,
cover the furniture, leave the dust of our lives
whirling behind me.

Oh, the warning signs were carved around me–
Utility knives, razor blades, scissors,
I simply could not move past the thick, plastic sheeting
That encompassed me. Us.

You think that you can close up all the windows and doors,
keep me away with
Duct tape, masking tape, painter’s tape, staples?
Watch me raise up the broom handle in a protest of your defiance.
Watch me sweep you off your feet.
(Actually, a HEPA vacuum would be considerably more effective)

Oh, lead paint, why must you be so terribly photogenic?

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Ah, once again, I’ve had a milli-second of downtime this weekend, which has lead me to think about the philosophy of preservation. I went skiing out in Wisconsin and squealed with delight each time I passed a barn that looked like it was about to completely collapse. Drinking schnapps and hot chocolate in a ski lodge will make one reflect on their reactions.

Morley Baer published a book that looked at barns from 1951 to 1994 and showed off why rural architecture is so very, very breathtaking. That said, I would appreciate it if one of my readers would buy me California Plain: Remembering Barns. Thanks.

I spend my time saving buildings and arguing that we should reuse existing structures whenever possible for both cultural and environmental reasons. But one thing I wrestle with is the fact that culture is not a static thing that can be simply preserved three-dimensionally. Barns are supposed to be used and used and used until they almost fall over, and then used another 10 years after that until they finally do fall over. That’s part of the culture. And then the boards can be reused, etc. I am not against restoring barns by any stretch of the imagination, and there are some great initiatives out there (my favorite is called “Barn Again!“), and no doubt there is a preservation philosophy unto its own involving barn restoration.

A barn returning to the earth in Indiana. Look at those bones!

But I remember learning about various preservation philosophies throughout history and being especially drawn to John Ruskin, whose philosophy was that a building’s beauty increased with its age, and a building’s beauty was not fully achieved until it was in ruins. Watching a building decay is possibly the most beautiful thing in the world, at least in my opinion. You can see the construction, how the materials work together, how the wind and rain and sun have changed each part of the materials. You can see how time and the elements have taken a bright, rigid, angular structure and slowly, over decades, worn it down to rusted patinas and bent it into organic forms that will gracefully return back to where they came. I mean good lord, doesn’t that just bring you to your knees? I might have to start a campaign for human/old barn legal unions.

Paradigm Music & Coffee in Sheboygan, WI. 70% of the materials used to renovate the space were recycled--some from the owner's parent's old barn--and non-motorized transportation to run errands and pick up goods for the shop. (Photo from The Sheboygan Press)

From an environmental standpoint, well, deconstruction is clearly the smartest route in a situation like this. A friend was telling me that she was just visiting her friend’s new cafe in Sheboygan that is made up almost entirely of recycled materials, much of which were salvaged from her family’s dilapidated barn (see above). It’s really, really hard to argue that that isn’t a creative and inspiring thing to do.

For the 2009 international Solar Decathalon competition, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students focused on midwest farmhouse forms and recycled barn wood.

We are constantly replicating existing architectural forms and styles, but usually using new materials. Recently, there has been a push to once again focus on deconstruction and materials reuse. Where does that leave the beauty of decay–will people still be able to squeal in delight and delicious horror while looking at a barn that is still in use and just waiting to crush someone? How should preservationists feel about the preservation of materials but not form? Should we just let some buildings die in a more natural way instead of always harvesting their organs, so to speak? Can nostalgia and environmentalism coexist, and where does preservation fit into the mix? I expect a full report on my desk next week.

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Thinking about replacing that leaded glass fan light above your door, but can’t quite afford a $16,000.00 Healy and Millet Sullivanesque stained glass window from the local architectural artifacts dealer? Before you run to Home Depot, pause, for there is hope.

We have a real problem with historic materials stock in the Midwest. We like to bulldoze, build higher and “better” on lots in areas with liberal zoning, and toss most of the crushed and mangled debris into landfills. It’s cheaper–even with landfill penalties–and it’s a heck of a lot faster, so why not?

attic salvage

A thoughtful rehab project in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. Windows, floor boards, old growth beams and other features were taken from one part of the home and reused in another. This is a great option if you are doing a major rehab, but a large material stock would make this kind of work considerably easier.

Fortunately, the City of Chicago is requiring more and more construction and demolition debris be recycled. Contractors now have to keep track of how much waste was generated at project sites and meet the recycling goals set forth in a new ordinance. In 2006, the goal was to recycle 25% of the debris at a job site, in 2007, the goal was 50%. This number keeps going up, though much of the language of the ordinance is wishy-washy and seems to imply that contractors are encouraged to do these things, rather than harshly penalized for not doing them. Also, the ordinance only applies to new residential buildings with four or more units, new non-residential buildings that are more than 4,000 square feet, or buildings requiring a certificate of occupancy (for more on what requires a certificate of occupancy, see Chicago’s Streets and Sanitation Website: http://tiny.cc/OmBrh). Um, there are hundreds of thousands of single-family homes, two- and three-flats in this city. Why are they exempt?

The Preservation Resource Center warehouse in New Orleans has thousands of reclaimed architectural features from hurricane-damaged homes. Local residents can buy this stuff for almost nothing. Much of this is old growth cypress that can withstand future flooding better than any newly harvested wood.

And, of course, recycling crushed debris is different from deconstructing a building and using that material stock to restore existing buildings. Unless we have a large, local stock of historic architectural features like windows, doors, molding, etc, the cost to restore an historic building–well, it just doesn’t make economic sense. Preservation should not be elitist. It’s a total turn-off to many–potentially even those who can afford it–and only hurts the movement.

Fortunately, as of February, we finally have a warehouse to store these materials in Chicago at the ReBuilding Exchange, http://www.delta-institute.org/rebuildingexchange/about.php. This initiative will create affordable stock for homeowners, create jobs, and divert literally tons of waste from landfills. Other cities around the the U.S. have had such resources for years, and it has made a huge difference, not only environmentally, but by helping to maintain the historic character of these cities. Once that cornice is gone, it’s gone forever. Nobody is going to spend the money to replicate it.

Material stock warehouses are an absolutely crucial step to making preservation viable. Please donate your items, volunteer, and visit the warehouse to encourage these efforts further.


Chicago's ReBuilding Exchange. Let's keep it going. You can write off donations!

I mean, old growth lumber, claw foot tubs…what else do you want, people? Paul Hawken estimates in Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, that “For every 100 pounds of product, we create 3,200 pounds of waste.” If you really want to be green, reuse what we already have whenever possible, folks.

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I’m still working out the mission statement, so here are my rambling, uncensored thoughts on the purpose of this site.

I created this site because I wanted a forum for people to discuss the following issues and keep each other updated on new technologies, policies, and ideas. After studying and working in both historic preservation and environmental work places and on various projects around the country, I’ve learned that these fields are absolutely essential to one another. Different cities have different approaches and policies, but essentially they are the ying and yang needed to bring about a more sustainable built world. Unfortunately, there is still a whole lot of tension between these two worlds. What I have noticed most often is that preservationists fear green builders are too quick to bulldoze and build new, and green builders feel that preservationists are a roadblock to progress.

It’s all hooey, really. There is absolutely no need for tension here, and hopefully we can find some middle ground and (god forbid) foster creative solutions. This is not to say that these issues are not legitimate, because of course, they are. And, of course, economics play a major role in all of this, but this can be overcome. We won’t be able to come up with creative solutions to make both of these fields interactive and prosperous (there is so much room for job growth here it is staggering) until we all gain a better understanding of the incentives and barriers in related architectural fields. Once we understand how we are alike and different, and what works and what doesn’t, we can more easily work together to affect change.

But first, we need to get over ourselves and break down some of the barriers. So here is what we need to do first in order to stop slamming our heads against a wall:

  1. Preservationists have to stop being on the defense and be more proactive. We are all in love with architecture, materials and the building arts and need to a better job of getting people excited about these things. In the eyes of most designers and architects, we are still the lame, crotchety old ladies that started this movement, ala Ann Pamela Cunningham. We need young, innovative designers and this new architectural energy on our side, so it’s time to rethink how we’ve been doing things and edit those Secretary of Interior’s Guidelines already. Let’s show that we want progress too, and learn to play with the hip kids.

  2. Green building people need to acknowledge the importance of embodied energy and to stretch themselves to focus on how to be creative within existing walls. You don’t always need a blank canvas. And history is cool. Not just cool, it’s fascinating. Not to mention a heck of a lot greener to preserve in most cases as these buildings—even at 100—are more sustainable than most of the new architecture that is going up. Retrofitting is so often the greenest option, but we need new technology to help us constantly improve our energy and water reduction, and to work better within existing structures.

History, artistry, sense of place, dwindling resources, indoor and outdoor air pollution—these things matter and are not incompatible. We are all well intentioned, so lets cut to the chase and get some work done. Educate me, educate yourselves, educate each other. Then let’s combine forces and take over the world.

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