Built in 1925 in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago, the building now known as The Plant functioned as a pork processing facility for almost 85 years until Peer Foods moved out, leaving many of the functional basics behind. Three years later, John Edel's company, Bubbly Dynamics, LLC, purchased the 93,500 square foot space to begin a collaborative and cooperative process to establish a vertical farm and food-business incubator, bringing local produce to Chicago year-round, in a sustainable way. These uses require a lot of energy, but an anaerobic digester paired with a combined heat and power system will allow for net-zero energy consumption by using 30 tons of food waste per day from neighboring businesses to produce enough energy to power the entire building.
This isn't John's first project working with an old industrial building; in 2002 he founded the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, just north of The Plant, and transformed the old paint warehouse into a green business incubator. A licensed general contractor, John worked with local craftsmen, tenants, and volunteers, bartering for and sometimes purchasing the supplies and skills necessary to make the building fully functional. Using many of these established connections, and continuing to develop new ones, he has worked toward establishing a new kind of sustainable building at The Plant.
The Ongoing Transformation:
Using the built-in functionality of the building, from its floor drains and heavy insulation to a fully functioning laboratory, a small team of staff members and many volunteers have begun the transformation process. The team has turned most of the basement into an aquaponics growing space while the rest of the basement is rented to other similar operations. The first floor has been prepared for a brewery, and two bakeries operating on the second floor are currently producing scrumptious baked goods which the tenants sell wholesale and at farmers' markets. The Plant is currently also home to a research and education based non-profit called Plant Chicago, which helps to incubate the sustainable food businesses and increase the visibility of urban aquaponics. The building will eventually house 30,000 square feet of sustainable food business space, 36,000 square feet of indoor farming space (both for-profit and non-profit), and shared kitchens and food storage spaces for local businesses.
Many volunteers have come forward to help John, offering their time, skills, and tools to build the aquaponics system from scratch, remodel the spaces to be rented to sustainable businesses, finish window installation, rewire the building to meet current standards, and deconstruct the parts of the building that need to be redesigned to accommodate new uses.
Offering a range of skill sets and knowledge, engineers, architects, licensed contractors, plumbers, and many others get together to work on the project as it unfolds. Volunteers are encouraged to join the project when they can, providing their own expertise while learning new skills and gaining appreciation for all that The Plant will offer. A small team of staff members have been hired to maintain budget, build the aquaponics system, manage the mushroom-growing operations and the farm, and organize volunteer and work efforts, but much of the ongoing work is carried on the backs of volunteers, some who come to The Plant daily.
Improvements to future tenant spaces are easy to justify given the future revenue opportunity, but it has proven more difficult to focus on improving our own "front door" to the facility. While we have saved a high percentage of the materials taken from the building for future use, construction is still expensive and requires specific skills, and often new materials. Also, although we are fortunate to have a skilled volunteer force that has allowed us to maximize our investments to the site, we will need to hire contractors for specialized tasks making up a sizable portion of this project.
Imagine you walk into a building, with the bright sun shining through huge windows onto informational panels describing a 93,500 square foot building with gardens, kitchens, bakeries, and a brewery, surrounded by grounds that produce more food and the energy for the building. You can imagine how great it would be there, in a little utopia, completely contained on one site. Now, imagine if you were standing in that very building, in a transformative space serving as the portal to the site. The space designated for this vision is currently a loading dock, which we seek to transform into an accessible, inviting space for you: our guests, visitors, businesses, and volunteers.
We will install an entryway and waiting area that meets the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, giving people of all abilities access to the site and to hands-on learning about sustainable agricultural practices. Not only is ADA accessibility an internal priority, but our current tenants need a way to easily roll carts of fresh baked goods, kombucha, and other foods made here down to their vehicles. The current configuration of all our entryways necessitates climbing steps; the facility itself is not accessible, despite our ongoing interior build-out designed to meet ADA.
The redesigned entryway will include a retail space selling the products made on-site. This "Plant Shop" will provide healthy, local food options as well as an additional revenue opportunity for tenants at The Plant, thereby expanding retail outlets for the businesses we incubate.
Finally, construction of this new entryway will allow us to visually display the benefits of sustainable food production in a formerly abandoned industrial space, which provides education and job opportunities in neighborhood which has suffered severely from the reduction of industrial prowess in the city. By increasing access to the facility, The Plant will build interest with its more professional and welcoming presence, allowing it to accelerate the building process on shared kitchens, further expand sales of produce grown on-site, attract new tenants, and spread our knowledge throughout the region and nation.
Where your money will go:
All of the ramps, lighting, growing systems, and doors for the lobby will be either new or constructed from recycled materials; we anticipate significant cost-savings through repurposing existing materials from elsewhere on-site. Intense cleaning of the existing space, brick repairs, and removal of unneeded materials is also necessary. Most of this work will be done by volunteers, but for ramp and stair construction as well as installation of the glass wall to increase visibility, we will need to hire outside contractors with experience and skills to engineer these to the highest standards.
Adjusting our original estimated budget to reflect efficient use of resources, we were able to decrease our project costs by $16,500, resulting in almost 25% savings and a significantly greater value for your investment dollars.
The cost savings for using recycled and upcycled materials is estimated at $7,500. We estimate that the equivalent of $9,000 in labor hours for demolition, cleaning, fabrication, and building the planting beds will be provided by our amazing crew of skilled volunteers.
Our final budget of $61,200 is broken out as follows:
- $6,500 Materials for the ramp, handrails and platform
- $16,700 Masonry labor and materials
- $26,000 Glass wall, including installation
- $5,800 Electrical work, LED lighting
- $6,200 Growing systems, plantings
Be sure to check out plantchicago.com for a whole lot more information!
Risks and challenges
When working with an older building it is hard to guarantee we will not discover expensive problems along the way. Luckily, we have been working in this building long enough to know generally what to expect. However, if we do come across unexpected problems, we have a strong team of knowledgeable volunteers and staff members who can react quickly to resolve these problems. A substantial portion of the building materials will be waste-stream, recycled internally from the building, so many of the issues that could arise have been addressed previously by the team.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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