After success with industrial space, designer plans urban farm
September 3, 2010

John Edel is in the process of creating Chicago's first vertical farm. (Photo by Troy T Heinzeroth)

By Sarah Severson

Industrial designer and green enthusiast John Edel has a vision of reinventing old buildings for innovative uses. By focusing on buildings in the Bridgeport and Back of the Yards neighborhoods, he has turned much of that vision into reality.

Eight years ago, Edel purchased an abandoned industrial building and turned it into a sustainable, energy efficient space he named the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center. Run by Edel’s company, Bubbly Dynamics, the three story, 24,000 square foot facility has been fully leased for the last two and a half years—despite the recession — and has a waiting list. Among the 16 tenants are a screen printer, a metal finisher, and an artist.

The project took a few years to get rolling. He bought the building at 1048 W. 37th St. in Bridgeport in 2002 and completely revamped the space, using recycled and salvaged materials. Then he got stuck in legal battles with the City and other business owners over a water main, but things eventually worked out and he was able to move forward.

“It’s been an absolute success—it’s one of the smarter things I’ve ever done,” Edel said.

Working together

He attributes part of that success to his emphasis on making connections among tenants, which has provided a way for them to help each other, especially in hard economic times.

“The different business owners have been able to work together, sharing work, sharing labor, or working for others in the building if they’re not busy,” he said. “They often farm work out to each other — I like encouraging people to go back and forth. Some things may touch three shops in the building on their way out the door.”

Communication and cooperation can grow naturally because people in the building often eat and hang out together. A kitchen and eating area allow them to congregate, which Edel believes fosters new ideas and collaboration. “The next thing you know, something productive is coming out of it,” he said.

Owen Lloyd owns Lloyd Cycles, a custom bicycle fabrication business that became one of the building’s first tenants — back before it had running water or heat. He has leased workspace there for four years and respects what Edel has accomplished.

“Today there is a night-and day-difference,” Lloyd said. “I’ve seen it transform from an open warehouse building to a finished space and seen John’s dream come to fruition.”

Pathbreaking venture

Edel’s latest project involves transforming an old meat packing plant at 1400 W. 46th St. on the edge of Chicago’s historic Union Stockyards area. He will combine adaptive industrial reuse and aquaponics in the 93,500 square foot facility, creating Chicago’s first vertical farm, Plant Chicago.

The building is ideal, he said, as it formerly was U.S. Department of Agriculture certified, complete with floor drains, fiber reinforced plastic walls that are easy to wash, waterproof electrical equipment, and stainless steel materials throughout. Edel will develop it into a test site using aquaponic farm techniques throughout its four stories, which translates into what is known as vertical farming — producing food in large, multi-story, urban buildings. Such farms minimize water use and waste output.

Edel also wants to create a food business incubator. As he explained, “Some of the biggest obstacles for small food businesses are finding the right space, building it out, and dealing with the pest control. It’s mind-boggling work and money. We’ll handle all of that and be able to provide a turnkey price.”

Edel said tenants will have to maintain their own food licenses and inspections, but the cost of running their businesses likely will be lower with Edel handling pest control for the entire building.

Ideally, many of the businesses would make food using produce grown in the building as some of their main ingredients. Edel envisions businesses complementing each other and even sharing ingredients.

So far, he has three or four potential tenants for some of the 45,000-square-foot incubator space; he hopes to make the first business spaces available next summer after working through the lengthy permit process.

City cooperates

“We’re getting a lot of assistance from the City; they want to see this succeed,” Edel said. “Alderman Pat Dowell has thrown her support behind the project, and I’m happy to see it. I’d also like to thank the City of Chicago’s departments of Environment, Community Development, and Zoning and Land Use Planning for their ongoing support and willingness to work with us.

“As we break new ground by combining systems in a farming and manufacturing environment, the City is busy writing new codes and ordinances to make a growing wave of urban agriculture projects possible,” he noted Edel gave 3rd Ward Alderman Dowell a tour of his development, and she walked away impressed with what she had seen and learned about the project.

“Vertical farming seems to be the newest frontier for urban agrculture,” Dowell said. “I’m not quite sure how it’s going to work, but I am very happy that a model is being pursued in the ward. I’m interested in working with him to connect to possible partners in the community, and I see that it will be a job generator.”

Edel estimates the building eventually will provide about 125 jobs. He plans to run Plant Chicago as a non-profit, focusing on research and development and sharing information about how to convert older urban buildings.

“We’ll develop ideas and disseminate them so we see more and more vertical farming,” Edel said.

Edel plans to sell the aquaponic produce and fish wholesale, initially to restaurants, until production increases enough to sell to supermarkets and distributors.

Producers may sell at farmer’s markets as well.

Local and organic

“It will all be local and organic, with awide range ofmainly greens that we’ll be growing — mostly things like kale, chard, arugula, lettuce,microgreens, watercress — all things that have a shorter shelf life and should be consumed as fresh as possible,” he said. Edel is working with researchers to develop new lighting and control systems to optimize energy use. He is building a combined heat and power system with anaerobic digesters, which will consume fish, agriculture, and brewing waste. Other biomass will be brought in to feed the fish, which will make bio-gas, burned in a gas turbine, which will drive an electrical generator to power the lights.

The process’s waste heat will be used to heat the building, fish tanks, and greenhouses and to brew beer.

“Our goal will be net zero energy,” Edel said.

If Edel is successful, Plant Chicago will be the first multistory, urban building in the country to house vertical farming.

“This doesn’t exist anywhere yet,” he said. “It’s a new concept and just not being done.” Researchers have focused heavily on vertical growth in recent years, fueled by concern that rapidly growing urban populations will exhaust current farm systems and devastate ecosystems.

By farming indoors, plants can provide yields year round and be shielded from natural disasters, drought, floods, and pests. The aquaponics component of vertical farming combines fish farming and plants without soil to create a cycle in which waste from fish converts to nitrates for plants.

Workers scrupulously aerate and filter the water for circulation through both parts of the system.

The closest aquaponic farms are in Milwaukee, WI, and Flanagan, IL, but Edel said farmers using these methods are not much concerned about competition. Rather, the people working on these projects communicate and help each other.

“All of our food will most likely be consumed within the city limits,” Edel said. “This is such a new field, and the market is so huge for local organic produce that no one operator has a chance of dominating.”

For more information, visit www.plantchicago.com and www.bubblydynamics.com.

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