Innovation Incubation: A Look Inside the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center

Carl Sandburg wasn’t abusing his poetic license when he referred to Chicago as “Hog Butcher for the World, / Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, / Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” Situated at the midway point between production to the west and consumption to the east, the City of Big Shoulders functioned as middleman to the nation. This gave rise to miles of new rail, acres of factories and the highest concentration of butcheries anywhere. The slaughterhouses were so extensive that the stew of methane and other gases belching to the surface of the Chicago River’s South Branch from discarded, decomposing offal provided the waterway a new nickname, “Bubbly Creek.”

Much of that is gone now. Bubbly Creek is cleaner than it used to be, not necessarily due to pollution controls, but because the Union Stockyards are long shuttered. The railroads lost their importance with the rise of commercial trucking. Industrial buildings closed as manufacturers discovered cheap fuel and overseas labor.

Chicago’s central manufacturing district no longer thrives, but it does breathe. There are still pockets of industry toiling away. And there are efforts to bring purpose back to those buildings that still remain as testament to this region’s role in the industrial revolution.

The Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center (CSMC) is one such effort. The CSMC is the brainchild of John Edel, principal of Bubbly Dynamics LLC. His company’s name is inspired by the nearby river branch and the building itself grew out of his favorite hobby: biking. Edel is an active member of the Rat Patrol, bicycle enthusiasts who don’t just ride bikes, they build their own. The Rats rescue virtually anything from the scrap heap to turn into what they term “freak bikes.” Wagon wheels, baling wire, charcoal grills… nothing is off limits. This mentality also fueled the CSMC’s turnaround.

Though he grew up in Rogers Park, Edel, a self-described “industrial preservation fan,” has long been fascinated with the old factories and manufacturing buildings on Chicago’s south side. “All of my life, I’ve dreamed of doing conservatory-like things in an industrial building.” The CSMC houses a sizable collection of old power tools, including a 120-year-old drill press that Edel reassembled. “This area is ground zero for industrial innovation from 150 years ago.”

The boarded up former paint warehouse on 37th Street was barricaded with old shipping containers and so overrun with hoodlums that the area was referred to by Chicago Planning Department staff members as “Little Beirut.” After Edel purchased the building in 2002, he and fellow Rats slowly rebuilt it into a functioning manufacturing facility.

By using the equity in his home to make small renovations over the years, he was able to avoid significant debt. But a substantial portion of the restoration savings came from reusing old materials. The building would be a large scale freak bike.

All of the building’s radiators, for example, came out of other buildings, rescued from Lincoln Park teardowns and other arguably unnecessary demolitions. One doorway had an odd hinge spacing and needed a custom door. Edel retrofitted an old ramp from the dock to fit the doorway.

Edel’s former employer, television production company Post Effects, had renovated their offices but kept the old building materials in their basement, from which he salvaged forty door frames and associated hardware. The entryway stairs feature railings constructed of stainless steel tubes from a brewery. The bubbles that decorate the railing—a common design motif throughout the building—were cut from old restaurant sinks.

Fiberglass insulation, steel studs, gypsum board, lumber, conduit and copper pipe were all salvaged. Some of these materials were discarded as excess from larger projects. In other cases, manufacturers planned to dispose of materials that were superficially damaged or had packaging blemishes. Removing the rusted portion of a steel stud, for example, or the broken corner of a sheet of drywall still leaves a usable product.

The bathrooms were finished with expensive tile that had been purchased for a suburban home renovation that the homeowner decided they no longer liked. The sinks were acquired for $5 at yard sales; toilet paper holders were $4 each on Ebay. Even the ADA bars were salvaged, left over from a renovation.

The building itself supplied the means for its own reconstruction. Onsite concrete debris was recycled as aggregate in new concrete. Drywall debris was ground down for soil amendment. Bricks were reclaimed for use in paths, paving and wall repair.

When new paint was necessary, Edel purchased zero-VOC paint to improve the indoor air quality, a trait that goes a long way in an industrial building. But even paint can be taken out of the waste stream. Recycled latex paint was used as drywall primer, finish coat and even as concrete admixture for improved strength.

As much of the building itself that could be saved was. Most of the windows were broken, so they were replaced with high performance, low-e windows. The original 1910 elevator is long gone, but its shaft remains. Edel hopes to install a geothermal system and use the shaft as a ventilation and piping run.

The one design feature the building can claim is its collection of robust cement columns. Normally hidden in redesigns of old buildings, they were incorporated into the interior design. One effect of this is wider hallways, which not only aid the logistics of an industrial building, but also give the floors an airier feel. “You lose leasable space, but the trade-off is you make the place pleasant, comfortable and non-toxic,” said Edel. “People want to be here.” The CSMC is at maximum capacity, with tenants offering such services as metal casting and fabrication, screen printing and powdercoating. There is currently a waiting list for space.
All of the building’s heating is computer-controlled to maximize efficiency. Three German-manufactured boilers rotate duties to reduce maintenance and extend their lifespan. Air conditioning is used for locations without decent access to natural ventilation, but for the most part, the solid concrete slab floors and walls keep the building cool in the summer months. Operable windows offer not only natural light, but facilitate airflow through the space. Clerestory windows were also added to bring extra light and air to the third floor. Artificial lighting is all high efficiency, with an emphasis on task lighting.

Eight varieties of sedum comprise the zero-maintenance vegetated roof. The drainage layer is a mixture of recycled post consumer glass and chopped up vinyl window frames. Edel experimented with using torn nylon pallet banding for drainage as well, but found it to be too slippery. The growing media are expanded shale clay and slate.

The roof is also the location for unique building amendment. Edel has installed the wire framework for what he dubs a “green cornice.” Old vinegar barrels no longer fit for food service will be cut in half and placed inside the parapet wall. In these he plans to grow two varieties of bean plants, purple runner and purple hyacinth, which will hang over the wire, creating the green cornice. In addition to providing vegetables, the cornice will block excessive solar rays in the summer when in full bloom, and allow needed sunlight in the winter when dormant.

The second story roof drains into a 1,200 gallon cistern, which irrigates a community garden. Edel views the CSMC as an incubator for emerging enterprise. The garden is proof that the tenants are more than just lease-holders. The tenants often share time, tools and manpower with each other. Many participated in the CSMC’s redevelopment. Edel keeps a running scrap collection in the basement for freak bikes, building modifications (this is where the radiators sat before installation) or anything else he or his tenants can find a use for. Scrawled on the wall is the sign, “no hoarding.”

“I think this stuff is so much more fun than TV was,” said Edel. “For me, its all about creating connections to other people from other disciplines and surrounding myself with a community of interesting people. It just makes coming to work so much more fun.”

-Matt Baker

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One Response to “Innovation Incubation: A Look Inside the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center”
  1. veterinary technician says:

    Terrific work! This is the type of information that should be shared around the web. Shame on the search engines for not positioning this post higher!

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