Eye on Industry: The Green Method

By Matt Baker

method1Factories can be noxious and dingy places. But they don’t have to be. The nation’s first LEED Platinum manufacturing facility is under construction right now in Chicago.

The factory will make liquid soap and other products for Method, the San Francisco-based purveyor of environmentally responsible home cleaning and personal care products. Construction started last year and employees will move in this October. Heitman Architects is providing architectural services for the project and Summit Design + Build is the general contractor. William McDonough + Partners is the project designer, Norris Design will handle landscape architecture and Spaceco Inc. and KJWW Engineering Consultants will act as civil and MEP engineers, respectively.

There were a number of factors that led Method to build in Chicago. “From a sustainability and distribution efficiency standpoint, it makes a lot of sense,” said Adam Lowry, Method’s co-founder and “Chief Greenskeeper.” While there are many Midwest locations the company had to choose from, Lowry singled out Chicago’s work force as a deciding factor. Mayor Rahm Emanuel also actively petitioned the project.

The site also received brownfield redevelopment grants. The 22-acre property in Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood was the site of a steel plant until the 1970’s and has been vacant for decades. Method benefited from some local tax breaks, and the mayor’s office helped the company to identify available state and federal incentives as well.

“We wanted to build, quite simply, the most advanced, ecological and socially beneficial factory that the world’s ever seen,” said Lowry. The facility—the first one that Method has built in the U.S. from the ground up—will take advantage of several sources of on-site power generation, enough to supply at least half of the factory’s needs. A 230-foot tall, utility-scale wind turbine will produce 600 kw of energy, with more energy coming from solar photovoltaic arrays erected in the parking lot. Solar thermal installations on the roof should supply all of the building’s domestic hot water needs.

method3
The structure will feature an 84,000-square-foot manufacturing area and 66,000 square feet of warehouse and distribution space. A 7,000-square-foot office mezzanine will be sited to face south. Dynamic shading will manage the building’s energy input, maximizing daylight in the winter while offering shade in the summer. Skylights will also harvest daylight for the factory and warehouse spaces.

The designers knew they wanted to put the roof to work in some manner, so the building was engineered to support extra weight. This part of the project is still in the planning stages, but Method and the design team are working to install an acre of greenhouses on the roof. In addition to the usual benefits of added insulation and lowered energy demand that come from a more typical vegetate roof, this plan would also create a food supply for the surrounding community and Chicago area grocery stores.

The factory is also designed to be zero waste. “The people we have running this facility are experienced in the manufacturing sector and have worked at zero landfill facilities before,” said Lowry.

In line with their corporate mission, sustainability doesn’t stop with the building; it extends to the factory operations as well. Heat is one of the most vital aspects of most manufacturing processes, and this is no different for Method. To reduce the need for the extra energy that comes with using heat, they have refined their fabrication process and reformulated their mixes. Advanced manufacturing equipment that is far more efficient from an energy standpoint will help as well.

The other major impact of manufacturing, especially for a company that produces liquid soaps, is water use. “I grew up around Detroit,” Lowry said, “so I’m very concerned with keeping Great Lakes water in the Great Lakes.” Method has made a commitment to take zero water out of the watershed, even though they will ship water in their products. In-house water recycling will help reduce water use, but the company is also working with the Nature Conservancy on an innovative program similar to carbon offsets. Land conservation practices and other actions that facilitate groundwater recharge would counteract the removal of any Great Lakes water that ships out in their products.

Method was founded on the principle of supplying home and health products that are as environmentally and socially responsible as possible. All of their packaging, for example, is derived from 100% recycled plastic and their products are certified by Cradle to Cradle, the product sustainability standard. They also offer incentives to their suppliers and distributors to help improve the ecological impact of their supply chain. So it made sense to hold their first purpose-built U.S. factory to the highest standards. But it also makes business sense.

“Even if it’s not in your social mission as a company, building sustainability into your operations insulates you from the volatility of commodity cost increase and disruption of your business that could occur from things like climate change,” said Lowry. “For us, it’s a great way to reduce the risk of the business in long term, but that’s really an ancillary benefit.”

Images: William McDonough + Partners

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