Finally! A visit to Chicago’s The Plant

After nearly 4 months living here in Chicago, I finally made it down to visit The Plant this afternoon. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s an old meat packing facility on the south side of town that is being converted into a sort of eco-industrial park where each business that sets up shop inside the building will be able to align their energy and resources inputs and waste outputs with other businesses around them. Read on for a summary of what I learned about their plans and their individual processes during a 2+ hour long tour today given by board member and IIT adjunct faculty member Blake Davis!

Main lobby for now; brewery taproom in the future!

Central to The Plant’s plans are a variety of complementary industries and technologies, including a brewery, fish farm, plant farm, and commercial kitchens (including bakeries), all of whom will share energy and environmental resources, including a combination of heat and electric power generated by their cogeneration system. Upstream of that, their CHP system will ultimately be fed by biogas generated using an anaerobic digester, which is in turn fed by organic waste products from the varied industries within the plant (as well as from the neighboring community). Their goal is to integrate all of these into one self-sustaining, net-zero-energy-and-waste food production plant that resembles natural cycles and where “the only thing leaving The Plant is food.”

At this point, they are in the early stages of development. Only a few businesses are up and running and renovation is ongoing, primarily with the help of volunteers. But today, Blake gave us a great summary of the history and future of The Plant. The former meat packing facility was built in the 1920s in an area known as the Union Stockyards. For decades it was a place where factory workers of all nationalities worked — up to about 450 workers at its peak. After the company moved away several years ago, this 90,000+ square foot reinforced concrete building was put on the market. With an initial price of about $5 million, it sat for four years — too outdated for modern factories and too expensive to repurpose. After four years, the group that owns it now was able to snag the building and its 2.4 acre lot for a mere ~$500,000! Since then, they’ve been working to retrofit the building to fulfill the vision outlined above.

Blake Davis giving a tour of a former smoke room at The Plant. Notice the tracks in the rafters above, which were used for passing hogs around the plant

The original building had an ammonia refrigeration system to keep the building near 40 degrees fahrenheit year round. It was well insulated for a building this age because of its needs for refrigeration. The current owners have knocked down bricked-up windows and actually replaced them with highly insulated windows (R-7 IP). They installed a combined heat and power system that consists of a 500 kW electric generator currently fed by natural gas, but will be retrofitted to utilize biogas from an anaerobic digester (for which they just struck ground for construction). Waste heat from the electricity conversion process will be utilized by other processes that require heat in the building (primarily the brewery, to power its boiling equipment). The digester will be able to handle just over 32 tons per day (!!) of organic waste of all kinds. Businesses and their processes within the plant will feed this, but probably won’t be able to keep up. So they will actually take organic waste from other industries in the area (often getting paid a few bucks to take the “waste”), which they will then turn into electricity and power. It should turn out to be a pretty beautiful system from an industrial ecology perspective!

500 kW combined heat and power cogeneration system

Industries within The Plant

The Plant is really built around the core of a (soon-to-be) brewery. Breweries are popping up all over Chicago and the craft beer movement is really taking over in a lot of communities. So their first reason for selecting a brewery is the simple attractiveness to customers. Alongside that reason is the unique energy requirements and waste streams that breweries provide. Not only will the brewery make use of water heated by the CHP system, it will also output a tremendous amount of spent brewers grains as a waste product. Spent grains still retain a lot of energy in them and can act as a resource for other systems at The Plant. Spent grains can (1) feed the digester, which generates heat and power, (2) feed fish farms, where the fish process food into nitrogen fertilizers to be used on plants to ultimately grow more food (fruits and veggies), and (3) provide a nutritional base for mushrooms to grow (yet more food!). So the whole point is to brew beer, sell it, and use the “waste” to make fish, vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, and electricity/power if there’s any left over!

Location of a future brewery inside The Plant

Although the project is still in development, there are a few businesses already up and running. There are fish farms, whose waste products are used as nutrients for hydroponic gardening immediately adjacent to the fish tanks.

Fish tanks, whose waste products are used to fertilize immediately adjacent plants

Next to the tanks are hydroponic gardens, which utilize loops of water so there is very minimal actual water consumption. When we were touring, there were actually some volunteers from the Second City comedy club taking lettuces and herbs out to the Logan’s Square Farmer’s Market to sell in the morning.

Indoor hydroponic farming

Oh, and there are also hydroponic gardens on the roof:

Rooftop hydroponics (if they look dead, they basically are — time for winter!)

There’s also a bakery just starting, as well as a kombucha tea brewery (who was actually the first business to join). Space is available to rent for $6-8 per square foot per year (so ~$500 per month for 1000 sq. ft.). And they currently rely heavily on volunteer labor for retrofitting the place, so sign up for their public volunteer program and give them a hand! They are a great bunch of people and I can’t wait to see how this develops over the next few years.

Oh — and one quick shameless plug: many of the concepts and designs used in The Plant stem from a few years with of interdisciplinary IPRO courses at IIT!

Many of the designs and concepts for The Plan stem from IIT students involved with interdisciplinary courses called IPROs over the last few years


Filed under: Local to Chicago | News | Sustainable food