The Method Behind A Clean-Up In Chicago’s South Side

Published on Forbes June 17, 2014, by Peter Kelly-Detwiler:

In March of this year, Method—a ‘pioneer of premium planet-friendly and design-driven home, fabric and personal care products,’ announced plans to build Method’s first manufacturing facility. It will be located in the Pullman area on the South Side of Chicago, a pretty tough neighborhood. The plant will be one of only two LEED platinum certified factories to date, and will include a refurbished 600 kilowatt, 230 foot wind turbine, solar panels on the roof and in the covered parking lot. Together, these will provide about 50% of the plant’s electricity requirements. Abundant natural lighting, and a focus on energy efficient technologies will reduce overall consumption.

Finally, Method intends to install rooftop greenhouses, and dedicate 17 acres of the 22-acre site to native land renewal, using native trees (pre-history oak-hickory savannah) and perennials.  A community garden is also being considered. The company plans to bring approximately 100 jobs to the area, and recruit local residents into its workforce when the plant is completed next year.

In designing the plant, Method engaged William McDonough—an architect and leading thinker and practitioner in looking at ways business can improve our world.  William McDonough is also the co-author of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (2002) and The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance (2013)–books which highlight the value of good design put into practice.

When one thinks of building new manufacturing facilities, this approach is not perhaps what typically comes to mind. And it would seem that few people would voluntarily locate a factory on Chicago’s South Side (Google it: the first things that come up will—unfortunately—be crime stories).

Who would do such a thing, and why?

To find out, I lined up a conversation with both McDonough, (whom I have interviewed previously on other topics related to design) and the co-founder and “Chief Greenskeeper” of Method, Adam Lowry (who is also a co-author of The Method Method: 7 Obsessions That Helped Our Scrappy Startup Turn an Industry Upside Down.

Lowry expressed his motivation for the type and location of the factory to be constructed.

One of the reasons I started Method is that I used to be a climate scientist—I used to work on the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).  We need to use business—it is the largest and most powerful institution on the planet – to solve these issues.  We have tried to do that with our business. We now have scale and financial security, so that we can make investments for the very long term.  We are here to stay, and plan to operate like we are here to stay.

As a company, Method had been quite successful in branding and selling its product, getting shelf space, and growing. But they wanted to have more control over their means of production, and bring that in line with their philosophy.

I saw this as an opportunity to manifest physically the vision we have always had for the business….it’s really a living reflection of our values as a business and the role of a business in society as we think it should be.

Method looked at more than 100 possible locations, in many parts of the U.S., but they were determined to locate within a city, preferably on a brownfield site that had previously been developed.  Lowry commented that this was not negotiable.

From day one—even though it’s more expensive and harder—I wanted this to be in an urban location.  We are in middle of the greatest migration in human history—we have three billion people moving into cities—it’s where the future is.  At the same time, we’ve seen a massive loss on the part of manufacturing in the Midwest, and associated problems. We wanted to set up shop and become native to a city in the Midwest where we could reverse trends and create an example of what manufacturing can look like in the 21st century. We haven’t achieved absolutely everything, but nearly all of it.

Armed with that vision and commitment, Lowry sought out McDonough to help him realize his plan. He outlined the general approach that governed the planning process.

Bill helped me redefine the language as to how to translate this vision into a design brief and design execution.  People often start with the metrics of what they want to achieve.  For example, they say, ‘let’s be LEED platinum.’  Bill said ‘Let’s start with your values.’ We have a belief system and set of values that revolve around the role of business in creating good society.  Bill helped us translate that set of values into what are the values that would govern how we would manifest the building.

McDonough—who has the gift of seeing things at the very highest level and then bringing theory to reality—explains how those values manifested in the plant they were looking to build.

Adam’s point is that this building is a machine whose purpose is to make products that improve peoples’ lives by offering cleanliness and safety in a practical and beautiful way. The value of the tool is in the intention to which the user puts it.  A hammer is neither good nor bad.  A factory can be a force for good or not good.  Adam wanted the factory to make the place better. What does that mean?…Now the building is a signal of Method’s intention.  Now storm water management is turned into habitat. 17 of 22 acres are water absorbing landscapes and providing habitat…Now, Method comes to Chicago with a value system that says ‘make the world better.’

Neighborhoods like this are food deserts.  Adam and his team’s ambition— rising above the normal – has made us move towards concept of greenhouses on this building. We designed the building to receive them, and laid out the roof so this ready to go, when and if Adam is ready to deploy.  Not only is the building in the landscape, but the landscape is in the building, and the landscape is on the building.

Lowry noted that another goal for the building and surrounding landscape was to echo Chicago’s history and pre-history:

The World Expo of 1893 was here. We looked at some of Fredrick Law Olmsted’s (perhaps America’s pre-eminent landscape designer, also responsible for New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace) principles and said ‘How are we going to create habitat native to this part of Chicago?’  We will create natural habitat based on the native vegetation.

And despite the South Side location, Lowry indicates that the facility’s grounds will deliberately be established to interact with – rather than be isolated from—the surrounding community.  He knows there is risk involved, but Method is willing to take that chance, Lowry says:

We are not building a fence around this thing, and we are inviting community in, despite certain risks that go along with that.  We want this to be a place where the community helps us define how we can interact with community and we develop a relationship based on trust… This site is not a beautiful site—this is the South Side of Chicago and a rough part of town. We are trying to connect this facility back to the community, which is disconnected from nature.

These are lofty goals, but they should not be confused with lack of pragmatism or business sense.  Method is betting big money it will thrive here, and it is making smart and hard-nosed decisions with respect to investing in aspects such as energy use.

For example, the 600 kW refurbished windmill –imported from Germany­—is perfectly functional and cheaper than a new one. The solar panels will be cost-effective, given existing subsides and tax credits. And since the company is planning to be around for decades, they can look for reasonable returns on energy investments. Lowry comments that the choice of energy supply reflects their values and provides a long-term hedge against volatility.

As far as energy, it’s an easy decision.  If you say this is the type of company we are, we plan to be here for a while, and this type of energy we want, with that kind of time horizon, renewables become the right choice.  Energy prices are going to be rising and we will insulate ourselves against them.

At the same time, Method consciously stayed away from technologies that made no economic sense. For example, Lowry points out that thin film solar on awnings were reviewed and discarded.

We were very excited about thin film solar on awnings on the south side of building—which people would see.  And in process of seeing what that would take—what we realized that the payback for thin film was 80 years.  Even if we could afford to, I wouldn’t do it for the window dressing…We are not trying to create a museum of different things, but incorporate things that are functionally effective.

Inside the building, the same pragmatic approach was employed. With about half the building dedicated to warehouse functions, Method installed sensors for high-efficiency, use-directed lighting to provide illumination where and when it would be needed.  Similarly, different zones of temp and comfort were established based on the human requirements inside the plant. The building was also well insulated, and natural lighting systems—such as skylights – were employed. Lowry comments on the threshold applied to efficiency-related decisions.

We modeled things on a ten-year timeframe, but the threshold was more of a qualitative one than a hard and fast qualitative analysis.  We will be here for decades.  We can make decisions that are more than just a seven-year payback.  They weren’t 20. In 10 years, the amount of technology we will have will be markedly different.

Water is treated in a similar fashion.  There are bio-swales around the entire perimeter of the facility—which includes a minimally sized and porous paved parking lot. And there is a plan to make the factory water-neutral. Lowry is acutely aware of the drought facing the Great Lakes, and it has a personal element.

Water levels in the Great Lakes at near historic lows…I now have to walk 100 yards of dry lake bed where I used to swim.  I wanted to make sure we hold the watershed whole. We use water and put it in our products.  We are working on an interesting scheme …in the Great Lakes watershed, with a gallon of water put back for every gallon used in our products.

Finally, elements of the building are Cradle to Cradle certified, meaning that at the end of their useful lifespan, they become raw materials for something else, in a theoretically endlessly re-usable loop. McDonough comments that the building aligns with the types of soap products made by Method.

PPG created technical nutrient products, so we know what the frames are made out of, how they were made, how they can be used next (when the windows reach the end of their useful life).  It’s the same way Method uses their products.  The materials are biological and the materials can be reused.  The notion that the building façade can be reused in the future is good.

McDonough summarizes the project, and his role in it, by quoting 17th century mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

Leibniz once said ‘if it is possible, therefore it exists.’  That’s my job, to make it exist.  When Adam expresses his values and somebody says ‘it is impossible’ the response is, as the inimitable entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen has said: ‘Don’t tell me it’s impossible, tell me you can’t do it.’

Lowry’s motivation is equally as profound and perhaps more personal.

I don’t want to get sentimental, but my dad was an entrepreneur…and one of the things he always told me was ‘Adam, do something remarkable.’  That has been a litmus test—asking your self the question of going beyond where people have gone before.

What a refreshing concept. You have to admire the motivation,  and the method…