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BUSINESS

3 MIN

The World’s Largest Rooftop Farm, on Top of a Chicago Soap Factory

Gotham Greens grows lettuce atop Method's eco-friendly soap facility on the South Side

About 25 kilometres (15 miles) south of Chicago’s hurried business district, in a quieter area of town long known for its manufacturing history, is a rooftop greenhouse that will likely produce around 10 million heads of leafy greens and lettuce this year.

The 75,000-square-foot Gotham Greens facility, which opened in 2015, is the world’s largest rooftop farm, and it relies on renewable energy, recycled water and shuns the use of pesticides. But that’s not the only clean thing going on here in the economically challenged Pullman neighborhood. The greenhouse sits on top of Method, an eco-friendly, toxin-free soap factory that was built on top of a brownfield site. It’s a green partnership that's making a difference in the Windy City and beyond.  

This isn’t the first large-scale greenhouse project for Gotham Greens. The New York-based company got its hyper-local, urban agricultural start in 2009 and operates three rooftop greenhouses in New York, including one location on top of a former bowling alley and another atop a Whole Foods (both in Brooklyn). Its lettuce and greens are carried by supermarkets such as Whole Foods Market, Treasure Island, Dean & Deluca and dozens of others, as well as restaurants throughout Chicago and New York.

Gotham Greens co-founder and CEO Viraj Puri says the growth of Gotham Greens corresponds with the increasing desire by consumers to know how and where their food is produced. “I think we’re going through a lot of changing diets and I think food is going through a revolution, a renaissance if you will, in the United States right now,” Puri says. “People are much more conscious of the whole food system. And controlled environment agriculture, or greenhouses, is really interesting technology. It allows you to grow premium quality produce very consistently and reliably year round, given that it’s fully climate controlled.”

Puri says Gotham Greens was interested in expanding into the Chicago market for a number of reasons, including Chicago’s size as the third-largest city in the United States, its rich food culture and love of culinary innovation and its climate, which is obviously best suited to greenhouse agriculture during winter months. When an opportunity arose to build a greenhouse on the roof of the Method factory, the deal was sealed. Since opening in this South Side neighbourhood, long known as a food desert, Gotham Greens has created around 40 jobs. The business also gives back to the local community, donating produce monthly to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and works with local schools and community gardens to donate seedlings and host field trips.  

Andrew Ondracek, senior director of manufacturing and supply chain with Method, says that the partnership has been beneficial for both businesses. Method, which makes biodegradable cleaning products and has a flair for design, set out to build a LEED Platinum manufacturing facility long before connecting with Gotham Greens. Because many sustainably designed buildings make use of green roof technology, Ondracek says the company was considering a number of options, and ultimately decided to build a structure that would support a greenhouse. That, in turn, would absorb heat in the summer, conduct warmth in the winter and create jobs and food for the surrounding community. By bringing on a partner business – namely Gotham Greens, as it turned out – the two entities could act independently but complement one another.

Kate Silver/Billy

Method’s slogan, “Made by and for people against dirty,” extends beyond its cleaning products. The company says the statement also explains its approach to business, the environment and its own community. And Gotham Greens’ upstairs presence puts the punctuation on that point.

Today, the first thing visitors notice upon arrival at Method is the enormous, brightly coloured building, crowned with the glass-topped greenhouse. There are no walls or fences, so it’s easy to see a few beehives (owned by a local beekeepers organization) nestled amid acres of surrounding natural prairie greenery. That openness is intentional: Ondracek says Method wants to welcome the surrounding community, rather than cordon itself off. A towering wind turbine, combined with solar panels that shade its parking lot, generate about 30% of the factory’s energy.

In building what Ondracek refers to as a “fully integrated manufacturing site,” the company has shrunk its carbon footprint. In the past, Method relied on a number of facilities throughout the Midwest to collaborate on a single bottle of soap. Now, it all happens under the one green roof.  

“In our previous supply chain those bottles may have been made in Kentucky and then decorated in Ohio and filled in Indiana and then shipped to a warehouse in the Chicagoland area,” says Ondracek. “So that bottle used to make a 1,000-mile journey. But now it’s travelling less than 1,000 feet.”

Published Wednesday, March 2nd 2016

Header image credit: Courtesy Gotham Greens

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