Building in Bloom: John Edel turns an abandoned Bridgeport warehouse into a sustainable manufacturing center

Pixelated cactus roof at Bubbly Dynamics, photo courtesy of Rachel Swenie

Pixelated cactus roof at Bubbly Dynamics, photo courtesy of Rachel Swenie

Buried in the eastern quarter of Chicago’s former Central Manufacturing District in Bridgeport, a neglected and abused warehouse has been converted into a prime example of sustainable architecture. John Edel took an interest in the building at 1048 W. 37th Street as a site for a restoration project dedicated to environmental consciousness. To embark on this project, he founded the company Bubbly Dynamics with a mission, he says, to “prove that no building is too derelict to be sustainably renovated and made productive again. It doesn’t necessarily require large amounts of money, just creativity.”

A background in industrial design, specifically in wheelchair accessibility for public transportation, computer graphics, and set design, provided Edel with some of the knowledge required for the construction of a building. Tips from the Internet on installation of plumbing and wiring taught him the rest. He used money from his job in television, a home equity line of credit on his Logan Square apartment, and a “swell of support” from numerous volunteers to transform the 99-year-old wreck into the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center.

When Edel discovered the three-story, 24,000-square-foot building along the train tracks, it was completely useless. The whole interior had been burned out by the former tenants, criminals who lit trash on fire for amusement. Set on preserving the shell and faced with the task of renovating the entire inside of the building, Edel has created an environmentalist’s dream while diligently complying with safety codes. The materials he used were collected from disposal companies and other streams of perfectly usable waste headed for the dump. He used recycled fiberglass insulation, latex paint, drywall, brick for the walkways, and lumber for the roof. Edel avoided the use of toxic materials and confirms that one can literally eat almost any part of the building, though it might be a bit hard to chew.

Old refrigerators house energy-efficient stoves, lamp-posts support loading dock ramps, elevated bathtubs become sinks, radiators salvaged from old buildings provide heating, and salvaged exotic tiles serve as a decorative touch. His technologically advanced heaters are from Germany and have a computer system that ensures that the building is heated to the correct temperature. Because of the efficiency of his heaters and the incredible structural emphasis he put into insulation, Edel insists that “nothing is wasted.”

With a mind for aesthetics, Edel made sure that he incorporated unique design elements and architectural choices that could make the plain rectangular building an interesting space for its tenants. The second floor has only curved walls, the third only angular, and the first is a combination of both. The stairwells are decorated with Edel’s original designs, executed by one of the resident welders. They all involve bubbles. An impressive collection of antique machinery ranging from 60 to 120 years old, including two lathes, a milling machine, and a drill press, can be found on the third floor. The manufacturing aspect is present in more than just name–the building currently houses 35 permanent tenants who help keep Bubbly Dynamics financially stable, including silk-screen printers, tutoring companies, metal welders, bike mechanics, graphic designers, metal artists, sandblasters and painters.

Edel currently spends three days out of the week making repairs and additions to the space, while the others are devoted to the development of another project in vertical farming in an old military building 24 times larger than his first project and a bit farther west. He is already experimenting with farming in his present space: the massive expanse of roof has been turned entirely into a beautiful cactus garden, which grows in a lightweight material that is only five percent organic and thus serves as a drainage system and another source of insulation for the building. The various cacti have been organized on a grid to form a pixelated image of his daughter’s face, which he plans to photograph by means of a remote control helicopter that he will construct in his free time.

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