Method Soap Factory Scrubs Manufacturing Clean

Line/Shape/Space Ι Aug. 4, 2015

At first glance, there isn’t a lot separating the sustainable soap gurus of Method from previous generations of bleeding-edge ambitious capitalists that came to the Chicago neighborhood of Pullman to fulfill their dreams.

Like railcar manufacturer magnate George Pullman in 1880, Method’s founders Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry came to the far South Side of Chicago to use innovative architecture and urban planning to create a center for high-tech manufacturing, buttressed by radical ideas about what corporations’ responsibilities are to their communities and customers.

But you don’t have to look much closer to see how the stories diverge.

Pullman was an unapologetic, paternalistic robber baron. He hired a 26-year-old architect (Solon Spencer Beman) to design what became one of the most historic company towns in the world. Pullman built rich, red brick Queen Anne and Romanesque factories, tenements, and hotels, meanwhile grinding down wages in pursuit of a 6 percent return on every building he rented out, which was all of them. He provoked an epic strike that crippled the rail industry across the nation, and was reviled. When he died, it would take many tons of concrete poured over his grave at Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery to protect it from vandals.

In contrast, Method is a San Francisco–founded, do-good company selling sustainable soap made in its new LEED Platinum factory. The company is contractually obligated to do the right thing: As a third-party registered benefit corporation, Method’s corporate governance has agreed to practice business both socially and environmentally in a sustainable way. Though it’s still privately held, “our shareholders can hold us accountable if we’re not doing the right thing for the community,” says Method’s “Greenskeeper” Saskia van Gendt.

Designed by sustainable design pioneer William McDonough, Method’s new South Side Soapbox factory in Pullman is the apotheosis of the company’s approach. It reaches out through its entire production and supply chain to craft a facility that’s regenerative for the land and the impoverished South Side community that hosts it.

Even before the architecture of the new factory comes into play, Method’s key corporate sustainability tactic is to ensure that its entire supply chain runs sustainable operations as well. “We try to have control over our entire footprint,” says van Gendt.

Method’s Karim Rashid–designed containers are made from recycled plastic. Many of its delivery trucks run on biodiesel. The company offers raw material and packaging suppliers financial incentives for making its operations more sustainable. The soap ingredients are assessed across five measures and certified nontoxic and nonharmful by the Cradle to Cradle Certified program (created by McDonough with German chemist Michael Braungart and today administered by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute).

“We were founded on the principle of environmental responsibility,” van Gendt says. “But social responsibility is sort of a new frontier for us. How do you define what your benefit is back to the community? We’re really building what that means for us. One aspect of that is hiring locally here in Pullman.”

Compared to the grand, ornate architecture that earned Pullman a designation as a national monument, the Method factory is a humble project. Its 150,000 square feet were modestly budgeted at $30 million. Located on a former lumber and steel-mill brownfield, Method remediated the site, cleaning up heavy metals from the soil. Now a park-like field of prairie grasses and wetlands surround rainwater-retention ponds.

The factory (designed in conjunction with industrial building specialists Heitman Architects) is precast concrete, with a series of gabled greenhouses on the roof which will be managed by New York–based Gotham Greens. At 75,000 square feet, it will be the largest rooftop greenhouse in the world, growing leafy greens such as basil, lettuce, and kale once it’s planted later this summer. The greenhouse will produce up to 1 million pounds of fresh, sustainably grown, pesticide-free produce annually, and will be distributed through local Chicago retailers, restaurants, farmers’ markets, and community groups.

In the parking lot, solar photovoltaic collectors rotate every six minutes to follow the path of the sun across the sky. There’s also a 23-story wind turbine. Currently, the LEED Platinum factory produces a third of its power from these renewable sources, and it purchases renewable energy credits to account for the remaining energy used.

Its south-facing façade features two bands of tall windows, each adorned with neon, multicolored awnings that take their cue from Method’s chromatically rich products. These provide exuberant signage from nearby I-94 and call to mind postmodernist Robert Venturi’s notions of a “decorated shed”—a simple structure defined by iconic signage.

McDonough (whose team used Autodesk AutoCAD on the project) thought through his design in similarly simple 2D terms. If you ask a child to draw a factory, he says, you get a broad, squat box with a smokestack, and if they’ve spent a lot of time with PBS Ken Burns documentaries, maybe a sawtooth roof for day lighting. The Method factory is this iconic, universal representation turned on its head. It’s the same profile, but with a wind turbine, instead of a smokestack spewing poison, and hydroponic greenhouses instead of sawtooth skylights.

“Who are we supposed to be designing for?” McDonough says. “We design everything for 10-year-olds. If you get it right for the kids, it works for everyone else, too. And they’ll be alive in the next century.”

Inside, the double-height lobby features Method products arranged in a rainbow display of glowing bulbs installed on a wall. Method’s factory floor consolidates the mixing of cleaning-supply ingredients, packaging (with longtime collaborator Amcor permanently installed), and shipping under one roof. One production line is up and running, but soon there will be three. By the end of this year, 70 percent of Method products will be produced there.

Past rows of multistory storage shelves, the color-coded loading-dock doors match the awnings outside, and skylights lend sunlight. The factory floor is bright and airy, devoid of acrid chemical hazes. “If I smell lavender, I know we’re making all-purpose cleaner,” van Gendt says. And there are more ambient pleasures to be had. Employees will be able to relax over a Wi-Fi-enabled lunch in the greenhouse, which will be 75 degrees in January. A second-floor terrace sits next to a clover-filled green roof, looking out over the wetlands and prairie.

These connections to nature won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with McDonough’s oeuvre. With his architecture firm William McDonough + Partners, he’s re-envisioned architecture as infrastructure that works in complement with nature, not in opposition to it. Early in McDonough’s career, when it was assumed that there was cheap fossil fuel to keep Le Corbusier’s “machine for living” humming along forever, something about this classic modernist dictum struck him as off-kilter: If a house is a machine for living, was a church “a machine for praying?” he mused. Wouldn’t it be better if buildings were more like parts of the natural world—like a tree?

“The idea of a building like a tree fascinated me because it was negative entropy,” McDonough says. “It was something that didn’t just cause chaos and the release of carbon.”

Trees sequester carbon and emit oxygen. The Method factory generates energy and grows food. Its industrial pedigree notwithstanding, it’s a building that regenerates its environment, making products that can do the same.

Very often, sustainable architecture is couched in terms of how to do less harm, not in terms of how much good a building can do. The Method factory takes this next step. The Cradle to Cradle design framework applies to buildings as the Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Products program does to products. The framework is one of only a few concrete blueprints for making this aspiration a reality by examining how things are created, used, and upcycled in order to ensure either return to the soil or continuous reuse.

Method’s factory is a big-box in a neighborhood of big-boxes. Whether commercial or industrial, the community desperately needs jobs, but the factory on its own won’t solve this problem. Once entirely staffed, it will only employ 100 people, which won’t put much of a dent in the neighborhood’s 20 percent unemployment rate. The only way Method can be as socially regenerative as it is environmentally regenerative will be for its factory, and guiding philosophy, to expand.