Martin Felsen, AIA, and Sarah Dunn, AIA
Lee Powers Martin Felsen, AIA, and Sarah Dunn, AIA

In 2000, when Sarah Dunn, AIA, and Martin Felsen, AIA, (left) founded their Chicago architecture firm, they wanted to pursue a broad range of work, from small, private residential projects to large-scale urban ones. But soon the husband-and-wife duo realized that big urban projects require vast amounts of time and fund raising, which would be difficult for a seven-person firm. To remedy this problem, UrbanLab began a series of interrelated research projects exploring Chicago’s infrastructure, to learn about the needs of the city and to use that expertise as leverage to secure large urban projects. “Research is about developing data and information metrics, so that when we try to convince city officials or a department about starting a project, we have the data to back it up,” Felsen says. “The ultimate goal is to delve scientifically into a subject and come out with a design project.” UrbanLab’s research, some in collaboration with Archeworks, an alternative design school in Chicago (Felsen sits on the board of directors), as well as other design professionals, engineers, ecologists, and economists, recently helped the firm procure an ambitious project for the city’s Department of Environment: transforming the Stockyards—the iconic symbol of Chicago’s meatpacking-industry past—into a vertical urban farm and biofuel power plant.

UrbanLab secured the Stockyards commission through a research project dating back to 2006. Called Eco-Boulevards, the initiative explored ways to reconceive the Chicago street grid as a “holistic biosystem” that captures, cleans, and returns waste and stormwater to Lake Michigan. Currently, Felsen and Dunn found, Chicagoans discard, down their drains, over 1 billion gallons of Great Lakes water every day. A second phase of research led to a Web-based toolkit called NeighborShed that enabled individuals and local governments to calculate their energy use, water use, and overall carbon footprint. The idea behind NeighborShed, which was funded by a $100,000 AIA Latrobe Prize in 2009, was to create a metric-based social network platform to help “track and tweak” community-action plans related to energy, water, and food, and to encourage citizens to get involved in the city’s Climate Action Plan. Interested city officials, including former Mayor Richard M. Daley, suggested that the firm use aspects of this research to focus on an urban agriculture project.

The Stockyards project—called Chicago Metabolism—was born. Now in the conceptual design phase, the project picks up on many of the ideas and research generated over several years by UrbanLab, including Eco-Boulevards and NeighborShed. The project imagines a new identity for areas within the Stockyards, which have now largely fallen out of use, as an off-the-grid sustainable center for locally grown produce and bioenergy, and a new generation of food companies.

As the winding path to securing the Chicago Metabolism project suggests, it’s not always clear where UrbanLab’s research will lead. “We’re not fixed on a certain idea,” Felsen says, which can be frustrating for architects, who stereotypically like assignments with well-defined boundaries. By comparison, research is open ended. “We work on projects and they turn into something else and then something else. They can morph into different things. Sometimes they never end.”