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Energy & Environment

Charlotte's Innovation Barn Finally Opens, Promoting A Circular Economy

091821 Innovation Barn sign.JPG
David Boraks
The $5 million Innovation Barn has opened on Seigle Avenue in the Belmont neighborhood. It's an incubator for sustainable businesses.

After three years of planning and construction, the city of Charlotte and an environmental group have finished converting an old city garage into what is planned to be an incubator for environmentally sustainable businesses.

The Innovation Barn formally opened with a private party Friday and an open house on Saturday.

The city has spent nearly $5 million to renovate the old building on Seigle Avenue in the Belmont neighborhood. It's a joint effort with Envision Charlotte, which will manage the building as a showcase for what it calls the "circular economy."

Traditional businesses in the so-called "linear economy" take raw materials and turn them into products that eventually wind up in landfills — by design. In the circular economy, the goal is zero waste. Everything gets reused either by the business itself or others

091821 Innovation Barn Amy Aussieker.JPG
David Boraks
Amy Aussieker is executive director of Envision Charlotte, which manages the Innovation Barn for the city.

The idea behind the Innovation Barn is to create jobs while growing businesses that reuse waste materials.

"If you can keep stuff out of the landfill, you can turn it into innovations, which turn into jobs," Amy Aussieker, the executive director of Envision Charlotte, said Saturday while leading a tour of the building. "And so when you tell city leaders you can take trash and make jobs. They're like, 'Oh, we're in. Sign us up.'"

Two years ago, local environmentalists and some city staff members expressed reservations about the project's cost and intent. The Innovation Barn wound up costing double the initial budget approved by Charlotte City Council and opened two years later than projected.

091821 Innovation Barn Damon Barron.JPG
David Boraks
Damon Barron is with Carolina Urban Lumber, which takes trees cut from homes and construction sites and turns them into furniture.

It's mostly a demonstration project right now. There's a glass bottle pulverizer that turns bottles into sand for concrete and gardening, a plastics lab that can recycle plastic food containers and other plastics that aren't recycled in Mecklenburg County, and a teaching kitchen and event space.

But a few tenants already are using circular economy tactics.

Carolina Urban Lumber has a showroom for its one-of-a-kind tables and mantle pieces created from trees cut from local construction sites.

"We try to partner with developers, tree services, even homeowners who are going to take a tree down and dump it or throw it, or grind it, or not use it," said Carolina Urban Lumber general manager Damon Barron. "And we tried to utilize it for furniture, or we have lumber products that we sell out of our store in Pineville."

091821 Innovation Barn aquaponics lab.JPG
David Boraks
Tilapia grown in this tank produce nutrient-rich wastewater that is used to grow lettuce at 100 Gardens. It's an example of the circular economy, where waste is reused.

And there are benefits for other Innovation Barn tenants. Sawdust from its workshop can be used by MUSH, a mushroom farmer, and by Crown Town Composting, which mixes it with food waste. Black soldier fly larvae in the compost then become food for fish growing in a massive tank at 100 Gardens, an education-focused aquaponics garden. As fish grow, their nutrient-filled wastewater is used to grow lettuce.

"You're growing plants, you're growing animals in a symbiotic relationship. And it's just a great way to teach kids in a hands-on way about all the stuff that they want to learn anyway," said Charles Oliphant of 100 Gardens. The organization sets up aquaponics projects at schools.

Even the renovation itself played the recycling game, said Elizabeth Hamilton of Progressive AE architecture, who helped design the building.

"When we were designing the barn, the idea of the circular economy was important," Hamilton said. "So even the doors in this building are construction waste from other sites. The concrete that we used has high recycled content. It's even got a little bit of what the old parking lot was. And it's got some crushed glass from the waste stream here in Mecklenburg County."

Meanwhile, because Charlotte residents love their beverages, the Innovation Barn also has a coffee shop called Crane Coffee and a craft beer and wine bar called RePour that's open Fridays to Sundays.

About half the 36,000-square-foot building has been renovated so far. The Innovation Barn is still looking for corporate sponsors and other potential circular economy tenants.

091821 Innovation Barn RePour.JPG
David Boraks
RePour, a local craft beer and wine bar, is open Fridays to Sundays at the Innovation Barn.

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