This is why we should be farming in skyscrapers

A set of vertical farms designed for use in China. Image: Vincent Callebaut Architects.

If you follow architecture or design at all, you may have come across aggressively futuristic renderings of skyscrapers topped with rice paddies, or tree-shaped buildings, sprouting plant life from every orifice.

However fantastical they may look, these designs spring from two very practical problems. First: as the proportion of the world living in cities nears 55 per cent, wouldn’t it be more efficient to grow food close to these consumers, rather than shipping everything in from rural areas? And second: as the world’s overall population increases, aren’t we going to run out of flat space to farm?


In 1999, Dickston Despommimer, coiner of the phrase “vertical farming”, took these problems to a room full of medical ecology graduate students, and suggested that farming in cities could be an answer of sorts. The class looked into whether the space on New York’s urban rooftops could contribute significantly to the city’s food need if it was farmed.

Unfortunately, the answer was no.

The mental leap that brought Despommier to a potential solution was the same one made by the urban planners who needed to house cities’ exploding populations in the 19th century: if you can’t build across, build up. You can clearly see that thinking at work in this skyscraper sketch from a 1909 edition of Life magazine. Check out those gardens:

Sketch by architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas, featured in Life magazine,1909.

Once you get past the idea that farming must take place on flat, outdoor land, a whole range of other advantages become apparent. By using LED lighting and plants grown on stacked shelves, or even stacked floors in a skyscraper, you can achieve year-round crop-growing. There’s no danger from severe weather or pests, and therefore no need for pesticides. And you have a new use for abandoned or blighted buildings.

When I spoke to Despommier about his ideas last year, it became clear that his obsession with farming in cities actually springs from an obsession with places that aren’t cities. He calculated that, to match the world's 3bn population increase projected by 2050, we’d need an extra patch of farmland bigger than Brazil. Yet in regions where agriculture could expand, such as Africa, yields are low, and creating more farmland would require carbon-producing deforestation: essentially, it would take a massive toll on the environment, and wouldn’t even produce that much food.

Add to this the fact that some of our most productive farmland in India and the US lies in areas likely to be affected by climate change, and we’ve got a real problem on our hands. Despommier hopes that if the concepts behind Vertical Farming come into widespread use, ecosystems across the world could be saved from conversion into farmland.

So Despommier and his students kept working on the idea, and putting their ideas online. “When you put anything on the internet, it runs the risk of being shot down by naysayers. But just the opposite happened,” he tells me. Enthusiastic fans sent in their own fantastical designs, “most of which were impractical and would never work” – but a select handful have become reality. 

"This kind of hi-tech invention has a way of evolving towards the common human"

Japanese ecologists and agriculturalists were particularly keen on the idea, as the country has a high population density and very little growing space. Meanwhile, a history of nuclear disaster has contaminated sea and land alike, and prompted a new approach to farming. What Despommier describes as “an underground academic movement” developed in Japan, dedicated to inventing new ways to grow food in closed closed containers using high-tech methods like hydroponics and aeroponics, plus LED grow lights.

Both growing methods are still central to vertical farming: hydroponics involves submerging plants’ roots in water fortified with nutrients; aeroponics involves spraying the roots with a similar sort of solution. About five years ago, the Japanese government issued a technical report on a new industry they named “plant industries”, concluding that it could make a major contribution to Japanese daily diets.

Japanese branches of Subway grow their lettuce hydroponically in-house. Image: Subway.

The range of options in Japan is a good case study for how the industry is burgeoning elsewhere. Nuvege manufactures leafy green vegetables on a grand scale; while Pasona O2 is a mixed-use office building, where tomatoes and rice are grown on the ground floor and office workers eat the plants produced. Then there are grocery stores where plants are grown in situ, and you can harvest your own lettuces to take home. One is a large-scale, factory-like operation, while the others are, as Despommier admits, “elitist, a bit high end”. But he is adamant that the large-scale operations will win out in the end:These inventions have a way of evolving towards the common human. Everyone seems to be able to buy a car nowadays.”

Internationally, there are now companies like Plantlab, which supply technology for those looking to set up a farm. There are vertical farms across the US, ranging from commercial farms, like Michigan's Green Spirit farms, to non-profits that teach people how to grow ther own food.The world’s largest is currently a vertical farm in Scranton, Pennsylvania. And the most futuristic facility yet is currently under construction in  Linköpin, Sweden: a pilot greenhouse created by Plantagon technologies.  

Local officials break ground for the Plantagon facility planned for Linköping, Sweden, right. Images: Plantagon.

Despommier says it’s hard to compare the prices of indoor and outdoor farming directly, because traditional agriculture is so heavily subsidised. Indoor farming, despite its use of electricity to power LED lighting, uses less fossil fuels overall: yields are far higher (90 per cent rather than about 50 per cent for traditional farming), you often don’t have to transport it so far, and operations like weeding are cut out of the chain.

And the efficiency is only improving. LED light producers realised the potential for their businesses in vertical farming, and started working on more efficient LED lights which could be used to grow plants. Philips had a 28 per cent efficient model, but their lighting experts have now managed to more than double this with a 68 per cent efficient version.

When it comes to convincing investors and banks, this has made a huge difference, Despommier says. “Banks know how much kW of electricity costs, and with the old lights they knew that you were only on the cusp of being profitable because of your energy usage.” Now, more efficient lights – and others which emit only the wavelengths used by plants to minimise wastage – mean vertical farming is fast becoming a profitable option, rather than a gimmicky idea destined to stay in the domain of fancy architectural drawings.

Speakers at least year’s Vertical Farming and Urban Agriculture (VFUA) conference at the University of Nottingham ranged from community gardening organisations to representatives from MIT’s Senseable Lab, where cutting-edge indoor farming techniques are being explored. Other, smaller programs used a closed ecological system of fish and tomatoes where the fish acted as fertilisers, though this has yet to be tried out on a large scale. These smaller, more boutique offerings serve a purpose, even if they don’t feed entire cities: Tim Benton, professor and UK Global Food Security Champion (yes, this is a job), told the conference that attitudes to food can make a huge difference to waste. Food waste and over-consumption of meat also contribute to the world food problem; small, educational projects can help change attitudes towards both.

"When it comes to farming, there’s  a recognition that we literally cannot carry on as we are"

One speaker, however, veered off the beaten track. Unlike those who came laden with diagrams and even samples of farming equipment, Oscar Rodriguez, founder of design consultancy Architecture and Food, is concerned with helping farmers navigate planning obstacles to vertical farming in the UK. He has slaved over the many definitions and varieties of existing and proposed urban farms to create a vocabulary for planners to use. This is to combat what he calls “word fatigue”: “People like the sound of vertical farming, because it’s different to horizontal farming, but that term covers a huge array of different ideas.”

At the VFUA conference, Rodriguez announced his intention to get urban agriculture included in UK planning legislation, as it is in New York and Seattle. At the moment, those approaching city councils with plans for greenhouses on the roofs of disused buildings come up against blank faces, as this type of structure doesn’t fit into the existing planning discourse.

Sting's a fan. Image: Getty.

This type of regulatory backing could help formalise the industry. One presenter at the conference responded to a question about whether roofs are strong enough to bear up under the weight of greenhouses with a shrug, saying, “It seems strong, so far it’s been fine. But we’ll have to see how it’s doing in a year.” This isn't really a feasible long-term plan. 

Governmental support would also be a huge help. Hydroponic, aeroponic and LED technology are not cheap investments, but most governments already subsidise agriculture – in the USA, by as much as $20bn a year. If some of that budget were transferred to new technologies, the shift towards more inventive, efficient forms of farming might be made all the quicker.

Last year, Tim Benton noted that, for the first time, the issue of the future of agriculture is becoming a serious item on UK politicians’ agendas. While that may not translate to immediate action, he thinks it’s clear to most decision-makers worldwide that something needs to change: “When it comes to farming, there’s a recognition that we literally cannot carry on as we are.” 

Around the world, in fact, the industry is gaining high-profile supporters – Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley recently backed the idea, the Japanese government is helping out its growing industry with tax breaks and subsidies, and Holland and France’s governments are both lending a hand to establish vertical farming schemes. Oh, and Sting bought the film rights to Despommier’s book on vertical farming and is currently making a documentary based on it. 

And Despommier? He’s pretty happy with the progess made so far. “I'm really jumping out of my skin, so to speak, because this idea started as a fanciful think piece in a classroom, and it's now what you would call a growing industry.” Punning aside, he has a point.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.