Vertical ‘Pinkhouses:’ The Future Of Urban Farming?
The idea of vertical farming is all the rage right now. Architects and engineers have come up with spectacular concepts for lofty buildings that could function as urban food centers of the future.
In Sweden, for example, they’re planning a 177-foot skyscraper to farm leafy greens at the edge of each floor. But so far, most vertical gardens that are up and running actually look more like large greenhouses than city towers. And many horticulturists don’t think sky-high farms in cities are practical.
“The idea of taking a skyscraper and turning it into a vertical farming complex is absolutely ridiculous from an energy perspective,” says horticulturist Cary Mitchell of Purdue University, who’s been working on ways to grow plants in space for more than 20 years.
The future of vertical farming, Mitchell thinks, lies not in city skyscrapers, but rather in large warehouses located in the suburbs, where real estate and electricity are cheaper.
And oh, yeah, instead of being traditional greenhouses lit by fluorescent lamps, he says these plant factories will probably be “pinkhouses,” glowing magenta from the mix of blue and red LEDs.
Light is a major problem with vertical farming. When you stack plants on top of each other, the ones at the top shade the ones at the bottom. The only way to get around it is to add artificial light — which is expensive both financially and environmentally.
Vertical farmers can lower the energy bill, Mitchell says, by giving plants only the wavelengths of light they need the most: the blue and red.
“Twenty years ago, research showed that you could grow lettuce in just red light,” Mitchell says. “If you add a little bit of blue, it grows better.”
Plant’s photosynthesis machinery is tuned to absorb red and blue light most efficiently. They have a handful of other pigments in their leaves that catch other wavelengths, but the red and blue wavelengths are the big ones, supplying the majority of the light needed to grow.
So why LEDs? They’re super energy efficient in general, but unlike traditional greenhouse lamps, they can be tuned to specific wavelengths. Why use all of ROYGBIV when just RB will do?
And there’s another advantage to using LEDs in greenhouses and vertical farming, Mitchell says: Because these lights are cooler, you can place them close to the plants — even stacked plants — and lose even less energy.
Recently, Mitchell and his graduate student designed a 9-foot-tall tower of lights and grew tomato plants right up against it. “As the plants get taller, we turn on the [light] panels higher up,” he explains. “It takes about two months before all the panels are on.”
The towers cut energy consumption by about 75 percent, Mitchell and his team reported earlier this year.
Right now, experiments are using these specialized LEDs to supplement natural light, not replace it.
But as LEDs get more and more efficient, could growers forgo the natural light altogether and grow crops completely in enclosed rooms, where they’re protected from temperature changes or damaging pests?
That’s exactly what Barry Holtz, at Caliber Biotherapeutics, is already doing.
His farms have never seen the light of day.
He and his company have built a 150,000-square-foot “plant factory” in Texas that is completely closed off from the outside world. They grow 2.2 million plants, stacked up 50 feet high, all underneath the magenta glow of blue and red LEDS.
“A photon is a terrible thing to waste,” Holtz tells The Salt. “So we developed these lights to correctly match the photosynthesis needs of our plants. We get almost 20 percent faster growth rate and save a lot energy.”
Holtz is growing a tobacco-like plant to make new drugs and vaccines. The indoor pinkhouse gives him tight control over the expensive crops, so his team can stop diseases and contamination.
Holtz says this type of indoor gardening isn’t going to replace traditional farms anytime soon. It’s still relatively expensive for growing food. “We couldn’t compete with iceberg lettuce farmers,” he says, “but for certain specialty crops, the economics wouldn’t be so bad.”And, he says, the pinkhouse is actually quite efficient when it comes to water and electricity. “We’ve done some calculations, and we lose less water in one day than a KFC restaurant uses, because we recycle all of it.”
Introducing Hungry Planet Farms:
Vertical farming is the growing of high quality organic produce in urban settings, utilizing vertical space and breakthrough LED technology, in a controlled environment.
Vertical farming’s controlled environment allows for large improvements in productivity and efficiency. Crops grow faster due to the consistent environment where every day is ideal for plant growth. Harvesting and delivery can be scheduled using modern logistics, and there are no weather related crop losses. Water and fertilizer that are normally lost to evaporation and run-off are recycled, reducing water use by 90% and fertilizer use by 75%. There is no need for chemical pesticides or herbicides. Total energy inputs, when counting all fossil fuel inputs used in outdoor farming, are roughly equal today, however, as fossil fuel costs rise and renewable electric costs decline, vertical farming will have a significant advantage in energy use.
The taste of produce depends entirely on the nutritional chemical elements (nitrogen, potassium, etc.) it has absorbed, and it’s freshness. Just like a conventional farm, a vertical farm must supply the plant’s root system with the right type and quantity of nutrients, and then deliver produce at its peak freshness. A vertical farm has more precise control over both, and consequently, the capacity to grow the best tasting food.
The quality of food is a more complex topic as it must include the level of environmental impurities that are absorbed by the plant during cultivation as well as the handling of the food from harvest to consumption. Beyond the fact that vertical farms have no need for chemical pesticides and herbicides, it has a fundamental advantage of a pure ‘starting’ point where pristine water and nutrient inputs are assured. As unfortunate as it may be, there are no pristine natural environments remaining.
Crop cycles are remarkably consistent in terms of time, quantity and quality. This results in a more efficient and less costly supply chain, as well as higher quality control for taste and appearance.
Vertical farming is not constrained to seasonal climate cycles, which allows each farm location to ‘tailor’ it’s produce to the local market conditions, on a season-by-season basis.
Resource Use and Cost Trends
Vertical farming is perfectly suited to a renewable energy future. Today’s vertical farm use no petroleum products in the farming process, a small fraction of the natural-gas based fertilizers of conventional farming, and in our model, no petroleum for transportation. The resource use and cost profile of conventional and vertical farming are heading in opposite directions.
Written by M.S. in Sustainability Management student Henry Gordon-Smith (’13)
Population growth and rapid urbanization have forced cities all over the world to prioritize the physical dimensions of sustainability. As a result, ‘green building’ has moved to the forefront of the sustainability industry. Globally, buildings consume more than 2/3 of all electricity and use about 40% of all resources: the built environment therefore best represents how we interfere with the natural world, for we build up barriers, create infrastructure, construct shelter, and exploit finite resources in the process. We spend 90% of our time inside buildings, thus improving their construction and management is a crucial component of sustainable development, and, more subtly but perhaps more importantly, through their design buildings have the potential to communicate—to motivate and inspire their inhabitants to behave more sustainably.
Being able to model solutions visually is a critical component for managers’ intent for solving environmental problems. For that reason, perhaps, advancing the way we design the built environment has always been my keenest interest. Sustainable design requires more than just the ability to create spatially: it requires expansive considerations—materials, energy, water-use, financial feasibility, new technologies. It must successfully execute the maxim “form meets function”. For me, the physical dimensions of sustainability management are the bases from which I launch into finding innovative solutions to environmental concerns.
One project that taught me the critical relationship between form and function in sustainable design was a LEED project some fellow SUMA students and I designed. Our task was to create a LEED platinum dormitory for the Harbor School on Governor’s Island whose design had to satisfy the school’s objectives. As the new structure would be located on the island, waste, energy, and water-use reduction were priorities. After learning the necessary components for a building to meet LEED requirements we began conceptualizing the elements of the structure. As the architect for the team it was my job to represent the ideas that we developed visually. The collaborative aspect of the project was inspiring; we laid out the features our building should achieve—net zero, 400-student capacity, LEED compliance, food producing—and I would be charged to render a model to match our consensus. The first problem we faced was the dormitory for 400 students: it was much larger than we anticipated. By creating a to-scale design we were able to interact with our idea’s spatial presence; this allowed us to discern the massive footprint it would command. Passive design and solar placement—the placing of a structure in a way that makes the most of solar thermal gains—also influenced our plan. After five attempts we reached our final version. Our building made the best of solar thermal gains by implementing a south-facing greenhouse façade that trapped heat from the sun.
ELIOOO is an instruction book about how to build a hydroponic system to grow plants, herbs, or vegetables in your apartment, using IKEA components.
The book will contain hand drawn illustrations, showing you everything you need to know about how to build and run ELIOOO step by step.
It will be digitally printed in full color, measuring 21 x 14.5 cm with a soft cover with and 150-200 pages. It will contain instructions for about how to build and run six different types and sizes of hydroponic devices as described below and as shown in the prototypes depicted here.
City Farming or Plant factories
Plant Factories or City Farming are concepts which are a reaction to the trend for production closer to and often even in the middle of the consumer market. The idea behind the concepts is based on maximum freshness and food safety for consumers, and minimum transport costs and times in the chain. Both Plant Factories and City Farming are aimed at sustainable multi-layer crops with minimum use of resources thanks to a perfectly controlled climate. Certhon is currently developing these concepts in practice, based on our own technology developed in-house.
A preview of the Bronx vertical farming complex – BXVF
“The BXVF is a model light urban factory composed of indoor growing systems layered in green infrastructure. Stacked, stand-alone modular grow labs are at the core of two separate farm complexes. One for aquaponics and hydroponics, and the other for aeroponics. These grow towers are on top of an above-grade foundation that serves as green infrastructure, space for distribution, and more grow labs”
Stay tuned for more agritecture…
Be careful when you’re snooping in someone else’s bookshelf. When you’re reaching for a text on plantlife, you might be grabbing an entire planter, like YOY’s flower pot, which masquerades as a book.