Archive for August 2012

Compact Growth

Watching as Curiosity toucheddown on Mars got me dreaming about the potentials of a space society. Living in space would require a change in how we design,with tighter living areas and decentralized waste and supply systems to reduce the resource needs of shipping from distant locations. When dreaming of a new society in space it is easy to see the benefits of these changes, yet our cities on earth can benefit from similar design changes. Already a major component of PlaNYC is preparation for the addition of over one million people to New York City, and similar rates of growth can be expected in other urban areas. Future cities of Earth will need to be developed to be more dense and self-reliant to lower their operating costs. Continuing on the previous post’s theme of urban agriculture, food production within society provides more than a local source for nutrition, but also converts our carbon dioxide to oxygen and reduces the transportation and energy costs of supplying from distant locations (ALYSON SHEPPARD, Popular mechanics). This week I decided to look into systems already being designed and tested for compact food growth.

When considering compact growing systems the trend is towards soil-less systems, where plants can be vertically stacked, hung, or floated near a window or along a wall under grow lights. NASA annually hosts an X-Hab Competition which encourages university teams to design regenerative space habitats for future space societies. As part of this year’s requirements, teams were to include robotic gardens, similar to the one pictured below design by the University of Colorado – Boulder team (Rebecca Boyle, Popular Science). This “bioregenerative food system” is based on an aeroponic design, which means it grows plants without a growth medium, employing a misting system using a combination of water and recycled crop waste. While articles are unclear where robotics is used in this system, it is clear how this technology can be used to produce food in a small area.

X-Hab design by students at University of Colorado — Boulder

While the X-hab competition is designing for space societies, similar intentions have driven design projects for here on earth. One such design by Phillips Design released in 2009 (pictured below) uses an aquaponics system to grow fish in one section, then uses the nutrient filled water from the fish in growing crops on the upper shelves. While I have never seen a prototype or further exploration on this design, the full Food Design Probe video by Phillip’s Design with the system in operation, along with some of their other food probes, can be found here.

Phillip’s Design probe for growing food within the home

One system that is being tested and has released some DIY design ideas is Britta Riley and Rebecca Bray’s WindowFarm. Relying on hydroponics, they string together systems vertically, allowing nutrients to drip down between growth mediums. Between their own website and the Digital Learning Foundation they provide a number of resources (DIY plan), for how to build these systems to test in your own home. Their research shows the potential for actual application of window growth systems and a direction for future application.

Using these space and window designs, we can see some of the possibilities for vertical spaces not only to grow food, but to create stimulating facades for buildings. Through utilizing natural lighting, a storefront window farm design would be ever changing, providing mental stimulation, drawing in customers, and providing a source for inspiration and discussion. In the next blog entry I will begin to assemble the concepts of the changing working environment and urban agriculture through conceptual drawings to begin a design exploring patch one – a collaborative, mobile work site.

Have a great week!

City Grown

I was first introduced to the concept of urban agriculture and vertical farms in graduate school and was immediately hooked by the concept! Something about the concept of growing food within our cities, reducing miles traveled and integrating with our built environment intrigues me and keeps drawing me back in. When it came time start my thesis project, this was the area I was positive I wanted to focus on, however it was a hard concept to sell at that time as there were few real-life projects to use as case studies. Now, a few years later, I am happy to do a post about some case studies and projects where groups are attempting to reduce supply chain costs through growing food in the city.

Across New York there are a couple of companies experimenting with different forms of rooftop farming, taking advantage of the cheaply available real estate in the heart of the city. Rooftop farming has become a part of Mayor Bloomberg’s vision for New York City with PLANYC, contributing not only to making food available, but reducing the city’s carbon from transportation and storm water through capturing rain in rooftop soil systems. In fact, zoning regulations have recently been amended, “to encourage green development, including rooftop farms, and the City Council approved the changes (Lisa Foderaro, New York Times).” One of the best examples of a company operating within these new regulations is BrightFarms, which uses a turnkey solution to finance, build and manage rooftop greenhouses with hydroponic systems to produce food for grocery stores. Paul Lightfoot presented the company’s business model at TEDx – Manhattan 2012 highlighting the value in providing higher quality foods at the same price through reducing supply chain costs. This model takes advantage of unused roof spaces, creating a side income for the property owner, while making space available for food production in the city that doesn’t raise cost of production to outpace traditional produce sources.

BrightFarms Installation

In addition to hydroponic greenhouse systems, like BrightFarms and Gotham Greens being used, other companies are experimenting with leasing space and using soil systems to cover the roof in an outdoor field. Brooklyn Grange, for instance, has a twenty year lease with the Brooklyn Navy Yard to farm their rooftop. This model, of course, must adhere to a more limited growing season. The next step I would expect to see is a more efficient combination of these rooftop productions that begin to be integrated with internal building uses. For example, is there a waste heat source that can also be used? Can storm water from other sites be feasibly stored for use?

View of west half of Brooklyn Grange, (Photo by Cyrus Dowlatshahi,

While these systems operate on the rooftops of New York, in Chicago The Plant is trying to open in an old meat packing facility. The Plant intends to combine an aquaponic growing system with sustainable food businesses through running a shared commercial kitchen. At The Plant,

Aquaponics is a closed-loop growing system that creates a symbiotic relationship between tilapia and vegetables. The tilapia produce ammonia-based waste that is sent through a biofilter where solids settle out and the rest is broken down into nitrates. Those nitrates are then fed to plants growing in hydroponic beds. By absorbing the nitrates, the plants clean the water, which is returned to the fish.”

The Plant's process (Matt Bergstrom,

This business model adds the reuse of an old building and integrates with other start-ups to feed on each other’s waste systems and become more profitable.

I will be interested to watch each of these companies over the next few years to see which methods are the most profitable and how these companies influence industry growth. There is a lot of potential with even greater integration of food production within our buildings, and I think for next week’s post I will plan to research low area food production options. These include systems designed for apartments, homes, and integrated with vertical light walls, as well as NASA and private space exploration companies. How can urban production be integrated with previously introduced site one collaborative work site concepts?

Have a great week!