Archive for Urban Agriculture

On The Farm Update

It has been five months since I constructed my WindowFarm and, like any first-time build, there have been many learning experiences. From the minor water and nutrient adjustments, to equipment changes, and eventually moving the whole build to another window, it has gone through many adjustments. As a result, there has unfortunately not been any production; however, it has been a good learning experience. As I continue to make improvements, I have assembled the following list of take-aways regarding my WindowFarm build:

  1. Lack of a Natural Green Thumb: I have not grown plants other than a handful of herbs since science class in elementary school. Turns out, despite completing some research before building the system, I do not have a natural green thumb. I’ve had very good plant growth, which is pleasant and relaxing for the apartment, but no production so far due in part to reasons to follow and in part to a lack of good luck
  2. Assembly and Planning: Assembly of the WindowFarm was very easy; however, be sure to plan well where you are hanging the system. I chose to put mine next to my computer desk so I could watch it and enjoy the plants each night while I worked. While I enjoyed having the plants growing next to me, this created access issues as I tried to make adjustments. It also prevented me from opening the window because I was concerned that during a storm rain would blow in and that high winds coming off the lake would cause system damage or spills. However, for cooling my apartment, I rely on cross ventilation, so by the middle of summer not having one of my windows open was unbearable. I’ve since moved the WindowFarm to another larger window with less wind concerns, though in the process had some plants break leading to the demise of two tomato plants.


    Unfortunately these two tomato plants died off after moving the system to this window. They sustained damage in the move and through a falling lamp that they couldn’t recover from.

  3. Equipment Improvements: I initially had the unit hanging from hooks above the window, with the primary suspension system holding the water tank. This however led to a long suspension that was not very sturdy feeling. I’ve since strung it so each level is suspended from the one above it (creating two connections to support each level) and installing a ratchet/pulley system to run up to the hook. These improvements have made each column much more sturdy, but also led to some plant breaking and flower loss while they were installed.
    Two connections, bottle-to-bottle and suspension has kept it more sturdy.

    Two connections, bottle-to-bottle and suspension has kept it more sturdy.


  4. 20130903_175529Lighting Additions: Shortly after starting it became clear I was not getting enough sunlight and needed to add some artificial lighting. LED bulbs were a very efficient method, each using less than 5 watts, which means with my electric bill already carrying a full size desktop computer, Playstation, and projector, the WindowFarm lighting and air pump aren’t noticeable on my bill. That said, make sure if you going to add LED lights you have a plan. My addition greatly improved my growth, but like a mom whose children just left for college, I now have no lamps in my apartment for normal use.20130811_200734_smaller
  5. Group Like Plants Per Column: Hindsight being 20-20 this seems like a no brainer, yet it is not something I did. By planting tomatoes in one column, and eggplant in another, and peppers in another I could have made adjustments to nutrients, water, and lighting conditions to fit plant needs. However, by mixing them, whatever I did to help one plant of course hurt the others. Group like plants together: simple, but important.

    In the left foreground an eggplants, on the right a pepper, and on the top the last remains of a dead tomato plant.

    In the left foreground an eggplants, on the right a pepper, and on the top the last remains of a dead tomato plant.

  6. Design Addition: Have vertical supports in place for climbing plants (tomato and eggplant in my case) prior to planting. Trying to add these later led to plant damage and limited my options.
  7. Excel Is Your Friend: I’ve tried to keep good records of water, nutrients, additional hours of light, and so on, but they aren’t good enough. As I work on design changes, an additional system, and plan for the plants next season I wish I had better records.

This project has been a positive learning experience and with the number of flowers I’m getting, I still expect some eggplant and pepper production, but I am making some design changes before planting my kale and spinach seedlings. I also am working on a horizontal design for some raspberry and blue berry bushes this fall.

Hopefully some of these notes will be useful to others who try to build home systems. As I say, while it wasn’t the instant success I would hope for, it has been a fun experience and I’m excited to keep making improvements as I move forward.

Coming up:

In addition to the WindowFarm, I have been working on the parking lot digital model mentioned in my last post, but am also making some necessary computer component upgrades. After five years, I found it was necessary to make some improvements and has resulted in generally a new build. I hope to have my first models, matching some of the pictures shared previously, very soon. Then I will work more on detail development of the site. In the mean time I will do a post with some hand sketches and developmental ideas. I also plan to do a post reviewing Scatter, Adapt, and Remember by Annalee Newitz. In short, I highly recommend it as a well researched and very insightful read using geological and and anthropological history as a base to proposing our climate change adaption options.

As always I welcome comments and questions with my WindowFarm build, and look forward to the next post. Have a great week!

Building my WindowFarm

Since my last post I have been working on building my own DIY WindowFarm  for my apartment. To begin, I committed to this project being very DIY, test lab. While beauty is important and I want it to be presentable (since it is located in my living room and kitchen), I also knew this was my version 1.0 build — the first steps from theoretical urban agriculturalist to urban farmer. Future expansions and versions will focus more on beauty and greater efficiency, for now it was take what I know and get my hands dirty (sometimes quite literally).

I started with the four column design from WindowFarms and besides using comments from their opensource blog to make small design changes, I added a composting component to convert food and other compostable waste to soil to be used for a seed starting component.

Vermiculture Tower

Using old coffee containers, I began by building and filling a 1/58,080 acre vermiculture tower in my kitchen. Vermiculture, which uses red worms to more quickly break down compost, is actually an easy process to manage and keep odor free in my apartment (Growing Power). Within the containers is food waste, torn up newspaper, and a couple thousand red worms.

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Holes have been drilled into each container to allow the system to stay moderately dry and prevent fruit flys. Also stacking the containers allows any liquids to flow downward and eventually into a base pan, further keeping the whole system moderately dry. Using separate cells will allow them to be filled in a progressive pattern, so by the time the third one is full, the first is ready for me to harvest the soil.

Plant Propagation

Once enough soil was procured from my compost, I reused old yogurt cups to start seeds. Between my first few cups I’ve started seeds for heirloom black cherry tomatoes,  kale, and alpine strawberries. Using a heat mat that raises air temperature above it approximately ten degrees, the cups have been placed in an aluminum pan and covered to hold in heat and moisture. This should help to reduce propagation time. I have also placed a sheet of scrap rigid insulation below the heat pad to direct more of the heat up and protect the table surface.



Finally, in the window I have installed three of the four planned columns for the WindowFarm. I am waiting to assemble the fourth in case I want to test any design changes with it.


Using old soda bottles I have cut holes for the plants to grow out of and filled the base of each with clay pebbles as found in typical hydroponic systems. An air pump pushes water from the base container to the top level, allowing the water to drip down each column (see video below)

Window Farm

In the next week I will wire up the lighting system that will work with this system to extend daily growing hours. Then as plants sprout and get large enough I will replant them in the columns and set the system on timers for the light and pump.

Why do this?

For starters, it sounded like a fun project and I like the idea of converting waste to fresh produce in my apartment. In architecture school my favorite projects were the hands on design builds where I ended up with physical installations (many of which can still be found, serving other purposes, around my apartment). In the long run, I would like to design a marketable system for apartments that produces a decent amount of produce while being beautiful and affordable (A more realistic application of the Phillips Food Design Probe  that I previously shared). At some point I will add a hydroponics layer with fish, a soil bed for root veggies, and will improve the efficiency of my system to ramp up production, however that will be saved for future builds and versions.

In my next post I am planning to zoom back out to the urban scale to look at historical Utopian city designs to compare with the proposals of recent private company start-ups with visions of the colonization of the Moon and Mars. I find some of their goals and designs fascinating and they can be utilized in thinking about how our cities here on earth will change in the future as well.


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!