American Infrastructure: The Next Generation

Waste Transfer Renovation RenderingA New Life Proposed for a NYC Waste Transfer Station

As efficiency and new societal demands force the evolution of our infrastructural landscape we are consistently constructing new means to service our culture with its fundamental needs. In addition to energy and new virgin resources, the victims of this course of natural selection are often the preceding installations that have lived out their usefulness. The route of demolition and wholesale replacement may have a certain degree of ease when it comes to the planning process, but it creates a missed opportunity in not realizing and capitalizing on the latent energy and lifecycle costs of our existing, retired utilities.

Dubbed “Harlem Harvest”, this theoretical project was charged with exploring a new life for an existing waste transfer station in New York City. The design combines a new bike storage facility, a new kindergarten school and a vertical farming greenhouse, garnished by new floating community garden plots lining the coast. As our proficiency with mixed-use buildings develops we are becoming more aware that the ecology of programs (architect for “uses”) integrated together in a building is just as important as the series of systems needed to make the building function.

More on Vertical Farms: A New Wave of Agriculture: Vertical Farming 101

Building 3rd Floor Plan (click to enlarge)

Given that New York is without space to locally dispose of its own waste, every piece of trash produced on the island has to be carted off to a new resting place. Waste transfer stations placed along the city’s coastline provide docking points for large barges to take trash out of sight and out of mind. Garbage trucks can arrive and slide into place before dumping their collected contents on the waiting ships below. (These sophisticated methods of waste management are still in use today)

This particular station sits just offshore, held aloft over the Hudson River on a series of wooden pilings and connected back to land by a large concrete ramp. A steel structure sits on top of the wooden base with its columns and beams encased in concrete for floor plates that can support fully-loaded trucks. In the vein of true low-cost, municipal construction, the exterior and roof was clad in light-weight corrugated metal. After years of loyal service the building was decommissioned and has laid dormant ever since.


Despite being vacant and lonely, the “bones” of the building still had plenty to offer. Having been built to support a tremendous structural load, the network of steel could serve as a base for whatever new uses the site could foster. Concrete and steel are also very energy intensive to manufacture and erect with the concrete industry being one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the country. Any existing structural material that can be reused in its current form is not only saving demolition energy and landfill space, but avoids the new energy that needs to be poured into reproducing these materials from scratch.

As a result, the project retained the wooden piers, the concrete slab and most of the steel structure—the pitched roof and some of the wall columns were removed. The slab at the top of the access ramp was originally equipped with a series of large holes that facilitated the pouring of trash down to the waiting barges below. Now the existing punctures could also serve as the perfect opportunity to pierce service cores (fire stairs, elevator, mechanical systems) through the building. Altogether the proposal retains tens of thousands pounds of material.

Waste Transfer Station RenovationA Living System of Services:

Even if the building could perform all of the aforementioned tasks flawlessly, it could still be acting as a net drain of resources requiring only more infrastructure to be built in order to facilitate it. Instead, this building strove to be resource-positive in every aspect possible. The project creates an integrated ecology of systems that help maximize efficiency and minimize the need for incoming energy.

The main service core of the building sits embedded in the vertical farm. Spanning through all stories, the core is slid through the existing openings in the slab in order to provide the vertical connections needed for circulation, fire safety, and mechanical needs without the need for excessive demolition and restructuring. Outside of the necessary conveyance systems of stairs and elevators, the core holds a series of systems that work together to provide power, heat, fresh air, and clean water.

Starting on the bottom floor, the system actually begins where the food process ends, utilizing 3 anaerobic food digestors to consume organic waste and turn it into fuel stock. Inside the large chambers, food waste is broken down by organisms to leave behind water, organic sludge (used as a natural fertilizer component) and methane gas that is extracted and piped up to a 1MW cogeneration fuel cell on the floor above. The power comes with virtually no emissions and is coupled with the 102 kw of photovoltaic capacity (arranged over structural slabs on the southern face of the green house) to onsite battery storage capable of holding 4 MW of capacity. Power storage is vital to balance out the intermittent nature of many renewable power sources.

The heat from the fuel cell is combined with the 15.3 million BTUs of heat that can come from a roof covered with evacuated solar tubes to help temper the entire facility.  The top floor hosts its own living machine (separate from the one in the school) to refine water from both rain and the digestors (no human waste water) so that it can be used for farming, avoiding any draw from the city’s potable water supply. Hydroponic farming systems alone can use 80% less water than conventional farming.

Building the Food Cycle:

New York City perpetually battles with bringing food onto the island given that almost no food is produced there. Harlem Harvest tries to tackle both sides of this issue by making it easier for imported food to enter the city while also creating a testing bed for more locally grown produce.

As one of the densest cities in the world, New York carries a large demand for food, all of which has to negotiate the rivers, bridges and tunnels to get onto the island. Nearly every bit of the $36 billion that city residents annually spend on food is imported. As the population grows, more land is allocated outside of the city limits to sustain the appetite of the metropolis. Unsurprisingly, food is only one of nearly every resource for which New York takes more than it gives back. With the influx of food comes the costs in dollars, time and energy needed to bring everything into the Big Apple. Yet at the same time, New York is not far from local farmland.

The Hudson River allows for direct access to over 200,000 acres of farmland that can be linked to a new landing point, specifically targeting the upper half of the Manhattan and helping to address the estimated $660 million of unmet demand for local food in NYC. 17% of the Hudson River Valley is dedicated to farmland, producing $5.5 billion annually in food products. At the same time, transportation, distribution and uncoordinated direct points of sale constrict local farmers, ultimately helping to send over half of the produce from New York farms outside of the state.

The design offers a docking point for nearby Hudson farmers to offload their food for distribution into Manhattan. The open plaza of the main level can also easily serve as the grounds for a farmer’s market—a social event very popular throughout the city. Even then, New York suffers from the heavy carbon footprint on its food resulting from having it all imported. Our current agricultural system owes a great deal of its existence to petroleum so any efforts to bring the point of production closer to the point of consumption are paramount to a more sustainable development model.

Detail Site SectionFor Harlem Harvest, connecting to the sources of food up the river is paired with creating a source of food onsite. A four story vertical farm of metal and glass defines the southern edge of the building, serving as a living billboard of sustainable farming practices to the not only the tens of thousands of cars that pass by on the Henry Hudson parkway, but also the residents along the uptown coastline.

With adjustable levels of hydroponic farming, the greenhouse could generate an estimated 182 tons of food a year, providing a stable source of fresh produce to Harlem year round. Along the water’s edge, the scheme calls for a series of floating farming “plots” for a new, scalable way of adding community garden space to the island. With land demand always increasing, the space for community gardens is highly coveted. These floating planting beds allows for additional acreage to be developed by residents in a system that could be expanded over time, respond to changes in sea level and be deployed virtually anywhere along the island’s perimeter.

Food & Education:

It is easy to point out that even operating at its best, this one project would have a miniscule affect on the total food consumption of New York’s millions of residents, but the building could have a larger affect on bolstering the discussions about improving the food system on the infrastructural level. It is one thing to prove that a advantageous technology (like vertical farming) is viable, but this alone leaves the mission incomplete. The second part, and arguably just as important, is educating others on why the system works and how it can be deployed.

Ascending the ramp from the shore, arrivals see the tall, glass structure of the farm paired with the more tactile box of wood that they must pass beneath to enter the plaza. Held aloft above the open square, the wooden form is a school targeting the beginning years of formal education. While the school itself uses things like a green roof playscape and an in-house living machine to bolster the sustainability component of its curriculum, its location and direct access to the vertical farm is the kindergarten’s greatest asset. Here, children can see and experience the process of sustainable farming in a prime location to learn of how complex the food cycle truly is. From there, the information can migrate outwards into the city that growing kids will continue to occupy in countless ways.

Ironically, the site sits right beside Riverbank State Park, which is a crafty name for the turf-laden space that covers the sewage treatment plant built at water level to help the island deal with its large wastewater problem—stemming in no small part from its Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) system that combines stormwater with municipal wastewater. The Gowanus Canal suffers from similar ailments that could be addressed with new urban models for development and remediation. The unlikely pairing becomes a side-by-side comparison of the commonly accepted notion of infrastructure and what a new generation of combined systems can do to help improve the function of a city. One facility is tasked with taking a harmful, sometimes toxic substance resulting from a dated series of cultural norms and tries to mitigate its caustic properties enough to be released into the natural environment. The other collects natural resources and uses them to produce more of them for the city that it services. One is trying to minimize the damage that we inflict while the other is actively improving how we live and how that lifestyle impacts the environment.

[Harlem Harvest was an entry for the E.N.Y.A. Harlem Edge Competition. Submitted by Tyler Caine (myself), Ryan Doyle and Guido Eluneta, the submission won 3rd Prize in the competition.]

[AlI Images are the property of the competition team]