While the interest in the prospects of Vertical Farming have picked up over the last few years with the topic finding its way into more articles and design competitions, we have yet to see a corresponding surge in prototypes going into construction. We have not suddenly come to an ulterior solution for how to supply more locally grown produce to our cities with a reduced carbon footprint behind it by any means, but financing hasn’t yet found a model for vertical farming that seems to be worth bringing past the brainstorming stage. However, a new proposal by OVA Studio that pushes a modular version of vertical farms is in the process of trying to secure funding for prototype design and construction, hoping to be the model that bucks the trend.
The basics of vertical farming revolve around the idea of dense towers capable of producing food where demand for food is highest: in the center of our cities. (Find Vertical Farms 101 here) If the process of growing our sustenance can change from a planar one that takes up lots of land (and water, and chemicals) to a stacked one that climbs into the air, there is a possibility for saving plenty of resources currently being sunk into conventional farming. A great goal to shoot for, but in this case it doesn’t take long for the reality of costs in an urban setting to catch up with creativity. Not only is building tall expensive, but the very density that makes demand for food so high also makes the land beneath it very expensive. Any vertical farm that stands a chance of being tested has to conquer the basic mechanics of solvency.
The Hive Farm by OVA Studio offers a different way to think about the solution, crafting a vertical farm out of the modular block of shipping containers in order to promote scalability for a reduction of upfront costs and variability to respond to local market demands over time. The design proposal begins with a structural base: a typical concrete core for elevators and services within a large steel frame—not entirely different from the start of construction for a typical commercial office tower in New York. The grid supports a matrix of open cells where outfitted shipping containers could slip in, hook up and produce.
With a litany of design imagery for the project, the presentation begs the question of where does it lie on the scale of feasibility in relation to its peers.
The basics of OVA’s design lends itself to a series of advantages. The modular nature of the design could bring a scalability that helps with the upfront costs of construction. Instead of designing complex curtain walls and mechanical systems for a large building, smaller systems can be designed for each “pod” and simply plugged into risers for water, sewage and power running up and down the core. Theoretically, this means that the first pods could already start producing while the others have yet to be made or shipped to the site.
Having the container system also allows for inherent variability in what kinds of pods are installed, bringing the ability to respond to market demands or even different program types. OVA dug into a series of potential container types that could contribute to the overall ecology of a vertical farm. The studio’s diagram of a potential industrial ecosystem was not dissimilar from Intercon’s vertical farm diagram, incorporating a series of components outside of just producing food including power generation, apiaries, aquaculture and rainwater harvesting. The nature of the design makes it possible for even these complex, more expensive systems to be added, repaired or upgraded incrementally as the farm grows over time. This interconnected model creates a farm that could take important steps towards self-sufficiency, lowing net costs of what is normally an expensive process with a great deal of resource inputs. Anything that reduces the price of production represents the opportunity to capture profit from what normally serve as expenses to the supply chain of conventional farms.
Natural light often comes up as a drawback to the vertical farm model especially in cities like New York, where it is assumed that any vertical farms will be sharing the skyline with other tall buildings. Deeper daylight penetration points to shallower floorplates, which in turn decreases yield sizes and their corresponding revenue. OVA balances the availability of natural light with produce streams that don’t require it. Whether it is fish farms, bee hives or stacked growing with UV lights, the project designers went out of their way to wisely utilize the sides of the building that lay in shadow.
To date, the largest hurdle for the world of vertical farming is cost. Despite the innovative system proposed in the Hive Farm, it is not clear that it has solved the problem. Though the concept of varied container types with complementary uses exemplifies the functional direction that our agriculture industry should be moving towards, it could still be very expensive. In order to be beneficial, every container type would need to be able to make the case of potential profitability–a case that may be more difficult for technologically complicated boxes. Additionally, the same variability that allows for customization also puts pressure on achieving economies of scale both in the production of the boxes themselves as well as harvesting the various modes of farming throughout the year.
The other cost barrier in city centers is the value of land. The rising sale prices of real estate in cities only continue to make the land beneath it more valuable. A Hive Farm in the Big Apple prompts the questions of how tall a farm would have to be in order to generate enough revenues to justify the land purchase. OVA renders their design on a site conveniently next to a park and presumably facing south, which makes plenty of sense. While the theoretical site is optimal for a vertical farm, it’s most likely just as optimal for high end residential. In order to reach viability the Hive Farm needs to be able to compete with market rate housing in terms of lifetime financial returns.
Urban But Not Vertical
Creating nodes of production for fresh food in cities does not have to be tall in order to successful in decreasing the resource footprint associated with transporting food from rural farmland. On the contrary, while we think of cities as dense cores of vertical growth, the concentration of upward momentum in Manhattan is an exemplary outlier compared to the average American skyline. Even if systems like the Hive Farm struggle against monetary obstacles like land value and the premium of tall construction it doesn’t mean that the creation of lower urban farms isn’t viable.
There has been more traction on projects beneath the larger umbrella of urban farming rather than the specificity of taller, larger genus meant for the heart of urban cores. A great example is The Plant in Chicago where an old warehouse on the city’s South Side has been turned into a multi-component ecology of food production. In the same vein of OVA’s interconnected design, the Plant hosts things like aquaponics (hydroponics + aquaculture), kombucha tea production, a brewery and an anaerobic digestor for power production. Their future plans also have goals of commercial kitchens, bees and maybe even livestock.
Their business plan required funding to retrofit an existing building with these systems, but there could be a market for each of these systems being pre-packaged in a container that comes ready to go with stubs for hooking up services. If it meant that stacks of colorful crates were better suited for Queens than the West Side Highway, so what? It would still be close enough to be a great source of food an urban population. No need to stop there. The selection of pre-fabricated farm components could even be offered to existing farms that are interested in a transition to more efficient systems that can diversify their growing portfolio. For the farmer growing fields of corn that wants to break into hydroponics and power production, Hive containers could be an option.
While the future of vertical farms remains uncertain, there is no question that our agricultural industry needs to find ways to integrate new technologies and best practices for feeding a country of people more sustainably. Those solutions don’t need to come from chemical companies or start in a lab, but can also be prompted by designers and engineers by rethinking the problem rather than finding more ways to test the limits of the status quo.
All Images Courtesy of OVA Studio