Energy Initiative Blogs

Vertical Farming and Sustainable Buildings

by Ayesha Riaz | May 06, 2015

The importance of agriculture is uncontested because people require food to live. Recently, as the push for natural organic foods has grown without the use of GMO's (genetically modified organisms), people are beginning to understand the economic restraints and physical barriers associated with living in a food desert. In 2012, the drought in Illinois (and most of the Mid-west) decimated annual corn harvests. It also negatively impacted food costs in the subsequent season, but not by much because the higher cost of food was offset by commodities that weren't impacted by the drought.


Comparison of August 2012 to current June 2014 drought conditions

We are always at the mercy of nature to provide us with adequate conditions for agriculture. For damage control and year-round access to fresh food, some communities have invested in neighborhood gardens that have converted into businesses. We Farm America, based in Chicago is a perfect example of how local food movements have other beneficial effects. We Farm America converts vacant lots (waste of space and energy), into functional gardens that help Chicago's underserved neighborhoods and turning low-income homeowners towards a more sustainable lifestyle while also utilizing resources they already have.

We Farm America installing rooftop gardens

Other businesses operate on a larger scale like The Plant. The Plant is an interesting organization that combines vertical farm, food-business incubator, research and education space. It exists to supply food and other resources to the Chicago area. Located in a previous industrial facility, The Plant will be net-zero energy and will produce all of its own electricity. It serves as a business model to show that the same renewable energy ideology can be replicated to fit any other type of industrial endeavor.The Plant utilizes materials re-use and also has a functioning closed-loop aquaponic system that combined aquaculture and hydroponics. The ammonia from fish waste is broken down into nitrogen-rich nutrients for the plants. Afterwards, the same water can be recirculated to the other tanks since the toxic ammonia has been removed, creating a self-sustaining environment that reduces the need for chemical additives to cleanse the water.

Vertical Farming at The Plant

The Plant's produce

Male Tilapia fish in The Plant's closed loop aquaponic system

Companies such as VertiCrop have also contributed to this upcoming industry by enabling new technologies. Similar to the vertical pipes that The Plant utilizes, VertiCrop created a system optimized for urban environments while using much less resources. It has suspended trays on a moving conveyor system that ensures exposure to light that uses much less space than the traditional greenhouse, optimizing the efficiency of agriculture.

Local Garden urban farm in Vancouver uses VertiCrop system

The idea of the 'vertical farm' has been replicated and carried out in other projects around the world. For example, Plantagon International (founded 2008), a global leader in urban agriculture based in Stockholm, uses industrial symbiosis of renewable energy to combine the greenhouse to be balanced with the industrial facilities to create biomass. They also have a food security plan and strict business concept for the cities they have branches in such as Stockholm, Onondaga, Shanghai, Mumbai and Singapore.

A project that epitomizes the sustainable building archetype is the design proposal for the Urban Skyfarm in Seoul by Aprilli Design Studio. The multi-purpose building functions as a community garden hub that incorporates hydroponics and vertical farming in a outward tree-like design. The farming decks are laid in a circular order to ensure sunlight reaches all plants. The bottom portion of the structure is a processing plant and water-recycling facility with solar panels and wind turbines as well that provide the energy to operate the structure. Pathways and bridges would be integrated into the design so city inhabitants could actually enjoy the area. The proposal would save thousands per year and provide the city with food security and a place for recreation without having to sacrifice either. Proposals such as these show the extent of sustainable food and how we can design our buildings to reflect that concept.  


Urban Skyfarm, Aprilli Design Studio

Additional Material:

U.S. Drought 2012: Farm and Food Impacts:

U.S. Drought Monitor Weekly Comparison:

The Plant:

Urban Skyfarm: Vertical Hydroponic Farm and Community Hub Offers Food Security for the Future: