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Old Posted Apr 2, 2007, 5:50 PM
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Skyfarming: A Columbia professor vision of “vertical farm” skyscrapers

Skyfarming
A Columbia professor believes that converting skyscrapers into crop farms could help reduce global warming and make New York cleaner. It’s a vision straight out of Futurama—but here’s how it might work.





By Lisa Chamberlain

Urban farming has always been a slightly quixotic endeavor. From the small animal farm that was perched on the roof of the Upper West Side’s Ansonia apartment building in the early 1900s (fresh eggs delivered by bellhop!) to community gardens threatened by real-estate development, the dream of preserving a little of the country in the city is a utopian one. But nobody has ever dreamed as big as Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of environmental sciences and microbiology at Columbia University, who believes that “vertical farm” skyscrapers could help fight global warming.

Imagine a cluster of 30-story towers on Governors Island or in Hudson Yards producing fruit, vegetables, and grains while also generating clean energy and purifying wastewater. Roughly 150 such buildings, Despommier estimates, could feed the entire city of New York for a year. Using current green building systems, a vertical farm could be self-sustaining and even produce a net output of clean water and energy.

Despommier began developing the vertical-farming concept six years ago (his research can be found at verticalfarm.com), and he has been contacted by scientists and venture capitalists from the Netherlands to Dubai who are interested in establishing a Center for Urban Sustainable Agriculture, either independently or within Columbia. He estimates it could take a working group of agricultural economists, architects, engineers, agronomists, and urban planners five to ten years to figure out how to marry high-tech agricultural practices with the latest sustainable building technology.

What does this have to do with climate change? The professor believes that only by allowing significant portions of the Earth’s farmland to return to forest do we have a real chance of stabilizing climate and weather patterns. Merely reducing energy consumption—the centerpiece of the proposal Al Gore recently presented to Congress—will at best slow global warming. Allowing forests to regrow where crops are now cultivated, he believes, would reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as least as much as more-efficient energy consumption.

There is another reason to develop indoor farming: exploding population growth. By 2050, demographers estimate there will be an additional 3 billion people (a global total of 9.2 billion). If current farming practices are maintained, extra landmass as large as Brazil would have to be cultivated to feed them. Yet nearly all the land that can produce food is already being farmed—even without accounting for the possibility of losing more to rising sea levels and climate change (which could turn arable land into dust bowls).

Depending on the crops being grown, a single vertical farm could allow thousands of farmland acres to be permanently reforested. For the moment, these calculations remain highly speculative, but a real-life example offers a clue: After a strawberry farm in Florida was wiped out by Hurricane Andrew, the owners built a hydroponic farm. By growing strawberries indoors and stacking layers on top of each other, they now produce on one acre of land what used to require 30 acres.

Why build vertical farms in cities? Growing crops in a controlled environment has benefits: no animals to transfer disease through untreated waste; no massive crop failures as a result of weather-related disasters; less likelihood of genetically modified “rogue” strains entering the “natural” plant world. All food could be grown organically, without herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers, eliminating agricultural runoff. And 80 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050. Cities already have the density and infrastructure needed to support vertical farms, and super-green skyscrapers could supply not just food but energy, creating a truly self-sustaining environment.

Like the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona, a real vertical farm will probably require a utopian philanthropist with deep pockets. In the eighties, Edward Bass spent $200 million of his own money to construct the Biosphere. A smaller and less complex vertical farm would probably cost that much to build today and could be funded by someone from a country where arable land is already in short supply, such as Japan, Iceland, or more likely Dubai. Despommier is convinced the first vertical farm will exist within fifteen years—and the irony is, oil money could very well build it.





1. The Solar Panel
Most of the vertical farm’s energy is supplied by the pellet power system (see over). This solar panel rotates to follow the sun and would drive the interior cooling system, which is used most when the sun’s heat is greatest.


2. The Wind Spire
An alternative (or a complement) to solar power, conceived by an engineering professor at Cleveland State University. Conventional windmills are too large for cities; the wind spire uses small blades to turn air upward, like a screw.


3. The Glass Panels
A clear coating of titanium oxide collects pollutants and prevents rain from beading; the rain slides down the glass, maximizing light and cleaning the pollutants. Troughs collect runoff for filtration.


4. The Control Room
The vertical-farm environment is regulated from here, allowing for year-round, 24-hour crop cultivation.


5. The Architecture
Inspired by the Capitol Records building in Hollywood. Circular design uses space most efficiently and allows maximum light into the center. Modular floors stack like poker chips for flexibility.


6. The Crops
The vertical farm could grow fruits, vegetables, grains, and even fish, poultry, and pigs. Enough, Despommier estimates, to feed 50,000 people annually.





The vertical farm doesn’t just grow crops indoors; it also generates its own power from waste and cleans up sewage water.


1. The Evapotranspiration Recovery System
Nestled inside the ceiling of each floor, its pipes collect moisture, which can be bottled and sold.


2. The Pipes
Work much like a cold bottle of Coke that “sweats” on a hot day: Super-cool fluid attracts plant water vapors, which are then collected as they drip off (similar systems are in use on a small scale). Despommier estimates that one vertical farm could capture 60 million gallons of water a year.


3. Black-Water Treatment System
Wastewater taken from the city’s sewage system is treated through a series of filters, then sterilized, yielding gray water—which is not drinkable but can be used for irrigation. (Currently, the city throws 1.4 billion gallons of treated wastewater into the rivers each day.) The Solaire building in Battery Park City already uses a system like this.





4. The Crop Picker
Monitors fruits and vegetables with an electronic eye. Current technology, called a Reflectometer, uses color detection to test ripeness.


5. The Field
Maximization of space is critical, so in this rendering there are two layers of crops (and some hanging tomatoes). If small crops are planted, there might be up to ten layers per floor.


6. The Pool
Runoff from irrigation is collected here and piped to a filtration system.


7. The Feeder
Like an ink-jet printer, this dual-purpose mechanism directs programmed amounts of water and light to individual crops.





8. The Pellet Power System
Another source of power for the vertical farm, it turns nonedible plant matter (like corn husks, for example) into fuel. Could also process waste from New York’s 18,000 restaurants.


9 to 11. The Pellets
Plant waste is processed into powder (9), then condensed into clean-burning fuel pellets (10), which become steam power (11). At least 60 pellet mills in North America already produce more than 600,000 tons of fuel annually, and a 3,400-square-foot house in Idaho uses pellets to generate its own electricity.


Copyright © 2007, New York Magazine Holdings LLC.
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  #2  
Old Posted Apr 2, 2007, 5:59 PM
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This is great. I hope it catches on.
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Old Posted Apr 2, 2007, 6:11 PM
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The current cost of building a green skyscraper in NYC is around $1 billion, this will never happen. Any structure costing over $1 million wouldn't make any economic sense for an agricultural use.
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Old Posted Apr 2, 2007, 6:17 PM
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Originally Posted by STERNyc View Post
The current cost of building a green skyscraper in NYC is around $1 billion, this will never happen. Any structure costing over $1 million wouldn't make any economic sense for an agricultural use.
Yeah hopefully the federal government sort of helps out economically. I think they do help big farms already. That will be the only way to make this a reality.
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Old Posted Apr 2, 2007, 7:27 PM
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I love all the little men in white lab coats tending the farm...
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Old Posted Apr 2, 2007, 7:45 PM
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Originally Posted by STERNyc View Post
The current cost of building a green skyscraper in NYC is around $1 billion, this will never happen. Any structure costing over $1 million wouldn't make any economic sense for an agricultural use.
This is something that could be retrofitted onto existing buildings, and if it is put atop a new building, the building needn't be green.
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Old Posted Apr 2, 2007, 9:08 PM
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Green technology has and will get cheaper and more viable to build, especially when rising energy costs are taken into account. Of course we'll see this in Europe first though, the days of New York leading in skyscraper innovation are long gone. The city could get this done by giving away bulk bonuses and tax breaks...
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Old Posted Apr 2, 2007, 9:54 PM
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Originally Posted by Derek2k32 View Post
Green technology has and will get cheaper and more viable to build, especially when rising energy costs are taken into account. Of course we'll see this in Europe first though, the days of New York leading in skyscraper innovation are long gone. The city could get this done by giving away bulk bonuses and tax breaks...
I believe that green technology will become more affordable, to an extent where it will become cost effective to include it in all new constructions. That doesnt change the fact that the raw materials, steel, concrete, glass, and the labor that goes along with it will still be millions and millions of dollars. This is nothing more than a pipedream, highrise farms will not be a part of the practical reality as they will never make a return on the investment that is highrise construction.
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Old Posted Apr 2, 2007, 10:47 PM
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this is really cool it will maybe happen in the next 20-30 specially cause of the cost its a nice way 2 save space also
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Old Posted Apr 2, 2007, 10:51 PM
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What an interesting idea. I can't imagine this will catch on very quick in North America, but it's still something worth building on. I wonder how big the floor plates would have to be to make something like that feasible.
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Old Posted Apr 3, 2007, 12:23 AM
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Not as sexy, but how about greenhouses on the tops of skyscrapers first?

There are lots of those in NYC, no?
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Old Posted Apr 3, 2007, 10:21 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by STERNyc View Post
The current cost of building a green skyscraper in NYC is around $1 billion, this will never happen. Any structure costing over $1 million wouldn't make any economic sense for an agricultural use.
Is that the cost of a green skyscraper (like the Comcast Center) or a mid-rise farm-tower? Subtract the theoretical situation that this gets placed smack in the middle of mid-town and imagine it priced only on construction costs and upkeep and I doubt it'd be more that 200 million. The power doesn't necessarily have to be generated in-house either which would drop the cost even more significantly.

I think the experiment is well worth 50-100 million from government subsidy and using the city power grid. Or we could buy another couple hum-vees.
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Old Posted Apr 3, 2007, 5:21 PM
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Is that the cost of a green skyscraper (like the Comcast Center) or a mid-rise farm-tower? Subtract the theoretical situation that this gets placed smack in the middle of mid-town and imagine it priced only on construction costs and upkeep and I doubt it'd be more that 200 million. The power doesn't necessarily have to be generated in-house either which would drop the cost even more significantly.

I think the experiment is well worth 50-100 million from government subsidy and using the city power grid. Or we could buy another couple hum-vees.
Even if it costs no more than 200 million, which is realistic it would still be a costly experiment that would never turn a profit or ever approach breaking even. The simple fact is that the raw materials to build such a structure are steadily priced and skyscrapers are built in terms of millions. Small farms struggle to bring in money, the money they would bring in would never approach the terms of millions. Im skeptical it would even bring in enough money to cover the high costs of maintaining a skyscraper. In all fairness its a study by a University professor, which says it all, a private buisiness interest would never propose something so far-fetched.
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Old Posted Apr 3, 2007, 5:38 PM
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Its a total long shot, but I do think there are ways of making it feasible. Just like people will go out of their way to spend loads on hybrids and solar panels, there has to be a large enough customer base to dole out the extra bucks for Manhattan Produce or something similarly marketed.

Economically feasible or not, it could still be a public/private venture that succeeds in other areas besides economically. Sure the US is unlikely to try such a thing, but even the Apollo missions are still indebted. All that prospecting the moon for cheese never panned out but the research and ground-breaking technology was well worth it for its social benefits.
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Old Posted Apr 3, 2007, 7:17 PM
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Wouldn't global warming open up Northern Canada and Siberia for farming. It would also allow the southern part of the current farm belt to have two growing seasons. Food production should increase because of Global Warming.

If you want to go into more radical schemes like this, there are better and cheaper plans that include energy production, farming and aquaculture on huge ocean platforms.
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Last edited by Raraavis; Apr 3, 2007 at 9:39 PM.
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Old Posted Apr 3, 2007, 9:47 PM
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I would think something like this could even be part of the solution to global warming. Plants take up CO2 and release O2 and H2O. Skyfarms could be towering CO2 absorbers/carbon fixators.
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Old Posted Apr 3, 2007, 10:51 PM
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Can't photosynthesis be artificialized as well? It'd be nice to have some giant CO2 'lightning rods'.

Farming will gradually move north but I'd rather see the deserts get irrigated before Canada frees itself from the American border. We ought to save and salvage the wooded lands.

The idea of some hydroponic seagraculture seems more far fetched and costly than the high-rises. Perhaps we could start terracing the Ozarks or the Shenandoah ridges instead.

^^ all ridiculous ideas
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Old Posted Apr 4, 2007, 1:25 AM
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well if their organic ppl will buy the fruit and organic fruit is more expensive than regular fruit

besides if these are built people could plant trees in the farms that are replaced with these towers

the bad thing is that people would loose jobs and their farms and bla bla bla
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Old Posted Apr 4, 2007, 3:16 AM
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It would take a completely different mindset to get this done. While I love the idea and think it's way overdue, I seriously doubt we'll see this in our time.
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Old Posted Apr 4, 2007, 1:51 PM
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it's a great idea and I hope someday they can do it.
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