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The Plant Growing in Chicago

The exterior of The Plant as it was found. Photograph courtesy of their Flickr photostream.

A while back I wrote about the exciting (and necessary) new large scale urban farming process called vertical farming. The world's population continues to grow rapidly and we have less and less farmable land. At the same time more and more people are living in cities. So why not grow the food right there in the cities with them? This can be done by building vertical farms in multi-story buildings that use closed loop systems to provide for most or all of their energy and supply needs.

Proponents of this idea like Dr. Dickson Despommier, author of The Vertical Farm, inspire images of glass skyscraper farms. So far this version of a vertical farm is impractical. Glass walls make it difficult to evenly light the plants inside and lose energy when heat escapes.

There is an incredible and very exciting example of vertical farming being built in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood. This vertical farm is very well insulated and only three stories. It is called the Plant, and it is run by the non-profit Plant Chicago. The Plant is being built in a 93,000 sq ft former meat processing factory as pictured above. Inside will be an aquaponics operation growing vegetables and fish, a kombucha tea brewery, a beer (!) brewery, a commercial kitchen and the anaerobic digester that collects waste from the afore-mentioned components to provide power.

This still leaves space for other like-minded businesses, some of which already operate in the Plant. There will be  a mushroom farm, a bakery, and a commercial aquaponics company called 312 Aquaponics (makes sense). In the Plant nothing is wasted, including labor. When one of the businesses is slow their employees help out at the busier ones. Also, the by-products of each business feed the others. For example, the spent grains from the brewery will be used as food for the fish and soil for mushrooms.

The Plant is the brainchild of John Edel, an industrial designer and enemy of waste. He built a recycle and reuse focused business hub once before. It is called Bubbly Dynamics LLC, which in turn built the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center. The CSMC serves as a model for efficient green building. Like the Plant it is also inside a former factory. When Bubbly Dynamics repurposed it for CSMC they reused and recycled as much as they could, sourced new materials locally and built to conserve energy and reuse waste water. The space now leases office space to like minded small businesses. Some of the profits helps to fund the Plant.

The components of the Plant are coming live in stages. One of the first was an aquaponics operation that raises tilapia and green leafy vegetables. The city of Chicago used to not allow commercial fisheries inside city limits. To get around this the fish were originally purely research for students at the Illinois Institute of Technology. But now Edel has helped lobby for the city of Chicago to change urban farming laws. The vegetables and fish will initially be sold to local restaurants and eventually to nearby supermarkets. Until  the anaerobic digester is completed (being made from a re-purposed jet engine) the building uses natural gas for heat. Once the digester starts up it recycle waste from the various Plant businesses (plus others neaby) to provide all of the Plant's energy and heat needs. The Plant will be net-zero energy and net-zero waste! The only thing to go out the doors will be food.

The Plant is and will be a model for how to grow food in our cities. They will put up their building plans on their website so others can adopt them. Most of our cities have neglected and un-used buildings. Let's repurpose them to grow food, produce green energy and foster community.


Tiny Homes

Sled House by Crosson, Clarke, Carnachan Architects

Whether from a desire for sustainable living, because of money concerns due to the recession, or to help facilitate a less cluttered lifestyle, tiny houses are becoming more mainstream. You might even call it a trend. It is easy to see why. You can purchase a prefab tiny house for about the price of a new car. Or you can purchase the plans to a tiny house for a few hundred dollars and build it yourself. Wouldn't it be amazing to own your own home and not be in debt? Being small, the dwellings require vastly less resources to live in and maintain. They force you to get rid of unnecessary "stuff" you have accumulated. And... they are often portable! The one pictured above is attached to a sled so it can be dragged into place on the beach.

The average home size in the United States has nearly doubled in the past thirty years, going from 1,400 sq ft in 1970 to 2,700 sq ft in 2009. Tiny homes tend to be in the 300 - 500 sq ft range. The larger size of contemporary houses usually leads to needing more electricity to heat and cool. Many homes feature large windows and poorly insulated walls and roofs. A great deal of the heat generated to warm the house ends up being wasted. An exception to that is a passive house. Passive houses are extremely well insulated so that there is very little heat loss. One 5,100 sq ft passive home in Viriginia only costs about $400 a year to heat and cool. But I digress...

Tiny homes also save you money in a more obvious way - they require less materials and labor to construct them. Most tiny home manufacturers have a "less is more" ethos that applies to every aspect of the construction. They locally source their materials as much as possible. Those materials are made to last with less maintenance required over their lifetime. As for the labor, one of my favorite aspects of tiny home manufacturers is that they often allow you to participate in the construction. If the home is prefab it will be built mostly off site. When they come to install the house, builders like Modern Cabana out of San Francisco, let you assemble it yourself. Although if you are like me you may want one of them to stick around as a consultant.

Besides cost savings and a smaller carbon footprint the biggest appeal of tiny homes is a simpler lifestyle. The less space your home has, the less things you can have to occupy that space. Tiny homes can be quite small, as with the Micro Compact Home (or m-ch, because why waste space with letters?), which is 8 ' cubed. Some are modular and start small but become as large as you like. Because space is at a premium the interior must be extremely well designed to maximize use and function.

Tiny homes are not a new concept. Nomadic people have lived in tipis and yurts for generations. People have also used tiny cabins as hunting lodges, vacation homes or for brief stays on extended mountain hikes. Many tiny homes are still used for these reasons. Others build them as second homes or offices, but to me that defeats the tiny home purpose of conserving resources. By building a second structure you use more land, more building materials and consume more energy.

 Could you live in a tiny home? Please share your thoughts in the comments. I do not know if I can get rid enough possessions to fit into one. However, the idea of owning a house and not having a mortgage, the opportunity to have a part in the construction, and living as efficiently as possible has tremendous appeal.


Pond Scum to the Rescue

A quick video follow-up to my last post.
The good folks at Climate Desk produced this short video on the growing algae fuel industry. Algae won't fuel our cars before the next president takes office but it will be a significant part of the energy industry in the next ten years.

Growing Our Fuel

Algae farm image via Gian-Luca doCavaleiro blog

There is a lot of hype surrounding electric and hybrid cars. Their future-tech sure is sexy. I admit some attraction to it myself as I attended one of the stops on Nissan's 2010 tour of their electric vehicle (EV), the Leaf. There are problems with battery powered cars though. The chief among these are cost - both for building the batteries (made using Rare Earth metals) and the infrastructure of charging stations.

Why not use another non-fossil fuel to power our cars that does not require new models to be manufactured? This fuel will also not require new infrastructure as it can use existing petrol pumps. I'm talking about bio-diesel. Bio-diesel has three huge advantages: any diesel engine powered vehicle can already use it, the same pumps that distribute petroleum based diesel fuel can pump bio-diesel, and it produces far less harmful emissions than any other fuel. All major pollutants are reduced dramatically in bio-diesel exhaust except one—nitrogen oxides (NOx). However new technology in diesel engines, such as Volkswagen's Jetta BlueTDI, now further reduce NOx emissions by up to 90%.

Most bio-diesel today is produced from oils from vegetables such as soybean and then blended with petroleum-diesel. A soon to be realized non-food source is algae. By using algae as the basis we will not have to use a possible food, even if that food (corn, soybean), is mostly fed to cows. Algae also doesn't require deforestation for their farms. This is because it can be raised in artificial ponds in deserts or even indoors. Algae farms will be necessary for bio-diesel on a large scale. Still, it is doubtful at this time that bio-diesel can completely replace fossil fuels. It will be part of the solution.

Right now we can get a great deal of bio-diesel without growing anything new. We can recycle a waste product - used cooking oil. The kind that restaurants produce by the gallon everyday. You can collect the used oil and process it yourself with a home kit. However, if you are like me, you may prefer someone else do the dirty work. Just like with beer. There are many providers of bio-diesel around the country and one of them is right here in Savannah - SES Biofuels.

SES Biofuels has been producing bio-diesel from used cooking oil since 2008. They pay area restaurants for their oil, collect it, and process it back at their plant. They even provide the containers for the restaurants to deposit their used oil in. I think it really is a no-brainer for any restaurant owner! SES Biofuels then sell the now processed bio-diesel to area businesses such as the Coastal Heritage Society's Roundhouse Railroad Museum and the River Street Railcar. SES's bio-diesel is cheaper and much cleaner than petroleum diesel. Bio-diesel improves lubricity in engines and has made the museum's old railroad engines run smoother than ever. SES really does care about their community. They even donate $1,000 every month to area charities. I hope they one day provide bio-diesel to area school bus fleets. In the mean-time SES Biofuels make downtown Savannah eco-tourism friendly!

I used to want to own and drive an electric vehicle, or a hybrid at the very least. Now I just want a diesel. It is time American's get over the misguided fears of dirty diesel. Bio-diesel is as clean as it gets. Just don't be alarmed if the fuel is algae green or smells like french fries. 



The Need to be Out-of-Doors

 Whippoorwill Hollow Farm, Walnut Grove, GAYou may have noticed some gradual changes around here. The colors changed a bit, the banner photograph is new, the Twitter feed is from a different list, and so on. The most important change is the focus of the past few posts. I have decided to narrow the focus of this blog to reflect where my own life is headed career wise. This blog will no longer just be a collection of "Hey! Check out this cool new social media app / artwork series / beer!" There are other blogs that do that well already.

I have decided to instead report on new and emerging solutions to food, environment, and sustainability concerns. Mostly food, as I think everything else builds on our ability to feed ourselves. This post will do something I try to avoid on my blog and that is talk about myself. I do strive to keep my writing style personal but I am not keeping a journal.

I recently relocated from Atlanta to Savannah, GA. Not for a job but for a girl. The relocation made it necessary to get a new job of course. My education and employment up until that point was in photography. While I greatly enjoy making photographs I do not like the business of selling this service. If one is going to make a living from photography they need to be good at business first, then photography. I have gotten a little sour on the business side of commercial photography.

Now let me back up some. While I have lived in cities for the past nine years my heart is in the country. I feel a need to be in the out-of-doors. I grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My idea of a good time is to hike through the woods. What I'm getting at is that the natural world is dear to me and has been from an early age. Savannah is a great compromise because it is quite pedestrian friendly and there are parks throughout downtown.

Three years ago I started reading a great deal of non-fiction. I read books such as The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. The last book especially finally got me to pay more attention to what I eat. I became a vegetarian.

When I needed a job in Savannah I first looked to social media and content development. That's how this blog got started. The job I actually finally landed on was with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) company. We sourced (mostly) organic, seasonal food from regional farmers and delivered it to subscribers' doorsteps.

The only problem for me? The job didn't last. If you read this post to the end thanks. If you can help me get a job please contact me any way you can!