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.