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Food & Shelter

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Over the past few decades we’ve learned a bit about how to satisfy our need for energy without screwing up the planet, even if we fall down in the actual practice of it. Reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is great but all the building rating systems, recycling initiatives, car pooling schemes and passive design aren’t going to fix the upper atmosphere tomorrow. They’ll just delay the time until we’ll have do some rather serious and probably unpleasant adapting ourselves – at least at the beginning. We’ll get used to it.

Our cities currently take their food and water from other ecosystems, depleting them. And dump their waste in other ecosystems, destroying them. Waste is waste because it’s waste – it brings no benefit to whatever ecosystem it’s dumped in.


In his book The Vertical Farm, Dr. Dickson Despommier proposes shifting food production to urban areas and conducting it intensively in hyrdoponic or aeroponic farms stacked vertically. He sets out his case here: and in several videos available on Youtube.

What he wants to do is make cities a part of ecosystems instead of existing outside of them as they do now and (hence) destroying them.

image from "Manahatta"
image from “Manahatta”

This means that inputs (energy, water and food) have to be taken from the system and waste (including bodily waste) fed back into that system. My previous post, The Microbial Home was about an idea/proposal for this at the domestic level. Dr. Despommier makes a good case.

Advantages of Vertical Farming

He’s thinking of buildings perhaps about four storeys high maybe like this. He doesn’t really know and it’s not that important.


In their book Agricultural Urbanism, Janine de la Salle and Mark Holland describe another way of getting food closer to where we live.


As the cover implies, their objective is to see more produce grown, marketed and consumed locally. They focus on local government processes and identify ways of achieving it. In addition to Rural Areas and Suburban Neighbourhoods where (to a certain extent) it already happens, they make proposals for integrated food cycles in Urban Villages, Inner City Residential Neighbourhoods and Food and Agriculture Precincts.

All feature areas or districts for Production, Processing, Distribution, Retail, Consumption & Celebration, Waste Recovery and Education – none of which are a bad thing.


All are good ideas that can be relatively easily applied and which to some extent already are with domestic vegetable gardens, farmers’ markets and restaurants that grow some of their own herbs and vegetables.

BFM produce for blog book

De la Salle and Holland have some ideas for how this is going to fit around and into buildings. These range from designing restaurants with garden space or fitting cafés into office buildings but what’s important is that a food system strategy for a particular neighbourhood be clearly articulated. To ‘raise awareness’ of food and where it comes from, they would like to see building design and facades reflect what goes on inside. They’re for:

  • eating and drinking everywhere
  • pedestrian-orientation
  • the presence of food and agriculture activity on the street
  • productive edible landscapes
  • signalling nearby agriculture
  • transparency
  • habitat creation for pollinators and beneficial insects
  • stormwater management for agricultural irrigation
  • green streets
  • interpretative signage
  • farm equipment consideration

In Appendix B, they mention the Southeast False Creek Neighbourhood Development in Vancouver, Canada. It received the highest ever LEED score (in 2010). You can find general information about the development here or many other places. It’s a high-profile development built around the 2010 Vancouver Olympics Olympic Village.


At Southeast False Creek at least 30% of dwellings have at least 24 sq.ft of growing space. This is mostly provided as courtyard plots as shown above or as green roofs on the site. There is a 24,000 community demonstration garden. It is within a 10-minute walk of a farmers’ market. The public open space on the site can have its own farmers’ market.


It’s all about the plants and community. Dr. Despommier is more concerned with feeding people than the feelgood factor. For him, it’s more important for the farm buildings to:

  • Capture sunlight and disperse it evenly among the plants.
  • Capture passive energy for supplying a reliable source of electricity.
  • Employ good barrier design for plant protection.
  • Maximise the amount of space devoted to growing crops.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Designing a large, secure home for plants requires intimate knowledge of what a plant needs and how it all works together to allow for maximum growth.

We exist because the chlorophyll (the green stuff) in plants converts photons into chemical energy that links the carbon in carbon dioxide to make sugar and other plant food and discarding the oxygen into the atmosphere and (hence) our respiration cycle. When we eat plants, we get that sugar and other stuff and when we breathe we combine the oxygen we breathe and the carbon from the sugar to produce CO2 and a form of chemical energy called adenosine triphosphate. It’s a remarkably mutually linked association.

There’s more to it than biophilia or we ♥ plants. Our existences are linked. But, if a push came to a shove, plants would fare better without us than we without them. It’s in our own interests to learn more about plants and live together. Using sunlight is of course best but efficient artificial light can be used since, depending on whether they have chlorophyll-a or chlorophyll-b, plants only need wavelengths in the blue 400nm or red 700nm range.

Here’s what we know so far about how these things are going to be configured. I won’t say “look” because it’s not about how it looks.

  • In order to maximise sunlight, farm buildings will be oriented north-south and as long as possible. For the same reason, they’ll be translucent but probably not glass because, for what it is required to do, glass is too heavy. The Eden Project does fine with EFTE. Plants don’t need to see the sky. They just need the appropriate wavelengths.
  • EFTE is our best bet so far because it doesn’t yellow over time and deprive plants of those wavelengths. Farm buildings are going to have incinerators. If there’s to be no such thing as waste then end products have to find their way back into the system. Composting is too inefficient.
  • Giving 80 to 90 of the energy contained in rotting organic waste to the microbes in exchange for a 10% “return on investment” in the form of methane is a no-win technology.
  • Plasma arc gasification.
  • The configuration of the actual growing floor and technology will depend upon the crop.
  • Water vapour will be harvested as a closed loop system.

My only sadness is about the degree of security required. Plants grown without pesticides have to be kept isolated from opportunistic insects, bacteria and microbes. There’s a long list. This means pressurised airlocks, paper suits and decontamination procedures. It’s a long way from romantic ideas of being at one with Nature and talking to the plants. We’ve already become disassociated from where our food comes from.

What we have are two reasonable and well-thought through ways of growing food closer to the point of consumption, yet they are opposites. 

One is concerned with awareness, community and celebration, and the other is concerned with feeding populations and fixing the planet.

There’s always the danger this useful idea will be debased and discredited by buildings that give mimic the look of nature instead of its processes.

header 2

Buildings or bits of buildings that mimic biological organisms are a media staple. We’re biological organisms ourselves, as it happens, and there’s much to learn from how organisms work with other organisms to ensure they have sufficient of what they need to grow and flourish and without poisoning or killing themselves with the waste they generate.

Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut however is thinking something more like this.


The virtuous idea of growing food next to where it will be consumed is being used for media sensationalism posing as “awareness raising”. [Try to ignore the scary birds with the storey-high wingspans.]

As with green roofs as green metaphor, the idea of growing food to eat is being subjected to the architectural treatment. We’re well over roof gardens that aren’t, we’re skeptical of green roofs that though green aren’t much else, and we’ve been momentarily diverted by vertical forests in Italy. It’d be a shame if the growing of useful plants into buildings is quickly reduced to representations of growing of plants in buildings. It’s already happening.

I’m not surprised. Cultivating land, like building on land, is one of those ancient signifiers of OWNING land. It doesn’t really matter what’s cultivated. Lawn will do and did do for centuries around buildings or on top of them as we have now. The new thing is the cultivation of edible plants but whether this goes beyond the representation of cultivation remains to be seen. Have you heard of Verde 25? The column as tree thing is a minor crime when compared with how, like pornographer Callebaut’s “dragonfly” building above, it architecturalizes AND, IN DOING SO, TRIVIALIZES useful ideas to feed people and fix the planet.