Do Vertical Farms Make Sense?

vertical farm soa architects

SoA Architects- the future of farming?

Philip Proefrock and TreeHugger emeritus Hank Green are no fun at a party, if it is a party like the one designers and bloggers like us have been having on the subject of vertical farms for the last five years. From Mike's first post in 2005 (showing SoA Architectes iconic tower) to Romses Architects Harvest Green, we have been collecting them. They are wonderful images, visions of a green future of hyperlocal food. But Philip and Hank throw cold water all over them, saying Let's Make This Clear: Vertical Farms Don't Make Sense

We have occasionally noted that they are perhaps a bit "pie in the sky", quoting Adam Stein of Terrapass:

harvest green vertical farm

Romses Architects, Harvest Green
I really don't know what other word to use to describe the notion of spending "hundreds of millions" of dollars to build weird, poorly sited temples of food production in areas much better suited to dense, green residential and retail space.

Brooklyn was once one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the United States. Manhattan was once home to innumerable factories. There's a reason that farms and factories decamped to more suitable locations. Using urban real estate in this manner is incredibly wasteful: bad for the economy and bad for the environment. Local food has its merits, but that's what New Jersey is for."

dubai farm image

StudioMobile: Vertical farm in Dubai

Philip and Hank go much farther and say that a quick glance at the actual economics shows that it is never going to work. They write:

A farmer can expect his land to be worth roughly $1 per square foot...if it's good, fertile land. The owner of a skyscraper, on the other hand, can expect to pay more than 200 times that per square foot of his building. And that's just the cost of construction. Factor in the costs of electricity to pump water throughout the thing and keep the plants bathed in artificial sunlight all day, and you've got an inefficient mess.

Just looking at those numbers, you need two things to happen in order for vertical farms to make sense. You need the price of food to increase 100 fold over today's prices, and you need the productivity of vertical farms to increase 100 fold over traditional farms. Neither of those things will ever happen. And as much as I hate to burst bubbles, the main claim to the efficiency of vertical farms (the elimination of transportation costs) is not valid.

gas station biofarm

UPI2M Architects: BioOctanic Tower
london bridge vertical farm

Laurie Chetwood: London Bridge
Tobias Buckell picks up the conversation and writes:

New York has 10 million people. To feed New York, you'd need roughly 334 of these buildings, with the building cost being at least $150 billion.

That's affordable on a country scale (10 years of NASA-like budget).

But the fact is, the existing land sprawling out around New York and the US and gasoline to transport the goods from the heartland to NYC is still far cheaper when an accountant crunches the figures.

Weber Thompson

Weber Thompson eco-laboratory

I think Philip and Hank are taking themselves and the concept of vertical farms a little too seriously. There are square miles of horizontal farming on rooftops and gardens to be done in Brooklyn and even Manhattan before we get into vertical farms. And when we do, it will probably be a more sophisticated hybrid, using the south faces of buildings that actually get enough sun to farm, like they do in Weber Thompson's Eco-Laboratory.

tower addition farm

Daekwon Park: retrofitting skyscrapers

Or it might be clip-on exterior farms like Daekwon Park's idea to insert a multi-layer network of public space, green space and nodes for the city.

A Vision of a Green Future From Arup

Or a green vision like Arup's , where gardens and greenhouses take over a city.

Visions of vertical farms are exciting visions, but I really don't think anyone, except perhaps Dr. Dickson Despommier himself thinks we are going to be building them soon. As we called them in our post on Futurama Farming in New York, they are "Good drawings, lots of ideas and great fun."

plantagon vertical farm

Plantagon: Vertical Farm That Can Go Anywhere

Do Vertical Farms Make Sense?
Philip Proefrock and TreeHugger emeritus Hank Green are no fun at a party, if it is a party like the one designers and bloggers like us have been having on the subject of vertical farms for the last five years.