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February 13, 2013

The realities of farms in the sky

Construction Corner | Korky Koroluk

Recent columns about the growth of highrise construction in Canada have made some mention of the changing role that many highrise buildings are filling.

It wasn't many years ago that tall buildings downtown were filled with offices; tall buildings in the suburbs were filled with apartments.

That’s changing. Recent research by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat tells us that most of the tall buildings going up have offices on the lower floors, with a residential component above — often representing as much as two-thirds of the building’s total square footage.

In connection with the research project, the council asked a number of architects, who are active in the highrise sector, what they saw in the future.

Not surprisingly, several mentioned energy concerns, including energy embodied in building materials which will add significantly to both their environmental and dollar cost. Energy efficiency will become paramount, they said.

It’s not good enough to throw up a building, then figure out later how it’s performing.

There is nothing surprising in such comments. Energy has been front and centre for a while now, and concerns about it will grow in a warming world.

What caught me by surprise was that several architects predicted that vertical farming is likely to be incorporated into some skyscrapers.

Korky Koroluk

Construction Corner

Korky Koroluk

I’ve written about vertical farming in the past because, although it’s not a new idea, it is, perhaps, an idea whose time has come.

Look at some United Nations (UN) population projections, and you’ll understand why the role of highrise buildings is changing.

The UN projects a global population of just over 10.1 billion by the year 2100. That’s up about 300 per cent from the 1950 population. Canada is likely to have a population of about 48.3 million by 2100, up 251 per cent from 1950.

The U.S. is likely to be about 478 billion, up 203 per cent from 1950.

Where are all those people going to live? How will they be fed? Those are two important questions that governments at all levels should be asking themselves today.

Accommodating population growth by approving more tract housing won’t do it. The environmental destruction would be too great. Better to build up — not out — so there is enough density to support truly efficient public transit and get cars off roads.

Very often, tract housing is built on what was once agricultural land, which is taken out of production so people can have their McMansions with three-car garages. But even keeping that land in production won’t be enough — hence the idea that some of that new highrise space be devoted to growing food.

There’s a sort of science-fiction element to the idea that puts many people off, but it’s time — past time — that we should be doing some detailed costing of vertical farms, and planning the sorts of crops they might grow.

Don’t expect to get off the elevator on the 20th floor and step into a field of wheat.

It won’t work that way. But, you could step into the midst of hydroponic gardens growing tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other vegetables that are already being grown on rooftops in some areas.

There are already rooftop farms in Canada providing weekly baskets of fresh produce to subscribers.

The content of the baskets changes with the season.

Root vegetables, like potatoes, can’t be grown hydroponically, so, at least in the case of Montreal’s Lufa Farms, they are grown for Lufa on organic farms in the Montreal area.

Growing food for a rapidly growing population is somewhat like providing alternatives to fossil fuels to meet our energy needs: There is not a single answer. Rather, there are many small answers.

Devoting a few floors of a tall building to growing vegetables and fruits won’t solve the problem of feeding everyone. But it might be part of the solution.

Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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