Science & Technology

The Plant: Chicago’s Innovative Vertical Farm

Note: This article is hosted here for archival purposes only. It does not necessarily represent the values of the Iron Warrior or Waterloo Engineering Society in the present day.

With local food becoming more and more popular, developer John Edel of Chicago thinks that vertical farming is the way of the future. Cities consume huge volumes of food but have very little land to grow it on. Thus, most food has to be imported from farms that are located anywhere from just outside of town to all the way around the world. In order to make food production more centralized in dense urban centres, there have been a number of pilot projects that stack layers of soil and plants (or even small animals) like floors of a building to optimize yield with a small land footprint.

John Edel’s $4 million building in Chicago’s meatpacking district, aptly named “The Plant,” is an example of the vertical farm concept that has really taken off the ground. An impressive feat of integrative design, the four stories of The Plant combine the processes of fish farming and green agriculture in a system that reduces and reuses as many resources as possible. The hydroponic beds of lettuce and other greens are connected to the fish tanks to take advantage of natural processes such as the nitrogen cycle. Waste water produced by the tilapia fish is rich in nitrogen, which fertilizes the plants. The extensive plant root system then cleans the water so that it can be sent back to the fish tanks. In total, this system circulates about 9000 gallons of water and serves 1400 tilapia tanks and 3000 square feet of hydroponic plant beds.

Future plans for The Plant include an organic digester to convert extra plant and fish waste into more fertilizer and biogas. This will also help power the building’s heating and cooling as part of a design project collaboration with students from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Their ultimate goal is net-zero energy. The actual building is a retrofitted factory warehouse that has been upgraded with sustainable, high-performance materials. They decided to use aquaponic farming rather than soil-based agriculture because of the ease of recycling water directly to and from the fish tanks. Also, soil-borne disease and the need to wash produce before the market are eliminated. Although they have not yet achieved net-zero energy, the overall resource and transportation demands of The Plant are considerably less than traditional farming methods used to make food that are imported into cities.

The Plant hopes to open shop in the fall to, hopefully, serve local markets and restaurants. It will also have a small space for a demonstration kitchen, a commercial kitchen, and office space for food-based start-ups. If this proves to be successful, then we may see more vertical farms shooting up in major cities. Even if it doesn’t, innovative sustainable design concepts are the kind of projects that get people thinking about how our food and energy systems are connected rather than just driving over to the grocery store and checking out. Now if only Waterloo engineers would invent a vertical cow-sugar plantation-ice cream store building before the summer ends…

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