“Initially the ‘Urban Sky Farm’ would be a small-scale supplement to traditional farming, but at full capacity the vertical farm tower would be capable of sustainably feeding half of the population of the London borough of Battersea, approximately 40,000 people,” comments Part II Architectural Assistant Thomas Cox, who has designed a self-sustaining, eco-efficient skyscraper that absorbs city air pollution and recycles it into organic fertiliser and food-crops.
Thomas, who grew up in Devon on a smallholding, presented his Urban Sky Farm design to the UK’s International Trade Secretary and other key influencers at Hong Kong’s GREAT Festival of Innovation in 2018.
He will be speaking about food production in urban settings at Agri-TechE’s Controlled Environment Agriculture event (which has been postponed)
A Utopian concept built on ‘traditional’ agrifood knowledge
Thomas explains: “I wanted to design a Utopian concept for future food production – where urban populations have continued to increase in density and there is a need to produce vast quantities of food in as compact space as possible. I believe the vertical stacking of crops is, probably, the most feasible way.
“I spoke to my farming relatives, as part of my research; their input about the importance of soil health and PH neutrality made me consider how the nitrogen cycle could become part of my design as well.
“In essence, you have a large self-regulating greenhouse, which is cleaning up air pollution using the practised method of leguminous crop rotations. The bi-product is then collected and mulched into organic fertiliser for use in the vertical farm.”
Thomas designed his Sky Farm to sit on a small footprint of land in Battersea, on the south bank of the river Thames in London.
Vertical farming is in vogue now, but Thomas was keen to design a self-contained urban farming model that stayed true to how the British Agricultural Revolution and food distribution influenced London’s historical growth.
He says: “London has grown up around farmers’ markets – the famous markets of London, Old Spitalfields, Borough, for example – which are purposefully sited in the city, based their produce’s origins.
“The Covent Garden distribution centre is just behind my theoretical site in Battersea and it’s where a lot of the produce gets brought into London and purchased by restaurants, greengrocers and today’s farmers markets. So, I saw the Sky Farm as another link in the chain of London and its food history.”
A sustainable farm for the future
In architecture, as in controlled environment agriculture, expectations around sustainability are higher than ever. “Today, everybody is also looking for carbon neutral and sustainable buildings” Thomas confirms.
“When I was designing the Sky Farm, three years ago, I was looking at concrete as a primary building block because there was an abundance of it used within tall-building construction, but it is energy intense to produce. So, if I’m to make the Sky Farm really future-proof, I would probably consider 3-D printing developments, perhaps using recycled materials as eco-friendly alternatives wherever possible.
“My idea is modular, with 60 or so huge louvres panels down each section. These could open to ventilate and keep the internal building temperature consistent, harnessing additional energy to produce electricity that could be used to pump irrigation systems to achieve required soil moisture levels.
“As the building is climate controlled, you could grow crops that would have traditionally had to be shipped in from around the world – such as grapes, making a vineyard to serve a wine bar on the top of the building, for example, adding to its commercial viability.
“So, the building could be completely off the grid and self-sustainable; you could live there, eat there, drink there.”
Thomas’ Sky Farm was developed as part of his Masters of Architecture thesis at De Montfort University. He admits that, initially, his family – who are mostly dairy farmers – were not that keen on the idea: “Perhaps it was a resistance to change, but change is coming; cities are expanding, green belts are being taken over, so farmers may end up living much closer to or even penned within urban environments.
“I think we need to plan now, so we’re ready to act when population increase starts to detrimentally affect our quality of life. I know that’s a bit of a bleak vision, and we’re hopefully talking in at least a century’s time, but it is paramount to stay ahead of the curve.”
More information about Agri-TechE’s full-day Pollinator‘Controlled Environment Agriculture – The Industry is Growing Up’, which is to be held at the John Innes Centre, Norwich Research Park.