COVER STORY: Is farming inside high-rise buildings viable?

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FARMHOUSE: Turning high-rises into farmhouses may seem inconceivable in the Malaysian setting but it could happen sooner than we think

 FARMHOUSE: Turning high-rises into farmhouses may seem inconceivable in the Malaysian setting but it could happen sooner than we think

 Farming in buildings

What if two of the largest industries in Malaysia, property and agriculture, were to merge in theory? Well, technically at least, it would result in vertical farming. The basic premise is that instead of farming on land (traditional horizontal farming), we can produce large-scale agricultural crops such as fruits, vegetables and even livestock such as swiftlet and fish farming in multi-storey buildings.

The idea of vertical farming has floated around for a long time but advances in technology and practical necessity have brought the concept to the fore again in recent years. According to a 2005 survey conducted by the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and UN Habitat, Living Planet Report, by 2050, the world population will reach nine billion from about 7.1 billion today and 80 per cent will live in cities. Some cities such as Sweden and Singapore have already launched pilot vertical farming programmes to complement their countries’ food requirements.

Fresher and cheaper?

As more people will be located in urban centres and hubs, proponents of vertical farming say that it could become a reality on a mass scale sooner than later. “Nations or cities that have their food sources far from consumers actually incur huge transportation costs which translate to a massive carbon footprint. It is environmentally friendlier for cities to have food sources in satellite locations or in the city itself, which not only reduces direct transportation costs but also incidental costs such as refrigeration, storage lighting, space, labour and others,” says Ar Sarly Adre Sarkum, founder of architectural design firm [SA]2 and Vice President of the Malaysia Green Building Confederation.

Vertical farming also promises fresh food supplies from a reliable source located within the vicinity of one’s living quarters, according to Associate Professor Ar Dr Norhati Ibrahim, Lecturer at Centre of Studies for Architecture, Faculty of Architecture, Planning and Surveying, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM).

“The idea of getting regular, fresh and healthy food supplies is definitely attractive and worthy of pursuit. Malaysia is fast becoming an affluent society which demands high quality products including raw food resources such as vegetables and meat. A healthy lifestyle and food safety are part of our concerns. In the long run, produce in vertical farming could be cheaper by reducing the dependence on middle-men,” Dr Norhati notes.

Impact on property market

With its various opportunities in providing alternative food solutions, what impact would vertical farming have on the property market?

Vertical farming is a production industry that requires a lot of technical and mechanical apparatus, explains Sarly. “Vertical farming (in its truest sense) will unlikely be integrated into property development. If any form of vertical faming is ‘glamourised’ as integrated into a development, most likely it will not qualify as a a true vertical farm. It might come in the form of an ‘edible garden’ where people plant small crops on their balconies or patio.”

“In short, a true vertical farm is a production building. It produces products just like factories and it is unlikely to affect property development significantly,” Sarly opines.

The architect further says that in the early stages of implementing vertical farming’s new technology, governments would play a bigger role in launching the concept. “Large incentives would be needed to train specialists in this field and fund research grants.”

Sarly adds that these studies will lead to prototypes, showcases and enhance the existing mechanism to a stable level. Once a working prototype is proven successful, investors will come in and the role of the government will be reduced compared to its early stages. “Investors will be those who own and buy the farms and not necessarily the government.”

Greener consumption

Some sceptics of vertical farming argue that it is probably only suitable in unique cases, such as in island states like Singapore and Hong Kong, where land is scarce and at a premium, therefore making traditional farming more res tr ic ted. Would it be feasible in a Malaysian context, where there is ample land for farming?

“The main point of vertical farming has never been solely focused o n lan d scarcity, b u t instead as a greener way of consuming food,” stress Yasmin Rahman and Qhawarizmi Norhisham, directors at MDRXA, a local start-up company doing research in architectural experiments in social housing, urban design and urban/vertical farming.

“Food miles is the distance travelled between farming crop lands and the centralised urban population in cities. According to studies, food travels approximately 2,413 kilometres from farm to plate (25 per cent further than in 1980). The reason behind the huge food miles is due to the low costs of transportation and fuel which do not reveal the full environmental and social costs of their use.”

The duo add that transportation is responsible for not only local and global air pollution, but for contributing to health problems, climate change and destruction of the ozone layer. It also creates noise pollution, vibration, fumes and dirt, accidents, wear and tear on transportation infrastructure and the destruction of wildlife habitats.

“These costs are inflicted on society and its environment. This is where vertical farming can play a major role in reducing a transport-dependent food system. Growing food within the confines of urban centres will reduce and alleviate the impact of long distance food distribution as the consumption of fossil fuels is insignificant to deliver them to the consumer,” elaborates Yasmin and Qhawarizmi.

Sarly gives his nod on the healthier and greener consumption aspect of vertical farming and further states that this is one of the key criticisms with regards to projects like Masdar City in Abu Dhabi which sits in the middle of the desert requiring food to be transported in on a daily basis.

Financial feasibility

In Dr Norhati’s opinion, existing, abandoned or new buildings are suitable for vertical farming. She adds that reviving an abandoned building is tempting but requires extensive renovations on existing building systems such as plumbing, structural, ventilation, thermal condition, lighting, spatial planning and programming. “This is likely to be the least economical compared to a new purpose-built building which is likely to be the best option.”

Sarly agrees with Dr Norhati. “Adaptive reuse of old buildings is a nice notion but to retrofit them is more often than not a more expensive undertaking than building new. I would recommend mixed new developments for example, apartment and retail complexes with a single podium integrated with some sort of communal farming initiative within the development.”

Sarly adds that new buildings have the added advantage of having systems that can be purpose-built for the use of vertical farms. “From the time of Despommier’s skyscraper research in 1999, architects and designers have been trying to push vertical farming. Again the main hindrance is not technical but rather perception of users that this is not worthwhile to do as food that is imported or transported from elsewhere is cheaper and takes less effort on their part. What is needed is a framework to give local communities or management corporations added incentives to embark on vertical farming, maybe some amendment to our Strata Titles Act,” he suggests.

Briefly put, Yasmin and Qhawarizmi of MDRXA point out that the important factor will be the cost of the building per square foot against the amount of yield produced. “Even though a new structure might cost more, it may be bet ter than refurbishing, installing or modifying an existing structure. It would depend on a case-to-case basis. At the end of the day, it will all boil down to financial feasibility.”

Pros and cons

Besides food-related matters, vertical farming could also offer several other benefits either directly or indirectly. “It could serve as incubators and demonstration projects to build human skills and competencies associated with vertical farming, as well as for development of related innovative technologies. We will then be a reference point of expertise,” Dr Norhati offers. “The new architecture could become an attraction for eco-tourists as well as researchers. This will boost our country’s t o u r i s m industry and move us a notch up in establishing ourselves as a q u a l i t y research and learning hub.”

In MDRXA directors’ view, vertical farming in Malaysia has the advantage of a warm and seasonally wet climate. “We can greatly minimise heating and cooling water, artificial light and indoor temperature as we have an abundant amount of natural resources (rain, long hours of sunlight etc) to cultivate. On the other hand, our main disadvantage is the technical know-how. We not only lack the expertise but would need skilled labour to harvest and maintain the indoor mechanics. What we have in our buildings today is waste such as heat, gray water, waste etc. In nature, these ‘wastes’ are resources. Therefore, vertical farming is the missing l i n k whereby building wastes can be reused to complete the (ecological) cycle.”

Sarly adds that another disadvantage is that the implementation cost would be disproportionate to our labour cost, which is comparatively cheap. “Our purchasing power is relatively low, making the start-up cost seem exorbitant. Contrast this with a European city where the average income and purchasing power are higher. That and strict regulations on food preservatives make it more viable for Europe to embark on vertical farming.”

Dr Norhati of UiTM agrees. “Although ver tical farming is considered as an ecological solution, there are also many other more attractive and less risky options. The initial costs of vertical farming are high, so it’s not likely to be a top priority for a typical investor. Also, there are many uncertainties associated with this concept which renders it a high risk, for example at the detail designing resolution, construction and occupancy stage.”

 Prototypes

 

If Malaysia were to follow in the footsteps of other cities or nations, which existing prototypes could be a benchmark for us to follow? According to Dr Norhati, we have already embarked on vertical farming to an extent, albeit at a tiny scale. “We have to a certain degree prepared ourselves with the basic infrastructures to accommodate low intensity, self-managed vertical farming. Several good tropical architectural features present in our residential, office and commercial buildings can be exploited for this purpose, for example, sky terraces, balconies, atriums, courtyards and sky plazas. As long as these spaces offer good, consistent amount of sun, the potential of turning them into farming plots is there. Initiating a vertical farming system at individual and neighbourhood levels is a strategic and immediate plan to chart forward.”

Dr Norhati adds that most of the proposals for vertical farming that we see on the Internet at the moment are not built yet. “I believe Singapore has built its own version of vertical farming. It has its own interesting interpretation of vertical farming i.e. vertical farms with rotating racks. No fancy ‘futuristic’ architectural solution is needed! Also, according to Internet sources, several more are underway, for example, the Plantagon in Sweden is currently under construction.”

According to Yasmin and Qhawarizmi, the AVA (Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority) Sembawang Research Station in Singapore could be the closest possible prototype if ever one was erected in Malaysia, due to the similarity in climate conditions and technological availability. It is a modest 23-foot structure that yields five times more than conventional farming on the same area size.

Nevertheless, Sarly believes that Malaysia has to develop its own prototype to cater to its own specific needs and requirements. “There has always been an emphasis on this shift to thinking ‘local action/ consideration to bring global effect’, meaning that each region, nation or community must tailor its solution to fit its own unique set of concerns while contributing to the global solution of carbon reduction, environmental sustainability and energy security.”

Key factors

Although the idea of vertical farming especially in Malaysia is still in its infancy, there are several key factors that need to change for it to flourish in a local context. A critical factor is perception, Sarly points out. “If the public perceives that food grown in these vertical farms are of quality and taste equal or better than conventional farming produce, they will support this. Then, when demand is high, there will definitely be individuals or companies that would gladly supply the ‘produce’.”

Dr Norhati says that farming under a controlled environment requires different skills and expertise. “Will vertical farming entail the grooming of a new breed of farmers, or do we retrain the existing traditional farmers? How receptive will the traditional farmers be? Will working under a different farming condition appeal to them? Our knowledge regarding environmentally controlled farming in the Malaysian context is minimal. For example, what plant types to grow, what conditions are needed for healthy growth, identification and resolution of technical issues pertaining to the design, construction and maintenance of farming facilities within a concentrated foot print all require careful examination. Is there any relevant database containing all these information to assist potential investors and operators of vertical farming?”

Dr Norhati concludes that designing and constructing the vertical farming facility is only part of the problem to be solved in implementing vertical farming successfully. The readiness and know-how to operate the facilities would be a major challenge. “We can design and build the facility, but do we have operators who want to run the business? Is it a truly viable solution? Currently, the crucial data to support the decision to invest is not readily available. For example, details on systems and operation (both technical and human resources), financial viability of this investment etc are real problems that need sorting out prior to the actual project implementation.”

Future challenges

In the final analysis, many are obviously still skeptical about the viability of the concept. Nevertheless, the Yasmin and Qhawarizmi duo remain firm believers. “We believe that in the future, with the involvement and availability of improved agricultural technology, vertical farming will be as common as our everyday market and become part of the urban fabric, especially in mixed-use developments.”

In the future, as technology matures, these farms will play a more important role as they can clean the air, act as a carbon sink, and may even be significant urban social spaces, predict the directors of MDRXA. “We find that it is important to establish proper teams from various fields to come together in this venture as global food production becomes one of the world’s biggest issues in this and the next generation. It is vital that we prepare ourselves to face this food shortage sooner than later as the irreversible effects on our biosphere are threatening the entire existence of life on our planet.”

Vertical farm prototype by MDRXA comprises the farm itself and a public market / live showcase.

 


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