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Building Integrated Agriculture

Building Integrated Agriculture:
Closing the Nutrient Cycle for Net-Zero Building Performance

Urban Agriculture is the incorporation of food cultivation in cities and buildings. This integration started as a grassroots movement, but in the last few years it has reached the mainstream consciousness of the larger population. The popularity of urban agriculture increased through factors like the new food movement, a growing critique of the existing food system and initiatives to create more sustainable cities. Some recent urban agriculture projects include growing practices integrated with building systems and urban infrastructure to increase the environmental benefits. Initiated by these projects, the interest of the design community to incorporate complex urban agriculture systems in their design work is immense.

The urban agriculture movement is strong and growing. However, the emerging practices have not been documented thoroughly. Architects and planners are missing essential information about how to design with those systems. My research analyzes current practices, system integration, and case studies in urban agriculture, primarily based on resource efficiencies, environmental benefits, operation and design. The research is intended to assist architects, landscape architects, planners, and designers directly in their aim to integrate urban agriculture in the built environment.

The Plant, located in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, is one of my research case studies. I was able to visit The Plant during my research this summer. It is one of the first prototypes that integrates food production and living systems into a network of constructed ecologies within an existing building. It is a project that takes the building and system integration of urban agriculture to the next level. While still in the early phases of establishing different ecologies, the project has the promise to operate as a net-zero building while truly rethinking how building systems work. My research examines:

• Different living systems and constructed ecologies integrated in The Plant
• Creating alternative energy cycles
• Reuse of energy embedded in the existing building 

The Plant repurposes a meatpacking facility into a vertical farm and food business incubator.[i] The building served for over 80 years in the meat processing industry before John Edel, founder and executive director of The Plant, started transforming the building in 2010 and estimates it will be completed by 2016. The Plant’s mission is “to promote sustainable food production, entrepreneurship, and building reuse through research, education, and development.”[ii] To achieve these goals, its strategy is to create a closed loop system in which one tenant’s waste is another user’s resource, while establishing a complex, highly interrelated ecological network.[iii] Upon completion, one-third of the building will house aquaponic-farming systems and two-thirds will provide space for sustainable food businesses.[iv] The integration of an industrial-scale anaerobic digester will lead to energy self-sufficiency. Adaptive reuse is an environmentally sensitive operation, which adds another dimension to the constructed ecology. The Plant benefits from the food grade equipment and furnishing of the existing building. In total, 80% of the building will be recycled, which allows the project to re-construct itself using its own material resources.

The Plant is an excellent precedent for how complex interrelationships and performance of living systems can provide building services. It showcases the integration of ecologies and redefines conventional assumptions about building systems. Organic matter drives the energy production and most resource cycles. The building provides infrastructure to support these resource exchanges specific to biological processes and alternative energy production.

Through its radical approach, The Plant challenges the established notion of advanced environmental performance. It develops a new relationship between abiotic and biotic materials and systems. Eventually, both the building and the biotic systems will perform on a variety of scales – from simple biological processes to large resource exchange systems and a positive social impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

Written by  Assistant Professor Gundula Proksch

Professor Proksch’s current research focuses on design with living systems and the integration of urban agricultural practices in the built environment. She is conducting interdisciplinary research on vertical urban agriculture and system integration in collaboration with faculty in the Departments of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Washington.


[i] See: The Plant’s web site, http://www.plantchicago.com/ (accessed August 5, 2012)

[ii] See: The Plant’s web site, http://www.plantchicago.com/ (accessed August 5, 2012)

[iii]Statement by Melanie Hoekstra, director of operations, on the public tour through The Plant on June 14, 2012.

[iv] See: The Plant’s web site, http://www.plantchicago.com/ (accessed August 5, 2012)

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