In Dr. Dickson Despommier’s ‘The Vertical Farm’, Despommier discusses the need for urban farms to be ‘cheap to build, modular, durable, easily maintained, and safe to operate’. To me, the ‘modular’ part of this statement stands out as the most important point. By making urban farms modular it is easier to scale them by simply adding more pre-built units and easier to repair by simply disconnected a broken unit and isolating problems until they can be corrected. Each unit could be dedicated to a specific ecosystem allowing multiple crops to be grown in different containers with different climates without impacting on each other.
Google has already taken this approach to building data centers by creating ‘google pods’, standard shipping containers filled with all of the servers and airflow equipment required in a data center and assembled offsite for transport and installation at the desired location. Power, air conditioning and network connectivity are all handled separately at the installation site making all ‘pods’ simple to manage and interchangeable. The ‘pods’ are plugged in and out in the same way we install a washing machine into our homes.
The shipping container vertical farm
This shipping container approach could be applied to modular vertical farms. By replacing the corrugated sides with a transparent material such as plastic or glass it would be simple to create stackable greenhouses. Add inlet and outlet pipes for water flow and ventilation and a power connection for running lighting during the winter months and you have a portable, scalable, stackable, modular, urban farm design.
By removing the power, water, and air circulation from each unit you can service many units with one system, if you choose too, but then split them apart quite easily for the next grow run if you wish. This would also be a good way to ensure standardization across the board. With all containers using the same pipe widths, power sockets and voltages, the cost of production would decrease while maximizing the efficiency of installations with guaranteed quality of components. As the containers are portable they could be installed anywhere in the world and therefore standardization is a must, not a nice to have.
In the immediate future, cost is a potential barrier to entry with a single shipping container selling for £1,500 – £2,000 at present. However, being able to stack greenhouses several stories high without needing to build a permanent structure could provide the required cost savings when deploying at scale.