Buildings don't have to be permanent — modular construction can make them modifiable and relocatable.
- Modular construction involves building the components of a habitable structure in a factory, and then assembling those components on-site.
- The history of modular construction stretches back centuries, and it became briefly popular in the U.S. after World War II, but it's never quite caught on.
- Construction firms like iMod Structures, which constructs buildings that can be modified and relocated, may soon change that.
Modular construction is on the rise. Once a marginal sector focused on building affordable homes, modular construction is now building an increasing share of structures used for commerce, healthcare, and education. By 2028, the modular construction market is projected to be worth $114 billion.
What is modular construction? It's like building with Legos but on an industrial scale: standardized block-shaped modules are constructed in a factory, transported to a building site, and assembled together to form a habitable structure.
What's most striking about modular buildings isn't appearance but the speed of construction. In 2015, for example, a Chinese construction company built a 57-story glass-and-concrete skyscraper made of 2,736 rectangular modules in a record-breaking 19 days. That's three stories per day.
In addition to speed, modular construction promises to be more modifiable, more transportable, and less wasteful than traditional construction methods. The method could transform construction, which, despite being one of the world's biggest sectors, is one of the slowest growing in terms of labor productivity and digitization.
One modular construction firm aiming to bring the sector into the 21st century is iMod Structures, which builds shipping container-sized modules that can be assembled into buildings. The modules can then be disassembled to modify the existing structure or transported to a different site to build a new one.
Freethink recently visited iMod Structures to get an up-close look at its unique spin on modular construction.
Do buildings have to be permanent? | Hard Reset by Freethink www.youtube.com
Techniques like this could help bring construction into the 21st century. But despite its futuristic and transformative appeal, modular construction is far from a new idea. In fact, the history of prefabrication — the broader category of construction to which modular belongs — goes back centuries.
Prefabrication: From 17th-century cottages to diners to skyscrapers
One of the earliest examples of prefabrication came in 1624, when a colonial American fisherman commissioned an English construction company to fabricate components of a building and ship them overseas to the fishing village of Cap Anne.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, English firms also shipped prefabricated structures — storehouses, cottages, and hospitals — to Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. In the U.S., prefabricated homes became popular during the Gold Rush when California towns had too many people but too few houses.
In the early 20th century, mass-production made modular construction more practical and, sometimes, more popular. From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold about 70,000 kit homes across the country; some of the cheapest models started around $160. (Kit homes were like IKEA products: the manufacturer builds and precuts the parts, and the buyer assembles them.)
Still, prefabricated homes weren't particularly popular in the first half of the 20th century; homebuyers generally viewed the structures — especially the metal and experimental ones — as strange and undesirable.
Pre fabricated house shipped via boxcarThe Aladdin Company via Wikipedia
But appearance wasn't a major concern during World War II. Facing huge demand for cheap and simple housing for soldiers in the early 1940s, the U.S. produced hundreds of thousands of Quonset huts — prefabricated, semi-cylindrical structures made of corrugated galvanized steel — which about six unskilled laborers could construct in a day.
A Quonset hut being put in place at the 598th Engineer Base Depot in Japan, post-World War IIUS Army Corps of Engineers via Wikipedia
After the war, millions of U.S. soldiers returned home, and the nation faced a housing shortage crisis. Hundreds of companies entered the prefabricated housing market, with several receiving support from the federal government. One of the most iconic models was the enameled-steel Lustron house, which cost $7,000 to $10,000, took two weeks to assemble, and promised to "defy weather, wear, and time."
By 1958, roughly 10 percent of all homes in the U.S. were prefabricated. In addition to homes, the prefabrication industry also built thousands of diners throughout the 20th century, especially after World War II when owning a prefabricated diner was a decent small-business opportunity. Popular in New Jersey, the narrow diners could easily be shipped to buyers by rail.
Interior of a 1938 Sterling manufactured diner, with curved ceiling, in Wellsboro, PennsylvaniaI, Ruhrfisch via Wikipedia
Despite the post-war boom, modular construction never really caught on in most parts of the world, though many architects and builders have long been attracted to the method. Some of the reasons include consumer perception that modular homes are unattractive, technological constraints, and the high costs of researching and developing new building techniques.
These challenges can be prohibitive, especially for large-scale projects.
"Building anything over 10 stories in modular is something no one has wanted to do because you have to invest in research and development," Susi Yu, executive vice president of residential development for the Forest City Ratner Corporation, told Fast Company. "There's science behind it that you need to figure out."
But attitudes on modular buildings may be shifting.
"Today, modular construction is experiencing a new wave of attention and investment, and several factors suggest it may have renewed staying power," noted a 2019 report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. "The maturing of digital tools has radically changed the modular-construction proposition — for instance, by facilitating the design of modules and optimizing delivery logistics. Consumer perceptions of prefab housing are beginning to change, particularly as new, more varied material choices improve the visual appeal of prefab buildings."
The report goes on: "Perhaps most important, we see a change in mind-set among construction-sector CEOs, as many leaders see technology-based disruptors entering the scene — and realizing it may be time to reposition themselves."
In recent decades, construction firms around the world have built all kinds of modular buildings, including modular skyscrapers in the U.K., U.S., and China; containerized homes in Mexico; and classrooms in rural South Africa.
"In many countries, modular construction is still very much an outlier," McKinsey noted. "But there are strong signs of what could be a genuine broad-scale disruption in the making. It is already drawing in new competitors — and it will most likely create new winners and losers across the entire construction ecosystem."
The benefits of modular construction
Modular construction has the potential to deliver $22 billion in annual savings to U.S. and European markets, mainly because of the inherent benefits of building components in a controlled factory setting. The Modular Building Institute lists a few examples:
- Shorter construction schedule. Because construction of modular buildings can occur simultaneously with the site and foundation work, projects can be completed 30 percent to 50 percent sooner than traditional construction.
- Elimination of weather delays. 60 to 90 percent of the construction is completed inside a factory, which mitigates the risk of weather delays. Buildings are occupied sooner, creating a faster return on investment.
- Improved air quality. Because the modular structure is substantially completed in a factory controlled setting using dry materials, there's virtually no potential for high levels of moisture (which can cause mold growth) to get trapped in the new construction.
- Less material waste. When building in a factory, waste is eliminated by recycling materials, controlling inventory, and protecting building materials.
- Safer construction. The indoor construction environment reduces the risks of accidents and related liabilities for workers.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of modular construction is relocatability and modifiability.
Future-proofing buildings and cities
Buildings are hard to modify and practically impossible to move. That's a problem for many organizations, including the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district currently maintains thousands of decades-old trailers it built to accommodate a fast-growing student population.
Seeking to replace those trailers with structures, the district partnered with iMod Structures to build "future proof" modular classrooms that can be reconfigured and relocated, depending on fluctuating enrollment levels.
"If you have one of our classrooms in a particular location and 5, 10, or 20 years later, you need them across town at another campus within the school district, you simply disassemble, relocate, and reassemble them where they are needed," Craig Severance, Principal with iMod Structures, said in a statement. "And it can be done within a few days, minimizing school [downtime] and disruption of our children's education."
iMod Structures classroomiMod Structures
Founded in 2009 by former real estate investors John Diserens and Craig Severance, iMod Structures takes a hyper-efficient approach to modular construction. Instead of making many types of prefabricated components, the firm makes only one standardized block-shaped frame, each roughly the size of a shipping container. The firm builds the frames in factories and then outfits them with walls, windows, and other custom features the client wants.
Because the frames have the dimensions of a standard shipping container, they can be easily transported to the building site by truck or rail. On site, the frames are connected together or stacked on top of each other. Once the structure is intact, workers finish the job by adding plumbing, electricity, and other final touches.
The process saves a lot of time.
"Typically, it would take nine to 15 months to manufacture a classroom out in the field," said Mike McKibbin, the head of operations for iMod. "We're doing that in twelve days."
Today, iMod Structures is focusing on future-proofing classrooms in California. But it's not hard to imagine how this kind of modular construction could transform not only the ways we build buildings but also organize cities. For example, if a company wants to set up offices in a new part of town, it could build an office park out of iMod Structures frames.
But what if the company needs to expand? It could attach more modules to its existing structure. If it needs to shut down? Instead of demolishing the office park, the structure could be modified and converted into, say, a hospital or apartment building. Alternatively, the modules could be removed from the site, and reused elsewhere, so the city could construct a park.
Under this kind of framework, cities could become far more flexible and dynamic, able to quickly adapt to changing needs. And with no need to demolish buildings, modular construction could prove far more sustainable than any method the industry uses today.
"We don't want our buildings to ever end up in a landfill. Ever," said Reed Walker, head of production and design at iMod Structures. "We want to take that system and use it again and again and again."
Too few babies — not overpopulation — is likely to be a major problem this century.
- A new study used demographic data to explore current and projected population changes around the world. Europe and Asia are shrinking, while Africa is still growing.
- For the first time in history, people aged 65+ outnumber children younger than five.
- Underpopulation will cause serious challenges for sustainability.
The 20th century saw the greatest population surge in human history, rising globally from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000. That trend is over. The majority of demographic data suggest that, despite previous concerns about overpopulation crises, the bigger problem for most parts of the planet will be too few babies.
Data clearly reflects this phenomenon. In Japan, people buy more diapers for the elderly than babies. China, which long enforced a one-child policy, recently raised its child limit to three; the nation expects its population to peak and then decline in 2030. And the population growth rate in the U.S. is at historic lows, reminiscent of the Great Depression era.
A new study published in npj Urban Sustainability explores the future of underpopulation and how it's likely to affect sustainability goals. Using demographic data from United Nations reports, the study argues that the underpopulation problem is dynamic and twofold: Populations are simultaneously shrinking and ageing.
"Globally, people above 65 years old are the fastest-growing segments of the population and in 2019, for the first time in human history, they outnumbered children younger than 5 years old," the researchers wrote. "In 2020, 9% of the global population was above 65 years old, accounting for 728 million people. This population is projected to increase more than twofold, reaching 1.55 billion in 2050 and accounting to 16% of global population, at medium fertility rates."
These changes won't spread evenly across the globe. By 2050, the regions set to see the biggest increases in elderly populations include Europe, Asia, and North America, while most nations in Africa will continue to have a relatively young population.
The enormous impact of urbanization
A key metric for understanding population shifts is replacement level fertility, which is the average number of children women need to have to keep the population constant. This rate is roughly 2.1 — two children to replace the mother and father, with 0.1 added on because not all children survive to adulthood.
In dozens of nations, the replacement rate has fallen below 1.5, especially in Europe and East Asia. One reason for the drop is rapid urbanization. In 1950, about one-third of humans lived in urban areas, but that ratio is projected to double by 2050 with about 7 billion people living in cities, many of whom will do so for employment opportunities in our increasingly industrial- and technology-focused global economy.
Proportion of aged population (in 2020 and 2050) and urban population (in 2018).Jarzebski et al., npj Urban Sustainability, 2021.
Urbanization affects the population in two key ways. One is that city-dwellers tend to have fewer babies for reasons such as higher cost of living, easier access to contraception, and career-focused urban women choosing to forgo or delay having children, the study noted. Urban life also offers different incentives: Families may benefit from having more children in rural areas, but the same is not true in cities. This explains, in part, why China chose to relax its one-child policy for rural families in the 1980s.
Urbanization also tends to lower mortality rates due to increased wealth and access to healthcare. So, adults have fewer babies while also living longer. The researchers noted that "there may be strong interactions in that increases in the proportion of elderly in a country can put more economic and social pressure on working age population, further decreasing birth rates and/or postponing child births, thus driving fertility rates even lower."
Evolution of the relative levels of mortality and fertility rates over time.Jarzebski et al., npj Urban Sustainability, 2021.
Facing ageing and shrinking populations, some nations are already passing or exploring policies to boost fertility rates, including "baby bonuses," subsidized child care, and paid paternity and maternity leave.
If successful, these interventions could usher in a new demographic phase which the study calls the "vulnerable hourglass," characterized by low mortality but recently high fertility. This could result in a population with many young and elderly people, but relatively few working-age adults, who could become overburdened.
Stylised population pyramid transition.Jarzebski et al., npj Urban Sustainability, 2021.
The researchers noted that demographic shifts are complex, and much remains uncertain about how factors like urbanization will affect not only population levels but also the environment and socioeconomic conditions worldwide.
"Considering the quick pace of these changes, especially as the rate of ageing and population shrinking might be underestimated in official statistics, there is a need for urgent action," the study concluded.
As droughts threaten water supplies across the planet, some municipalities aim to utilize an untapped resource: sewage water.
- Water recycling, or water reclamation, involves cleaning water with filters and chemicals to make it environmentally safe.
- In Texas, El Paso's water utility is taking this a step further by building a closed-loop system that will directly convert sewage water into drinkable water.
- Unsurprisingly, surveys show that most people don't like the idea of drinking recycled water, but public outreach programs seem able to change minds.
Of all the projects aiming to make the world more sustainable, none is less appealing than toilet to tap, a water recycling process where wastewater is converted into potable water.
But despite the gross-out factor, a handful of governments have already invested in the technology, including those in Singapore, South Africa, Belgium, California, and Texas. Soon, others may have few other options. El Paso is leading the way.
The case for drinking treated wastewater. (Yes, from the toilet.) | Just Might Work by Freethink www.youtube.com
Depletion of resources and climate change are threatening to dry up parts of the global water supply. By the late 21st century, the number of people impacted by extreme droughts is projected to double, a shortage that would not only affect the health of millions of people but also potentially create catastrophic socioeconomic problems and geopolitical conflicts.
The U.S. is already feeling the heat. In May, California declared a drought emergency in 39 counties. It wasn't really a shock to the state, which has endured severe droughts over the 20th century, including a historical five-year drought from 2012 to 2016. The U.S. Forest Service has warned that droughts like these could render half of the nation's freshwater basins unable to consistently meet monthly water demand by 2071.
The causes are twofold. One is a growing population that will demand more water. The other is that global warming is evaporating more water from soil, lakes, reservoirs, and rivers, while climate change alters patterns of precipitation and snowmelt, which feed the rivers and lakes from which we get much of our drinking water.
Facing a dry future, some municipalities have accepted the crappy-sounding reality: Converting sewage water into drinking water through water recycling may be the best way to prevent a crisis.
The average adult flushes about 320 pounds of poop down the toilet every year. Where does it all go?
When you flush your toilet, the water swirls through a U-shaped pipe, called a trap, that prevents sewage gases from entering your home. That toilet water — along with other wastewater from your sinks, washer, and shower — flows into a sewer line, which is connected to the buildings and homes in the immediate area. These sewer lines can be big. In New York City, for example, combined sewer lines can span more than 12 feet wide, enough space for a subway car.
These pipes carry wastewater to municipal water treatment plants for cleaning. In the U.S., the water treating process typically involves steps like:
- Odor control: Chemicals help mute foul odors.
- Screening: Wastewater is moved through screens to separate larger solids and trash.
- Primary treatment: Water sits in large tanks, allowing solid material to settle at the surface. Material is scraped off and disposed of.
- Aeration: Water is stirred to release gases, and air is pumped through the water to allow bacteria to act on organic matter, which helps it decay.
- Remove sludge: Solid material settles to the bottom and is removed.
- More filtration: Water is filtered through sand to reduce bacteria, odors, iron, and other solids.
- "Digest" the solid material: Solid material is heated to break it down to nutrient-rich biosolids and methane gas.
- Disinfection: Water is treated with chlorine to kill bacteria.
After wastewater is treated and deemed clean enough for the environment, it's used for crop irrigation, or it's discharged back into streams, rivers, and lakes. But some municipalities take water reclamation several steps further, purifying wastewater to the point where it's safe to drink.
Wastewater treatment facilitySongkhla Studio via Adobe Stock
Today, drinking water in places like Northern Virginia, Phoenix, and Southern California is, at least in part, reclaimed wastewater. But in some parts of the U.S., climate change poses such a severe threat to the water supply that more drastic measures are required.
A closed-loop water recycling system
El Paso, Texas, is an exceptionally dry city. Located in the Chihuahuan Desert where only nine inches of rain falls per year, it's drier than some parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The city has historically received half of its water supply from the Rio Grande, but the river has been steadily drying up, forcing officials to turn to other solutions, like building the nation's largest inland desalination plant and establishing incentives that encourage residents to use less water.
In recent years, El Paso has been working on what officials call the next logical step: Creating a closed-loop water recycling system that purifies wastewater and sends it right back into the drinking water supply.
El Paso and other U.S. cities already clean wastewater and pump it back into the aquifer, an underground layer of rock. But while this water reclamation process is environmentally safe, it can take years for the recycled water to make its way back into the drinking supply. A closed-loop system would speed things up.
The process will begin at El Paso's conventional water treatment facility, which cleans water according to long-established standards. But then the water will be piped nearby to the city's Advanced Water Purification Facility to undergo several additional cleaning steps:
- Water is filtered through thin sheets of material that remove salts, viruses, and contaminants, in a process known as reverse osmosis.
- Water is treated with hydrogen peroxide and UV light, both of which deactivate or destroy pathogens.
- Finally, the water is passed through granular-activated carbon that's been superheated to help trap any remaining particles.
As El Paso's reclaimed water goes through these additional purification stages, technicians at El Paso Water will monitor the water in real-time to ensure it meets safety standards.
"The water we're going to produce out of the Advanced Water Purification plant is the safest water that could be produced through treatment processes these days," Gilbert Trejo, EPWater's chief technician officer, told Freethink.
Freethink recently visited El Paso Water to get an up-close look at what is set to be the first closed-loop water recycling system in a major U.S. city. (See video above.)
In addition to cleaner water, water recycling facilities like El Paso's would also be cheaper and more practical than solutions like desalination. After all, not every city lives close to the ocean, and even those that do have to pay to transport saltwater to the treatment plants. But practical benefits aside, toilet to tap is tough to sell to the public.
Clean but spiritually contaminated?
The prospect of drinking recycled water unsurprisingly elicits a disgust response in many people, some more so than others. A 2015 survey of more than 2,000 U.S. residents across the nation found that: "Approximately 13% of our adult American sample definitely refuses to try recycled water, while 49% are willing to try it, with 38% uncertain," the researchers wrote. "Both disgust and contamination sensitivity predict resistance to consumption of recycled water."
For a minority of people, it seems no amount of purification through technical means will render the water potable. That's because of "spiritual contagion," which the researchers said is "conceived of in terms of the entrance into the target of some spiritual essence which does not resemble standard physical entities. It does not respond to washing, boiling or filtering, but remains as a permanent essence."
But even though water reclamation is generally unpopular, and some people may always resist it, research suggests that people become more accepting of water recycling as they learn more about the process.
That's why El Paso has aimed to be transparent and proactive in explaining the process to residents through public outreach programs. In 2016, nearly 90 percent of El Pasoans supported the idea of producing more drinking water through the city's Advanced Water Purification Facility.
Trejo said it's about establishing trust with residents:
"I think it's very exciting for El Pasoans to know that what we're doing here in El Paso is going to change the water industry. The engineering community and the water community knows and understands that these treatment processes treat the water and produce a very high-quality water. It's a matter of which community is going to be the first one to have absolute trust in their water utility, and in the water, and that's what we're about to do here in El Paso.
A new agricultural revolution could forever change the planet.
- Vertical farming leverages cutting-edge technology to grow food in a new and better way.
- One of its many benefits is that it can increase crop yield by 700 percent.
- Vertical farming can help relieve pressure on scarce resources and boost Earth's biodiversity.
One day soon, you could eat bananas grown in downtown Manhattan.
It's a way of growing food that turns traditional agriculture on its head. With the required technologies now rapidly maturing, vertical farming is sprouting across the globe.
While there are still unresolved issues with this marriage of technology and agriculture, its promise may be irresistible. If it gets off the ground — literally — in a major way, it could solve the problem of feeding the Earth's 7.9 billion people. And that's just one of the benefits its proponents promise.
Vertical farms could take over the world | Hard Reset by Freethink www.youtube.com
Agriculture through time
When humankind began planting crops for nutrition about 12,000 years ago, the nature of our hunter-gatherer species fundamentally shifted. For the first time, it's believed, people began staying put.
With agriculture as their central mission, communities formed, with the now-familiar arrangement of residential areas surrounded by land dedicated to growing food. Even today, with modern transportation making the widespread consumption of non-local foods common, this land-allocation model largely survives: population centers surrounded by large areas for growing vegetables and fruit and raising livestock.
Challenges facing traditional agriculture
Credit: Genetics4Good / Wikimedia
As our population has grown, traditional agriculture has begun facing some big challenges:
- Farmland takes up a lot of space and destroys biodiversity. Our World in Data reports that half of all habitable land is used for agriculture. As Nate Storey of Plenty, Inc., a vertical farming startup, puts it, "It is probably one of the most defining acts of humanity: We literally changed the ecosystem of the entire planet to meet our dietary needs."
- The demand for farmland — both for produce and livestock — has led to a dangerous deforestation in several parts of the world. This also results in biodiversity loss and contributes to an increase in the greenhouse gases that drive climate change.
- Degradation of farmland, such as through soil erosion, poses a threat to agricultural productivity.
- Agriculture consumes copious amounts of water, which exacerbates water shortages. (Obviously, water shortages also reduce agricultural productivity.)
- Fertilizer run-off causes substantial environmental damage, such as algal blooms and fish kills.
- Pesticides can degrade the environment by affecting non-target organisms.
- The effects of climate change are already making agriculture more challenging due to significant shifts in weather, changes to growing seasons, and realignment of water supplies. Our climate is continuing to change in unexpected ways, and the only predictable aspect of what lies ahead is unpredictability.
Vertical farming proponents expect that a re-think of how we grow food can ultimately solve these problems.
What is vertical farming?
Credit: Freethink Media / Plenty, Inc.
Vertical farming is a form of agriculture that grows plants indoors in floor-to-ceiling, tower-like walls of plant-holding cells. Instead of growing plants in horizontal fields on the ground, as in traditional farming, you can think of vertical farming's "fields" as standing on edge and extending upward toward the ceiling. The plants need no soil or other aggregate medium in which to grow; their roots are typically held in a cell lining, often composed of coconut fiber.
Vertical flora is grown either aeroponically, in which water and nutrients are delivered to plants via misting, or hydroponically, in which plants are grown in nutrient-rich water. These are incredibly efficient systems, requiring 95% less irrigation than soil-grown plants. With vertical farming, Storey says that 99 percent of the moisture transpired by plants can be recaptured, condensed, and recirculated.
Plants, of course, also need light to grow, and vertical farms use increasingly efficient LED bulbs to keep plants thriving.
Vertical farms can increase crop yields by 700 percent
Credit: pressmaster / Adobe Stock
If vertical farming takes off the way its supporters believe it should and will, it may solve many of the aforementioned challenges facing agriculture.
Crop yields with vertical farming far exceed what's possible with traditional agriculture. Plenty, Inc.'s Shireen Santosham notes that the highly controlled growing environment of vertical farming has allowed her company to reduce the growing time for some crops to as little as 10 days. Without needing to consider weather or even sunlight, combined with the ability to operate 365 days a year, their system increases the potential annual yield by about 700 percent.
The land requirement for vertical farming is a mere fraction of that for traditional agriculture. Santosham says it can be done in a building the size of a big-box retail store that can be built pretty much anywhere that has adequate utilities, including within major urban centers. The tightly controlled environment of a vertical farm should also eliminate the need for applied pesticides.
Yet another benefit of vertical farming is the return of land currently needed for food production back to the planet. This could help facilitate Earth's recovery from deforestation and return much needed habitat to threatened or endangered species. Of course, if we ever colonize the moon or Mars, vertical farming will be the go-to option for feeding the colonists.
Several vertical farming company pioneers are already getting their high-quality crops into the hands, and mouths, of consumers. Plenty, Inc. has an eponymous line of greens, and Aerofarms has their FlavorSpectrum line. Both companies claim that their products are exceptionally tasty, a result of their carefully controlled growing environments in which computer-controlled lighting can be optimized to bring out the most desirable qualities of each crop.
Credit: Alesia Berlezova / Adobe Stock
The history of vertical farming
The idea of vertical farming isn't new, and experts have been questioning its viability since the term was first coined in 1915 by Gilbert Ellis Bailey, who was obviously way ahead of the available technology at the time. The first attempt to grow produce in a constructed environment was a Danish farmhouse factory that was built to grow cress, a peppery green related to mustard, in the 1950s.
The modern concept of a vertical farm arose in the New York classroom of Columbia University's Dickson Despommier in 1999. He presented the idea as a theoretical construct, a mental/mathematical exercise imagining how to farm in an environmentally sound manner. His class began with the notion of a rooftop garden before considering a "high-rise" version that might theoretically be able to grow enough rice to feed two percent of Manhattan's population at the time. The eureka moment was a question Dispommier asked: "If it can't be done using rooftops, why don't we just grow the crops inside the buildings? We already know how to cultivate and water plants indoors."
With the technological advances of the last few decades, vertical farming is now a reality. Our sister site, Freethink, recently paid Plenty, Inc. a visit. (See video above.)
Vertical farming today
Credit: Nelea Reazanteva / Adobe Stock
Today, growers across the globe are developing vertical farms. While the U.S. has more vertical farms than any other country, the industry is blooming everywhere.
There are currently over 2,000 vertical farms in the U.S. While more than 60 percent of these are owned by small growers, there are a few heavyweights as well. In addition to Wyoming's Plenty, Inc. and Newark's Aerofarms, there's also New York's Bowery Farming. There are also companies such as edengreen, based in Texas, whose mission is to help new entrants construct and operate vertical farms.
Japan comes in second, with about 200 vertical farms currently in operation. The largest vertical farming company there is SPREAD. Across Asia, vertical farms are operating in China, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Taiwan. In Europe, vertical growers are in Germany, France, Netherlands, and the U.K. Germany is also home to the Association for Vertical Farming, "the leading global, non-profit organization that enables international exchange and cooperation in order to accelerate the development of the indoor/vertical farming industry."In the Middle East, whose desert land and scarcity of water present a particularly challenging agricultural environment, vertical farming is taking root, so to speak. The United Arab Emirates' Badia Farms is now producing more than 3,500 kilograms of high-quality produce each day and expects to increase that yield going forward. In Kuwait, NOX Management launched in the summer of 2020 with plans to produce 250 types of greens, with a daily output of 550 kg of salads, herbs, and cresses.
The economics of vertical farming
Credit: meryll / Adobe Stock
Building and operating a vertical farm is a costly endeavor, requiring a substantial initial investment in state-of-the-art technology, real estate, and construction. AgFunderNews (AFN) estimates that it can cost $15 million to construct a modern vertical farm. Fortunately, investors see the potential in vertical farming, and the industry has attracted more than $1 billion in investments since 2015. That includes $100 million for Aerofarms. Plenty, Inc raised $200 million in 2017 from a fund backed by such respected forward-thinkers as Jeff Bezos and Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt.
AFN is particularly excited by the potential of what they call second-generation vertical farming technology. They cite advances in LED technology — expected to increase energy efficiency by 70 percent by 2030 — and increasingly sophisticated automation that can streamline the operation of vertical farms. AFN anticipates operating cost reduction of 12 percent due to improvements in lighting and another 20 percent from advances in automation.
BusinessWire says that the vertical farming produce market was valued at nearly $240 million in 2019, and they expect it to grow 20 percent annually to over $1 billion by 2027.
A welcome disruption
Veritical farming will be disruptive.
Vertical farming would eliminate the need for the arduous work of harvesting crops by hand from vast tracts of farmland. Current picking jobs, the company says, can be replaced by better-paying, full-time jobs available 365 days a year in better working conditions — and in the variety of geographic locations in which vertical farms can operate.
There are two caveats, however. First, the number of people needed to manage and harvest vertical farm crops will be far fewer than the many farmworkers required for less efficiently planted traditional fields. Second, with automation becoming ever-more capable — and perhaps a key to eventual profitability — one wonders just how many new jobs ultimately will be created.
But the societal benefits far outweigh any costs. As Plenty's Storey muses, "Like most everything in the world, we can only save our species if it makes economic sense." Thankfully, it does make economic sense.
It's time to rethink how satellites and other objects are made and eventually destroyed.
- The objects humans send to space teach us a lot about the universe, but they are also cluttering it up. While some objects are close enough to be retrieved, others become dangerous, fast-moving bullets that can cause serious damage.
- In addition to cleaning up what's already there, MIT Assistant Professor Danielle Wood says that we need to think more sustainably about the technology used in future missions. "We have to ask the question, will we respect the rights of people and the environment as we go forward in space," Wood says.
- One possible solution is a wax-based fuel source (made of beeswax and candle wax) for satellites that would be less toxic and more affordable than currently used inorganic compounds, and that would help bring the objects closer to Earth for deorbiting and destruction.