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Why aren’t there rice paddies lining the walk to your conference room? Why don’t you have lemon trees instead of cubicle walls? Where are your tomato plants!? The Japanese staffing company Pasona has all this and more and is one of the best examples of building integrated agriculture. Click continue reading below to find out:
- What is building integrated agriculture and why it’s the the coolest part about vertical farming
- What Pasona harvests and how
- The health benefits for the employees of an agriculturally integrated office
Building integrated agriculture is a few fancy words that, when you smash them together, mean growing food inside a space that is also being used for something else. The caveat is that this growing has to be in mind from the initial design or remodel. In other words, having a few basil plants on your counter top or a little hydroponic cabinet doesn’t count.
Instead, what might count is replacing work space partitions with plants ready for harvest or being able to supply your office’s cafeteria with the rewards of your employees’ harvest. Keep reading and take a good look at the picture’s for Kono Design’s, the firm that helped design Pasona, take.
The principle advantage of building integrated agriculture is that it puts food production where people are: production matches consumption. This reduces environmental strain on agricultural by freeing lands from outdoor industrial production and the associated environmental harms from erosion, pesticide use, water use, and soil degradation. In light of our failing global planetary boundaries, biodiversity loss, habitat collapse, and industrial agriculture-generated pollution, this is extremely important.
There’s also a very social goal. “We’re not only trying to promote urban farming,” says one Pasona employee in a video interview. “We are also trying to reinvigorate rural areas where farms are…this office is a symbol, a place we can use to raise awareness about agriculture.” With the increasing disconnect between consumers and where their food comes from, this is especially important.
Pasona agrees. “One of the challenges we faced was that young urban dwellers and office workers in cities think of farming as something far away from their own lives.”
Compared to specialized farming structures, many of which we have explored on this site (here’s one), building integrated agriculture would be right in the middle of our day-to-day routine achieving impressive results. How? Well, building integrated agriculture is able to utilize synergies in our built environment to close production loops and take advantage of otherwise wasted resources. For example, rainwater catchment systems can be used to fuel hydroponic production instead of washing away through a crowded urban sewer system. Or, waste heat from large office HVAC systems can be used to heat a rooftop greenhouse for faster plant growth.
The beauty of building integrated agriculture is how it can be adapted to fit any built environment without taking the space of a more valuable, in either social or economic terms, function. It can apply to horizontal rooftop designs or vertical facades. According to the University of Tennessee, “if all the sunlight energy striking the Earth’s surface in Texas alone could be converted to electricity, it would be up to 300 times the total power output of all the power plants in the world!” And photosynthesis is far more efficient than solar panels. Imagine if every single building facade and rooftop used that energy to nourish the population? That’s where we start to see the real advantages of building integrated agriculture.
Besides benefits to our food system and environment, there are also direct benefits to the people in these buildings. The biophilia hypothesis proposes that there is an intrinsic relationship between humans and other forms of life and that humans in fact thrive when they are exposed to them. Evolutionary biology created this relationship but we are just now able to quantify it (here’s one example of a study that indicates increased patient recovery times in hospitals with more plant life and here’s another example of an office that improved its indoor air quality with plants). We’ll get more into how that would actually play out in an office setting in the last section of this piece, but for now, suffice it to say that integrating agriculture into buildings is good for the people in those buildings.
So now you know what building integrated agriculture is (simple enough, putting agriculture into spaces that simultaneously serve another use), but why is it the coolest aspect of vertical farming? It’s the coolest part of vertical farming because it decentralizes food production and incorporates it into our lives in a way that takes advantage of otherwise wasted space and resources.
When our food system is decentralized, it is more secure. For example, corn is the the largest component of global grain trade, at about three-quarters of total trade. At the same time, the United States is the single largest exporter accounting for as much as 60% of that trade in recent years (source). So what would happen to the rest of the world if the United States were suddenly able to supply that much corn? For whatever reason- plant disease, war, climate change- other countries would be hard pressed to suddenly match those lost calories. However, if building integrated agriculture were adopted, isolated incidences of crop failure would be less of a shock to the system because other areas are already producing.
This decentralization of food production takes the food supply from the hands of large multinational corporations and puts it directly in the hands of communities. This of course can be done a number of ways, but why not do it in a way that makes use of otherwise wasted space and resources? And when this efficiency also makes people happier and healthier, it’s a win win.
What Pasona Harvests and How
The case for building integrated agriculture has been made. If you’re still not convinced, leave a comment below and we can talk about it some more, but for now I want to get more into what Pasona is harvesting and how. For those of you more interested in the mechanics of vertical farming hydroponics, this is what you’ve been waiting for.
The full name of the project, a bit of a mouthful, is Urban Farm at Pasona Tokyo Headquarters. It’s a 9-story, 215,000 square foot refurbished (huge sustainability points for recycling the structure) office building in downtown Tokyo.
Of that space, 43,000 square feet is green space that provides home to 200 species of pants. Fruits, vegetables, and rice are harvested, prepared, and served in cafeterias in the building. The company claims that its the largest and most direct farm-to-table of its kind.
The company uses a combination of hydroponic growing, as seen above, and soil based farming. The hydroponic system uses artificial lighting and stacked shelves; similar to some of the farms we outlined here. However, because they haven’t pigeon-holed themselves to particular farming methods, they can adapt those methods to different crops.. For example, while the leafy greens above may flourish hydroponically, the main lobby features a rice paddy and a broccoli field that is soil based and more appropriate for those crops.
Kono Designs embraced a wide array of technologies for building Pasona. This is important because it allowed them the flexibility to grow more crops and work into different spaces with varying energy and climate requirements. Different crops use HEFL, flourescent, and LED lamps and everything is hooked up to an automatic irrigation system of one kind or another.
One thing to note is that a comfortable climate for human workers is not always the best for plant growth. So, computerized climate control systems balance human comfort during business hours and shift it for productivity when people leave the building, maximizing harvest and comfort.
One major feature of the building is its double skinned green facade. This is essentially adding an additional wall, often glass, over an interior wall with space for air to flow in between. The principle advantage is energy efficient heating and cooling and in this instance it creates a perfect micro climate within the building for certain plants including seasonal flowers and orange trees. This allows these plants to take advantage of the natural exterior climate and showcase the flowers’ aesthetic appeal.
The plants are all harvested by Pasona employees with the help of an agricultural specialist. It takes 10 full time employees to monitor all the plant growth. Plant species harvested include:
- Japanese pumpkin
- bitter melon
- passion fruit
- bean sprouts
- lemon trees
- orange trees
I reached out to Pasona but was unable to get any yield or cost data.
The health benefits for the employees of an agriculturally integrated office
A lot of people are going to write projects like this off as too expensive. What they don’t realize is that offices can save money by putting nature in buildings.
According to one source:
“Studies show that most people in urbanized societies spend over 80% of their time indoors. Plants are also known to improve the air quality we breathe by carbon sequestration and removing volatile organic compound [Urban Vertical Project covers that here]. A sampling on the air at Pasona HQ have shown reduction of carbon dioxide where plants are abundant. Such improvement on the air quality can increase productivity at work by 12%, improves common symptoms of discomfort and ailments at work by 23%, reduce absenteeism and staff turnover cost.
Employees of Pasona HQ are asked to participate in the maintenance and harvesting of crops with the help of agricultural specialists. Such activity encourages social interaction among employees leading to better teamwork on the job. It also provides them with a sense of responsibility and accomplishment in growing and maintaining the crops that are ultimately prepared and served to their fellow co-workers at the building’s cafeterias.”
Adding on to that, providing people with a nourishing, local diet reduces healthcare costs through employer sponsored insurance. That’s why you see companies like Google and other tech giants doing the same thing.
I truly believe that vertical farming is headed in the direction of building integrated agriculture. Instead of massive skyscrapers (largely written off as fantasy) or huge warehouses dedicated to food production, I believe farming will be more directly incorporated into how each of us lives.
The technology will be refined and optimized before it makes a full transition to our apartment buildings and offices, but once available, why wouldn’t a developer want to take advantage of these concepts? Why wouldn’t you want to turn your waste heat into cash from food crops? Why wouldn’t you want to use the sun hitting your office windows to grow healthy food for your employees, capitalizing on the biophilic benefits of incorporated greenery and reducing healthcare absences and costs from an improved diet? As I’ve iterated on this site before, there is no silver bullet solution to our growing food and environmental challenges. But there is a mosaic of options, and I happen to think that building integrated agriculture is the prettiest piece.
To learn more about Pasona, check out this video too
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