The “Vertical Farming Challenge” Experience

Imagining businesses that will change society for the better

What can ten people do with ten hours in a think-tank style competition? Develop the conceptual designs for transforming a run-down hotel into an urban agriculture showcase that has the potential to feed thousands of Las Vegas residents and create various jobs and volunteer opportunities. That might not sound like much of a feat by just reading about it; but trust me, if you were in the room that day, you could feel buzz of true collaboration in the air.  The power of diversity and cross-pollination of different disciplines has never been more apparent to me. We had a grower from New York and another from Canada, an entrepreneur from California and one from France, various levels of architecture students, mostly from the local area, but one from Arizona, an engineer from Czech Republic and me, sustainability manager from Colorado. What was so amazing about the experience was the way we all brought our skill-sets along with open-minds – humility was marked by passion and a willingness to work hard: planning and brainstorming, analyzing, evaluating, designing, deciding unanimously, and presenting ideas.


The process ended up being driven by the ten deliverables required by The Vertical Farming Association to qualify for being judged in the competition at the end of the day (criterion included feasibility, sustainability and creativity). From architectural plans and systems maps to business and marketing plans, these became the way we grouped ourselves in order to complete the creative tasks. Of course, before this we walked to the hotel site to look around, documenting, measuring and trying to picture something new and vital where there was this dirty little piece of Las Vegas’ history. Regenerative design work is careful though to preserve the essence of the original site and surrounding culture. Our group was committed to this principle. It was ironic that our site was the Alicia Hotel which is just a few blocks away from The Strip and the infamous Fremont Experience. We ended up naming our imaginary organization “Fresh on Fremont” – borrowing from the values of the non-profit involved in funding projects like the one we were conceptualizing – collision, connectedness, and co-learning – we designated each of the three U-shaped structures to represent one of these values.

alicia hotel oldsign  3Usoffloorplan

On the right-hand corner we placed an education-center where field-trips and partnerships with local schools to display various forms of urban and indoor agricultural methods could meet for conferences or trainings and tours. The middle section was developed as high-yielding plant production for retailing to various channels, wholesale markets and to local restaurants and specific chefs interested in “local food”. On the left side we also placed a small retail market and area where people could pick up their shares of produce in a CSA (community supported agriculture) co-op format. There was also a small restaurant setting with outdoor seating around the food being grown in raised beds and nearby in the vertical towers. Local chefs would be invited to offer a week of their time as community service, and we would be able to grow special foods for them to showcase and educate people how to eat healthier, sustainably. We even had planned for bicycles to deliver fresh produce to residents and small local retailers.  Although there was a local flavor and purpose to the whole endeavor, we also kept a global audience in mind, hoping Fresh on Fremont would develop into an eco-tourism hot-spot for research and development to showcase new kinds of indoor growing methods, leaving room to be progressive and attractive. Tours would cost ten dollars, and even passersby would be intrigued by the two tall glass towers on either side with tiers of plants bathed in pink light.

It was a surreal experience to see such genius channeled into a shared dream for the future.  All of us in that room hoped to take the ideas back to our homes and continue to spread the dream.  Vertical Farming is not just a concept anymore. The Living Building Challenge shows that innovation applied to the built environment can create regenerative properties – buildings that are designed to provide clean food, water, air, and even energy… We have to be  willing to look at the systems and their interconnectedness in novel ways that provide synergy and abundance.

I love the way this day at the Vertical Farming Design Challenge motivated me to seek platforms for social justice and education through engaging stakeholders in meaningful ways.  I was so honored that Dr. Dickson Despommier, author of The Vertical Farm, was one of the judges that night; but long term, even more exciting was Sarah Adler, USDA representative, who was interested in seeing more grant money made available for this sort of community vitalization projects. I will continue to work towards making the local food movement flourish in my area, and the only reason it isn’t happening yet is because indoor grow-rooms require a significant amount of start-up and operating capital. Best practices for indoor agriculture need to be developed and I advocate for open-source information to guarantee the spread of knowledge regarding controlled-environment agriculture and the vertical farming industry. As more people gain interest in growing their own food on a small scale, this will be a justice issue. I will do my best to help communities regain sovereignty over their basic natural resources – quality of life is determined by access to a few important things – food, water, air, energy, love. These are universal needs beyond any cultural relativism, and should be part of infrastructure. Changing the way we look at waste and consumption will do a lot for a sustainable future. Creating new business models that support environmental and social value creation is the key.

The other two teams that participated in the think-tank also presented unique concepts that added sustainable value. I commend the group that only required two employees to run an aquaponics operation connected to a restaurant. Their feasibility was phenomenal, showing the epitome of freshness, food grown on site. I also wish to commend the winning group for their creativity, in adding a new 12-story structure and renting out spaces to allow people to learn to become indoor farmers, as well as an orchard to make fresh food freely available to passersby. Until the next time, I will continue dreaming of new ways to apply this learning and experience (see for more information).

My goal is to become a leader spreading the ability for people to feed themselves sustainably through synergistic innovative technology application. This will require many months and years of research within greenhouse growing facilities, networking experts’ knowledge bases on horticultural methods for chosen species, as well as engineering and indoor growing systems design logistics. I envision a large facility that could operate as a globally-intriguing eco-tourism hub, where all biomes of the earth relevant to growing food will be reproduced, similar to Biosphere 2, but focused solely on agriculture. In the meantime, I will continue to seek investors and grants to solidify the evidence that PHGS represents a new paradigm in access to healthy, diverse GMO-free/pesticide-free diets.