Due to the pandemic over three years ago, employees had to be forced out of their office spaces. But now, even though everything has gone back to normal, a lot of office buildings remain unoccupied.
Based on data collected from 10 major cities, office building occupying rates recently surpassed 50% of pre-pandemic levels, only to face stagnation in the following months.
Remembering that the pandemic highlighted employees’ capacity to work effectively at home, both companies and workers have begun to ditch the idea of working in office buildings.
The United States is currently experiencing an office space vacancy of nearly 20 percent. Projections indicate that by 2030, more than 300 million square feet of office space in the U.S. could be empty.
Due to the fact that more people prefer to work remotely, tall buildings which were once filled to the brim. This leaves officials scurrying to find ways to reoccupy the vacant places, like turning them into apartments.
Then came one unconventional idea: converting empty offices into farms.
One of the many companies trying to repurpose empty buildings
This has been done by a company called Area 2 Farms, which has cultivated greens, herbs and root vegetables in an old paper company and warehouse building.
Tyler Baras the co-founder called the vertical farm’s apparatus Silo. It’s an innovative growth system which functions as a multi-level conveyor belt system that operates vertically throughout the day, mimicking a plant’s natural circadian rhythm.
According to Baras, Silo’s automated system reduces the physical aspects of traditional vertical farming methods, such as climbing ladders. Moreover, its installation doesn’t require any modifications to the existing building.
Baras and co-founder Jackie Potter said that with how everything is changing in recent years, our current food system is also transforming. Potter stated that the quaint, idyllic image of traditional farms doesn’t reflect the current reality, and farmers must be ready to adapt.
Another company that tries repurposing empty buildings is AgriPlay Ventures which converted a portion of underutilized office space within Calgary Tower Center, Alberta, into one of Canada’s largest indoor urban farms earlier this year.
President of AgriPlay Dan Houston has long believed that vertical farming and office buildings were a natural pairing. With two decades of experience in the industry, Houston didn’t understand why there were no more vertical farms in office spaces.
“They should be, because the office market is so bad and it’s only getting worse,” Houston said.
In Alberta, there’s already a growing issue with a high rate of food insecurity as well as struggles in the commercial real estate sector.
To try tackling this issue, AgriPlay was motivated to try indoor farming as well as transforming part of Calgary Tower into a thriving hub of tomato, strawberry, cucumber, and vegetable production. Now, the company offers up to 30 harvests annually.
As of now, AgriPlay only utilizes one floor of the building for food cultivation. In the future, however, it plans to expand to two more floors and more office spaces.
Empty office spaces and vertical farms
According to Houston, office spaces are already equipped with the ideal environmental conditions for growing food, given their existing climate control systems. So, there’s no need for major structural modifications.
Moreover, with the right growth systems, the farms can easily adapt to a variety of buildings and settings—an attractive proposition for prospective landlords.
With the help of AI—as utilized by AgriPlay—installations and system integration can be done efficiently. And if the systems are user-friendly, then anyone can have vertical farms despite no prior farming experience.
So long as the execution is effective, Houston believes that vertical farming can potentially rival traditional agricultural methods in urban and limited spaces. The most favorable benefit would be the added advantage of consistent year-round production without the vulnerability to climate and pests.
Additionally, vertical farms don’t need a significant amount of water—up to 95% less compared to conventional farming.
But while vertical farms can’t fully replace traditional farming, they help address food security issues as well as lack of access to nutritious foods in underserved areas.
And now that the real estate sector is facing challenges, Houston identified a unique, unprecedented convergence of those two issues, providing a chance to give solutions to those problems through for production in vacant buildings.
Potter is in accord with Houston’s belief, noting that utilizing empty office space for farming could reshape urban centers as we know them now.
“Cities are changing every day. There’s a really great economic opportunity as well. Our farms create new green jobs, they beautify spaces and provide fresh food to local communities. That’s something that’s really precious,” Potter said.
But can vertical farms replace the conventional ones?
Since these farms don’t have to depend on the weather, it can address the food security issues; which is why investors and consumers have shown more preference to these farms.
And now, there are approximately more than 2,000 vertical farms in the US growing produce such as lettuce, herbs and berries.
From a financial perspective, farming vertically seems to be fortuitous: it raised $1bn in 2021, exceeding the combined funding generated in 2018 and 2019. Exists have predicted that three industry could grow $9.7bn worldwide by 2026.
However, not everyone thinks that indoor farming is going to revolutionize agriculture.
There are some skeptics who stated that these farms need massive energy costs, renders the farming alternative less eco-friendly than their branding suggests. Some agree that growing food upwards indoors can bypass so many of the problems related to traditional farming, but energy costs are still an ongoing issue.
Critics have also questioned how the farms can truly feed a world that relies on calories from grains such as soy, corn and wheat. Some have said that vertical farming simply results in vegetables for rich people.
On the other side, other experts have said that whilst it is true that the current vertical farming is energy intensive, so is traditional outdoor farming. Besides, some farms are already powered be renewables.
So, which one is right? Well, it all boils down to complexity. Kale Harbick, a research agricultural engineer at the USDA who works on the optimization of controlled-environment agriculture, said it was important to understand the scale of the problem.
“There are certainly benefits for renewables, but I wouldn’t call them a silver bullet,” Harbick said.
According to Harbick, if we put a vertical farm in a skyscraper like the World Trade Center to grow lettuce and wanted to power it with renewable energy like solar, we’d have to bulldoze the rest of the island of Manhattan to make room for panels to generate enough power just for the lights of that building.
Still pretty novel
One thing that we have to keep in mind is that these farms have just been really around and getting improved only recently. And like any other new things, the are many rooms for improvement and that the idea is going to be faced with skepticism or criticism.
Some researchers are redesigning plants to grow in these new systems. In the future, stone fruits, mushrooms, eggplants, peppers and cacao plants may be growing indoors without facing many challenges.
So for now, we’ll just have to wait and see about how researchers could improve the systems. Therefore, vertical farms in the future would be more resilient, robust, and energy-efficient.
And as of current, what vertical farming can do is providing consumer fresh, organic produce. It won’t replace it overtake conventional agriculture yet, but it will make food supply systems better for the world.