Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sky Farming

It’s called the Malthusian Catastrophe. Named after Thomas Malthus, the English economist and demographer, it predicts the ultimate failure of the Earth’s ecosystem to support our ever-increasing population. To quote Malthus,

“The power of the population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”

More than two hundred years after Malthus first made his prediction in 1789, there is growing concern that we may soon surpass the planet’s ability to sustain us. An estimated 80 percent of the world’s potentially arable land is already being used to provide food for the Earth’ estimated 6.7 billion people. If current trends continue, the United Nations predicts that the population will exceed 9 billion by 2050. Using existing agricultural practices, we would need an additional one billion acres of land to feed everyone.

That’s land we simply don’t have. Add to this the rising cost of oil, which dramatically affects both the cost of shipping food and many of the fertilizers used to produce it, as well as the growing demand for feed stocks such as corn to produce ethanol, and the impact of climate change on agricultural production, and it would appear that we are only a few bushels away from a global famine.

That is unless you talk to Gordon Graff. Gordon, a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, spends much of his time pondering the idea of sustainability.

“Within the academic environment, the idea of sustainability is rather vague,” said Gordon. “Even though our ecological awareness had exploded exponentially in the last two years, I wanted to find out what that meant within the context of my studies.”

A student of architecture, Gordon found direction and inspiration in the work of American architect, Edward Mazria. Gordon realized that through his own work he had an extraordinary opportunity to make the world a better place.

“Architects are closer to the fashion industry than they are to creating sustainable cities. It’s more about fashion than things that matter,” said Gordon. He set out to prove the concept of sustainable architecture is not an oxymoron.

“I couldn’t get ecological sustainability out of my head. When I started my graduate program I wanted to tackle urban sustainability. The question is, how do we make an existing city like Toronto sustainable?”

Gordon answer’s is nothing short of transformational. Using his passion for sustainability, his grasp of the pending Malthusian Catastrophe and his knowledge of architecture, Gordon has created two brilliant designs that shatter the urban design paradigm and redefine the idea of local agriculture.

The first is a visionary 59-storey building that Gordon calls a Sky Farm. Utilizing the principles of hydroponic gardening to maximize food production, Gordon’s design translates 3.8 million square feet of floor space into 11 million square feet of growing area all on a mere 1.32 hectares. By his own estimate, the Sky Farm could produce 54 million pounds of fruits and vegetables, nearly a million pounds of animal meat and nearly a half a million pounds of eggs – enough food to feed 40,000 people year round. A ground level grocery store could sell the produce, making the entire food cycle carbon neutral.

The building’s heating and lighting are provided by a wall of photovoltaic cells and a Living Machine – an anaerobic digester that uses organic wastes from the gardens and an exterior grow wall (depending on the climate) to produce power and filter waste water. By also capturing waste methane from the city’s sewer system, Gordon estimates his Sky Farm could easily provide electricity back to the grid.

Gordon’s second design, Grow Housing, incorporates a smaller version of the Sky Farm into a low-rise city block development that includes condominium and town house units, a grocery market, and street level retail and commercial space. The complex is topped off with a green rooftop that is designed to function as a community garden for low-income earners.

Gordon hopes that his designs will help us to avoid “the tragedy of the commons”, that age-old conflict over finite resources between individual interests and the common good – a pretty amazing goal for this modest 29 year-old grad student from Perth, Ontario.

Once Gordon completes his thesis his hope is that he might be able publish his work, get his architectural licence and start practicing sustainable architecture as soon as he can.


Gordon doesn’t yet have his own website. However, he presented his visionary work at a Sustainable Buildings Canada (SBC) breakfast in July. For more on the work of SBC, including the upcoming Green Building Festival, September 9 to 10, 2008, visit


Blogger fdmillar said...

Yours is a splendid blog. Dorothy Goldin-Rosenberg mentioned it in an email. I have taken the liberty of digesting your Sky Farming article (if this is not OK, tell me and I will remove the posting) with credit, and links back to your and Gordon's websites -- because my blog is a bit thin on "green city" and "green desighn" in architecture. You are welcome to cross-link to my blog ttp://

September 16, 2008 8:59 PM  

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