Window Farms

Aquaponics & Apartments


Window farms are “vertical, hydroponic, modular, low-energy, high-yield edible window gardens built using low-impact or recycled local materials.”  This author of this description is Windowfarms.org, an organization started in Brooklyn with the stated goal of setting up these systems in apartment windows all over New York City.  If you are one of the guilty ones who still drinks water out of plastic bottles, you can recycle them into this project. It uses CFLs, a pump, PVC pipe, daylight, drip irrigation, water bottles and a bit of electricity to produce crops inside and year-round.  Essentially the pump is used to drive water up to the drip irrigation system and the CFLs supplement daylight – making winter crop growing possible.  The energy needs of the system are quite low, as CFLs are long-lived and use much less energy than incandescent lamps.  The pump is off most of the time and is only used to push the drip irrigation.
Of course there are many ways to incorporate urban agriculture into an apartment complex from the simple to the sophisticated.  If there are balconies or patios, potted plants work.  If there are raised beds, these can be replanted with herbs, fruits and vegetables.  Small ground-level plots are the least expensive to create.  There are probably multiple codes to consider, but fire escapes are also great places to grow plants.  Tear up the turf grass, create tenant garden plots and watch your water bill go down.  Tenants will care for the vegetable plots themselves, often greatly reducing landscape maintenance expenses as parts of the grounds convert to growing centers and food corridors.  One thing all gardeners seem to share is a love of a little companionship while weeding and watering, so along with seed and cutting sharing, you may see improvements in your tenant relations.


The ultimate in sustainable apartment living and urban farming, however, would be if every tenant had their very own greenhouse.  We feel compelled to give an Innovative Design Shout Out to the architectural firm that designed a private greenhouse for every apartment in a 150 unit high-rise building.
The firm of Knafo Limor Architects and Town Planners wowed the crowd with their design project for an apartment to be built in Wuhan, China known as the AGRO Housing design which is scheduled for occupancy in 2011.  The firm won the coveted Living Steel Award for the design.  The Living Steel Award recognizes those who have achieved the highest performance in sustainable design with projects for developing countries, but this design has full international appeal.

AGROHousing’s concept  is pretty fascinating. The high-rise 150 unit apartment building has 10,000 sq. meters (107,639 sq.ft.) of developed space. Included in the design are a tenant club, a kindergarten as well as the vertical greenhouse for each individual unit.  The property will rely on many sustainable features including solar-based heating and cooling, renewable energy, water conservation, rain harvesting and graywater reuse to achieve its near net-zero water and energy category.
The Chinese government has estimated that half of China’s population will have migrated to cities from rural areas by the end of 2010. This has stressed infrastructure, exacerbated high unemployment and added many issues that can be experienced with massive urbanization. Although green building advisors generally promote urbanization, it does create problems of supply and demand, particularly for foodstuffs.

The Agro Housing project is expected to address some of the issues created when rural residents are living in an urban environment.  It also recognizes and utilizes their farming skills with its urban agriculture set-up. It is hoped that buildings like this one will reduce demand for some food products in urban areas, reduce poverty and stress, improve nutrition and result in better physical and social health.

With occupancy scheduled for 2011, here are some of the features in thebuilding design that these urban residents will enjoy:
  • The high-rise building melds the feel of urban and rural living
  • A 100 sq.ft. greenhouse is included for each apartment unit
  • Greenhouses use a drip irrigation system developed in Israel (they do not use soil)
  • Plants are grown within an organic medium such as peat moss
  • The irrigation system can be successfully operated by a layperson
  • Residents grow their own organic food and spices – potentially enough to resell
  • The greenhouses help address the difficulty of moving from rural to urban life by integrating the community socially and creating ‘green’ gathering places.
  • The greenhouses are controlled with natural ventilation and solar heating.
  • Tenants produce food that is disease, pesticide and fertilizer free.
  • The drip irrigation system reuses graywater
  • A rooftop terrace garden offers an open green space for recreation and informal gatherings
  • A sky club on the roof is meant to host celebrations, gatherings and events
  • A ground floor kindergarten keeps children close to home
  • Open interiors of individual apartments allow space to be easily re-arranged to accommodate changing family size/needs/work areas
  • The building grounds are minimally developed so the land can be used for rainwater harvesting, exterior gardening and food production.
  • Although paving is minimal to limit building footprint, what little there is will be manufactured from recycled materials.
The Agro Housing greenhouses will be operating through the use of aquaponic farming.  The engineers and designers expect each 100 sq. ft. greenhouse will provide all the produce the tenant family uses each year.  Like other aquaponic systems, the plants grow in a peat moss or coconut shell medium with fish kept in a separate tank.  The drig irrigation system also uses the building graywater and as no heating or cooling is done in the greenhouses – except by natural solar gain and ventilation- the crops are produced almost without expense.  The fish waste is converted by good bacteria that go through a process or two to turn the ammonia into nitrates, which fertilizes the plants. The plants reciprocate by filtering and cleaning the water, which is then returned to the fish.  The fish can also be eaten, so it is a very synergistic approach to agriculture. Of course, the fish must be fed but that is relatively simple.  In this type of system the plants grow very quickly – about one-third to half the time it would take in a conventional summer dirt garden – and they grow very big and healthy.
To see two quick 2 minute teaser videos produced in Australia using an aquaponics system, click here for a linkto a TreeHugger post on the subject.  You may feel a bit jealous when you see the size of the garden produce in the video as it dwarfs anything I’ve been able to raise in my own vegetable plot. Seeing the sort of daily plant growth this system produces outside of the tropics almost seems magical. Another benefit worth mentioning with this greenhouse system is that there is absolutely no weeding.
This is the first project of this type but is expected to be a model for up to 10,000 units in China.  It might also be an excellent model for sustainable urban development right here in the United States.  We already have green roofs and green walls.  Why not greenhouses to match?
If you are interested in greater detail, here is a link to the Specs on the project.
Other Articles of Interest: