One year ago, news broke of a plug-in Urban Farm Pod by Brooklyn-based ecological designer Terreform ONE. Understandably, publications such as Tech Times described the inhabitable, spherical white structure with an exterior sprouting green spirulina plants from brain-like folds and a brightly-illuminated interior cabin as “futuristic.”
Citing the increasing need for clean air in cities and the trend of organic, personalized agriculture as motivators, project lead Mitchell Joachim and his team had developed a “living cabin” for families or individuals to grow vegetables and plants for personal use. However, creating the Urban Farm Pod, which comes complete with an irrigation system, digital interface for plant growth tracking, and internal UV growth lights, was only the first step in the process. Now, a year later, Joachim and the Terreform ONE team are working to economize and strategize to make the pods financially and logistically feasible for the mass market.
For the official relaunch of the Urban Farm Pod in 2018, Terreform ONE is currently aiming to offer 500 of the plug-in ecology units with a goal sale price of around $5,000—down from $38,000 for initial prototypes—by the end of the year. Part of reducing the costs requires developing creative solutions to problems such as shipping. “To reduce the cost [significantly], the whole thing ships flat-packed as opposed to it coming as an assembled ball,” Joachim says. Owners can then assemble the 11-layer plywood components as they would a piece of furniture to create the frame. Instead of mailing the ethylene-vinyl acetate foam skin pre-folded, Terreform ONE also packages them flat with pre-cut laser perforations to guide the folding process. “It looks very complicated, but since it’s all symmetric, once you get one fold in place, you can see how the other [components] fold up,” Joachim says.
Once the pod is plugged into a common household outlet and its eight-gallon cistern at the base is filled, it is virtually self-sustaining: An internal pump brings water to the top of the sphere, and then gravity does the work of leading it through the sub-irrigation lines of the individual plant pots. Joachim predicts that the cistern will only need refilling once every two to three months. In order to make this irrigation system intuitive, Terreform ONE has created an application that communicates plants data, such as ripeness, to a user interface. Eventually, Joachim hopes to create “sensors that are cheap, easy to put inside spirulina, and can be used for many other plant types that will tell you the health of the garden.”
Joachim hopes consumers will not view the Urban Farm Pod as an elite, luxury item but rather an investment in a “personal farm that you put inside an apartment, outside on a balcony, or on an urban rooftop.” After all, despite its visual aesthetic, its sole function is to grow food. Joachim recommends growing plants or vegetables such as arugula or mint that may come at a high premium at grocery stores but also have a high growth yield. “You wouldn’t want to grow corn on this thing because that just is not practical,” he says.
The future for Joachim and the Urban Farm Pod looks bright; Terreform was invited to install the piece at the 2017 Seoul Biennale in South Korea and National Geographic will be filming it as part of an upcoming documentary exploring the year one million. And as more states and jurisdictions legalize marijuana, demand for urban farming options will likely increase. “We were thinking originally that this would be great in Colorado,” Joachim says. “We thought that this would be a fantastic product to grow those types of plants, and lots of them.”
The Urban Farm Pod technology will also take center stage in Joachim's forthcoming book with Michael Silver, XXL-XS: New Directions on Ecological Design (ACTAR Publishers, 2017), which explores the emerging discipline of ecological design highlighting innovations in synthetic biology, low-energy fabrication, and minimally invasive design. It will be available in mid-March.
Both Joachim and Silver are past honorees of ARCHITECT's R+D Awards (now accepting entries through April for our 2017 competition). Joachim won in 2016 with his prototype of a modular Cricket Shelter, while Silver, an assistant professor at the School of Architecture and Planning of University of Buffalo, State University of New York, won in 2015 for his work on robotics in construction.