College of Design Greenhouse: Harnessing Under-Utilized Space for Food Systems

whitehead design workshop

Recognitions: Impact Awards 2023

Project Description

This project began from a simple, but profound question: Could Iowa State University combat the food insecurity of its students (1 in 4) by converting under-utilized spaces within existing buildings into greenhouses? The benefits seemed clear. On-campus food production would compel more productive relationships between buildings and their environments, reinforce the centrality of sustainable food systems on campus, and fundamentally change the relationship between students, buildings, education and food. An intervention is necessary because Iowa State’s campus is both a “food desert” and a “food swamp” because of limited proximity to affordable and nutritious food. On-campus greenhouses have ample available space, but are used for research purposes. By analyzing contemporary food production spaces the team realized that ISU had ample physical space available for on-campus food production if they could reconfigure existing under-utilized spaces. The decision was made to reconfigure one building, the College of Design, as a prototype because it had two essential measurable assets: enough light access for growing and enough available area within the building volume to produce a substantial yield. Doing so would also provide an educational connection between design and sustainable food systems. The spatial solution was simple—retrofit the growing spaces into the largest under-utilized spaces in the building by creating a suspended sixth floor within the volume of the atrium skylight space and utilize the 5-story surface of the elevator core. Growing activities are physically separate from classrooms, but are always visually proximate. Custom automated growing and distribution systems were designed to integrate with the building structure, natural daylight systems, and contemporary vertical garden practices. Based on available data provided in collaboration with horticulturalists, the potential impact would be enormous. These spaces could grow more than 150,000 pounds of produce in a year which equates to feeding just over 6,000 students.