Jackson, Wyoming, is best known for extreme peaks and extreme weather in which extreme athletes like to play. But this historic cowboy town will soon be known for one of the most innovative architectural-agricultural-sustainable work projects in the country: a state-of-the-art, three-story, 13,500-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse that employs disabled workers year-round and sits on a 30’ x 150’ plot next door to the downtown parking garage.
“It’s the first of its kind in the country,” says Vertical Harvest co-founder and architect Nona Yehia of Manhattan and Jackson-based E/Ye Design. “It’s exciting in that it wraps social, architectural, and agricultural innovations into one project.”
Yehia teamed up with Penny McBride of RE:Utilization, a systems organizations and environmental planning firm, to dream up a project that would not only provide Jackson with 365 days’ worth of tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce, herbs, and specialty microgreens, but would also provide the town’s disabled population a place to work year-round. Thanks to a tip from a Jackson councilman, the two secured a tiny plot of land downtown that the town will lease to them for $1 per year as soon as they secure their funding, first by raising $215,000 in start-up and operations costs, then by securing a Wyoming Business Council grant of $1.5 million. So far Vertical Harvest has raised $100,000 through grants and private donations and expects to have raised the rest by September 1.
The entire project is an exercise in innovation, but the architectural element that stands out is Vertical Harvest’s rotating plant wall designed by internationally renowned greenhouse architect Thomas Larssen, an expert on hydroponic systems for cold climates like Siberia and Iceland. The two-story moving carousel will rotate plants up and down order to maximize sunlight and make them more accessible to disabled workers.
When the first veggies sprout up, hopefully sometime in the summer of 2014, most will be spoken for by Jackson’s local restaurants. But Vertical Harvest will also have a 365-day-per-year on-site market to sell produce directly to the public.
There are other vertical greenhouses—Chicago’s The Plant uses the energy it creates from brewing beer to heat the greenhouse next door—but Vertical Harvest is unique in that it’s based on a community need.
“We appeal to people who are passionate about where their food comes from, people who are passionate about the disability portion, and people who are passionate about architecture,” says Yehia.