An interview with architect Nona Yehia of Vertical Harvest by Christine Havens

An interview with architect Nona Yehia of Vertical Harvest
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Jackson Wyoming is best known for its upscale resorts and breathtaking Teton mountain backdrop. It's a city that averages 38 feet of snowfall annually, with a short four-month growing season. A playground for skiers and outdoor enthusiasts it may be, for gardeners not so much.

Thanks to the vision of architect Nona Yehia and her co-founder, Penny McBride, the two have transformed the way Jackson receives some of its vegetables. In a town that's long been dependent on trucked-in produce, Vertical Harvest is a step in the direction of sustainability. Their innovative three-story greenhouse occupies a narrow 1/10th of an acre lot and turns out an astonishing 100,000 pounds of produce each year; that's roughly the same yield as a conventionally farmed five-acre plot. And in doing so, Vertical Harvest provides jobs for the developmentally disabled, some of Jackson's most vulnerable population.

Christine Havens: What prompted you to start Vertical Harvest?

Nona Yehia: "It’s funny, I never set out to be a vertical farmer. I’m an architect by trade, and I believe in the power of architecture to build community. I’ve always pushed the boundaries in design, I’ve always been engaged. It's a labor of love," she laughs and then goes on.

When we came to Jackson Hole, we were very committed to building whereas in New York, and we entered lots of competitions. In 2008, the economy tanked and it was kind of incredible — in those moments that’s where innovation and new thought can happen, when there are a lot of constraints. There wasn’t much building going on at the time, so I started getting involved in community projects. I helped conceptualize a park in the middle of town and I fundraised for the project; I started building more connections outside of the world of architecture.

CH: Wow, so at what point did Vertical Harvest materialize?

NY: Right when I finished the park project I connected with Vertical Harvest co-founder, Penny McBride. She spent a lot of time pushing sustainability in the community, and she'd worked on multiple community projects including a composting program. Penny had always had the desire to create a space for growing in Jackson. I’m a foodie, and while Penny was thinking of this, I was also exploring how to create a residential scale greenhouse that could last a Wyoming winter. We only have a 4-month growing season, and our produce is trucked in during the winter.

Jackson acts more like an urban community because of its proximity to a national park. Penny had a hard time finding a site, so we came together conceptually and started talking to a lot of stakeholders. Through that process, we met a woman named Caroline Croft. She was an employment facilitator working with developmentally disabled residents. I have a brother with a developmental disability, so growing up I’ve was acutely aware of how our society nurtures this population in school, but when it comes to adults and employment—they’re on their own. That doubled my commitment to the project. In 2009 we started exploring the concept of Vertical Harvest in earnest.

A town councilman who has a son with a disability came to us and proposed a site. Initially, he thought we’d install a simple hoop house that might employ a few people. We scratched our heads; the property wasn’t ideal for a hoop house. That’s where my training as an architect gave us the confidence to push the boundaries, and we thought “what if we go up” and "how can we do this year round?" Now looking back we have 15 employees, and they share 200 hours of work between them in the greenhouse, based on a model called customized development.

CH: That's incredible. How much produce does the greenhouse currently produce?

YH: Essentially, we're growing five acres worth of vegetables on 1/10th of an acre. Vertical Harvest is an example of how architecture can respond to community needs while serving a local population. The ultimate goal is that our model can be scaled and replicated by other communities around the globe. It’s pretty unique, and that’s what keeps us all very passionate.

CH: Tell me a bit more about your process in designing the greenhouse.

YH: Early on we were able to connect with a Danish engineer who is on the forefront of hydroponics. The Dutch have been perfecting this method of farming for generations. They have a lot of land but limited sunlight, and they’ve been using greenhouses to supplement traditional agriculture for centuries. They saw Vertical Harvest as an opportunity to enter into the American market. I get calls all the time from people who want to replicate this project; none of the manufacturers have embarked on a project like this before.

At its core, Vertical Harvest is a machine for producing food; it operates as a complete ecosystem. Our greenhouse model functions as three greenhouses stacked on top of each other. Each floor has its own microclimate. We have tomatoes and fruit on the top floor and lettuce on the second floor. While most greenhouses are mono crops, we use a mechanical carousel to rotate crops—it’s like a like dry cleaning carousel on its side—and spans the entire 30’ of the building. The carousel was one of our biggest pieces of innovation and reduces the amount of LED we would otherwise need; it balances natural and artificial light, and it also brings the plants right to the employees for harvesting and transportation. There are only two mobile systems operating in the world.

CH: In light of your success, what's next?

YH: One of the reasons I’ve stayed on is to learn as much as I can, if we prove to be a successful model, we can take it on the road. Each greenhouse will be adapted to suit its climate, the environmental conditions in Jackson Hole are unique. We danced on the line of innovation, and we defaulted to typical greenhouse infrastructure when we thought we could save some money. At the time we didn’t have much of a budget, so there are some problems in the design. For example, we now know that there’s not enough ventilation for our tomatoes on the third floor. The next greenhouse we build, we’ll be able to correct these issues. As much as Vertical Harvest is a business, we see it as a demonstration project as well. We’re trying to get the information assembled so that others could learn from it.

I’ve always envisioned this as a model that could feed communities; it wasn't designed for maximum productivity or revenue. Once we get all the zones dialed in more, we’ll be able to push forward. It’s always figuring out that perfect balance. It’s incredible — there was a huge team of people that came together to work on this project.

Vertical Harvest's social mission is what makes us unique. That’s why our team is so dedicated; we’re helping communities and reducing food miles. And at the same time, we’re pairing innovation with an underserved population. The impact has been really profound, and it's also changed me. Once you see the effect that a project like this can have in a community, it’s hard to go back. I don’t feel like this process has ended; we’re still designing the trajectory, we're still expanding the notion of what it is to be an architect. We now have a lot of interested parties, but we’re dedicated to making sure it’s a model that will work.

When people hear about Vertical Harvest, they want information and they want it now. We're trying to ride this momentum responsibly; we’re trying to continue the conversation. When I look back at our board and dedicated employees, and think about what we’ve accomplished, I'm amazed at how far we've come. We tend to be pretty hard on ourselves. We always have a goal in mind, and it took us eight years to get where we are today. We’re not in a rush; we want to get it right.

For more information about Vertical Harvest, click here.

Read more interviews by Christine Havens at Seed Wine. Seed Wine is a gold medal winning, single-vineyard, Malbec from the prestigious Altamira district of Uco Valley, in Mendoza, Argentina. It is a wine of unsurpassed complexity and balance, whose story is one of serendipity, adventure, and love.

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