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Vertical farms, smart ceilings and national pride at the world fair

Expo Milano is a makeshift city studded with spectacular pavilions. In an attempt to outshine each other at the world fair, which opens today, 143 countries brought in their A-list teams of architects, innovators and culinary experts to design their temporary buildings. The UK built a beehive structure that's straight out of a sci-fi movie. China has an elaborate floating roof. Italy used air-purifying cement for its palazzo. And while the US pavilion isn't an architectural extravaganza, it's a didactic display with a giant automated vertical farm that's the first of its kind and size.

The State Department supports the country's participation in the world fair in Milan, but it doesn't fund it. A team including Dorothy Hamilton, founder of the International Culinary Center, James Biber of Biber Architects and the James Beard Foundation raised about $60 million in private donations for the US pavilion. The structure takes up 35,000 square feet of the expo site, which spans a whopping 11.8 million square feet. The site is laid out like ancient Rome, with two wide avenues, Cardo and Decumano, which intersect at a piazza. What makes this year's event particularly significant is its solution-seeking theme: "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life." Underneath the flashy displays and shiny facades, the structures are meant to be sustainable solutions for the impending food crisis.

After months of preparation and construction, the pavilions that have now taken shape represent national identities. The American interpretation of a sustainable future is focused on vertical farming. It's indicative of the country's emphasis on food security and the need to combat food wastage that amounts to an estimated $165 billion a year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Growing a variety of vegetables locally in soil-less, artificially lit vertical farms is expected to become more viable than dedicating large swaths of land to single-crop farms that are expensive and inefficient.

Expo Milano

Biber, the architect of the pavilion, steered clear of the opaque, often tented experiences at historical world expos. Instead, he created a porous pavilion with a 7,200-square-foot green wall on one side and a mesh wall on the other. The plant-filled façade is an active vertical farm that will be harvested every day for the duration of the exhibit from May through October. It's a prototype with motorized panels that are programmed to open and close for a dynamic waving motion. The crops are systematically planted and spaced like a grid so the pavilion is open and airy at all times.

Unlike conventional vertical farms where greenhouse-style racks of plants are stacked one atop another under LEDs that emulate natural light, the wall on the side of the pavilion is made of ZipGrow towers. It's a unique vertical plant-growing mechanism that has an in-built irrigation system. It's also scalable so it maximizes the output in minimum space -- these towers can be set up in a kitchen, on a fence or even in a warehouse for personal and communal sharing of produce.

Expo Milano

Initially, Susannah Drake, a landscape architect and principal of dlandstudio, who helped shape the vertical farm, was dismissive of the large green wall. It seemed like a trendy, unsustainable idea. But within the context of the theme, "the project had the potential to convey both history of American farming and diet but also a legacy of innovation," she says. "This new technology enables highly productive farming in an era when acquisition and maintenance of large tracts of land is unattainable for young farmers. The green wall suggests an entrepreneurial approach to farming that is at the heart of what it means to be American."

While the green exterior alludes to the future of American farming, a "food truck nation" just outside the pavilion showcases the present culinary tastes. A corral of chef-run food trucks brings the country's street food traditions together -- BBQ hamburgers, lobster rolls and even kale salads. Inside the pavilion, Biber's design evokes the warmth of a quintessential American experience: the boardwalk. "The idea that a street would run through the entire pavilion felt right," he says. "It touched on the American fascination for the road." Visitors can stroll on a long, planked pedestrian path that's made entirely of repurposed wood from Coney Island, which was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Along the way, as the visitors pause to interact with installations or break away to participate in events on the floor below, they're protected from the searing sun by 10,000 square feet of SmartGlass panels on the roof. The heat-blocking glass technology that's widely used in luxury cars and aircraft switches between clear and opaque through an automated control system. The roof also doubles as a screen. "Every piece is a pixel," says Biber. "We can play with it like a piano and program it to be active." Each one of the 312 panels, with programmed images, patterns and words, are synced to a touchscreen tablet so visitors can manipulate the ceiling. The entire roof requires as little power as six 100W lightbulbs.

Vertical farming isn't as easy on energy consumption, though. Its viability has been heavily questioned over the last few years. Even so, they've been cropping up in labs and dedicated city sites. "Vertical farming will play a role in the energy future. But, not in the way that's outlined right now," says Nate Storey, CEO of Bright Agrotech, the Wyoming-based company that created the ZipGrow towers. "When people hear vertical farms, they think of a $6 trillion skyscraper producing food that can easily be produced in a field 50 miles away. In that context, it makes zero sense."

Proponents like Storey believe there are energy-efficient ways to bring consumers close to the produce. Biber sees that potential too, but he isn't entirely convinced yet. "As an architect, I think the economic climate for certain things doesn't exist early on," he says. "Technology makes it cheaper and then it becomes the only reasonable thing to do. So it may be that the economics get to the point that transportation of food gets so expensive that growing it locally makes sense. I'm just not sure yet."

Storey, on the other hand, believes vertical farm walls like the one at the Expo are inevitable. "The meaning of the wall in Milan may not be clear for a number of years because modern indoor agriculture is still an industry in its infancy," he says. "We're chipping away at the energy problem. Will it be a full-scale replacement for farming? No. But, we're feeding people and increasing the building's efficiency. We're reducing the cost of transportation of food in the urban environments and getting people closer to the source. It's less romantic than a $6 trillion project, but it's still meaningful, nonetheless."

[Image credit: Saverio Lombardi Vallauri]