By Johnno Ransom, CEO, Square Mile Farms
Much has been said about the growing popularity of private rented accommodation as an alternative to buying a home, particularly in London where property prices remain out of the reach of many young professionals. This is why the Build to Rent sector has seen record investment in 2020, with an anticipated £4.02bn invested by year-end according to Knight Frank.
However, the developers and operators of Build to Rent schemes never envisaged a world where their residents would be spending so much time at home. Many of London’s Build to Rent schemes are designed for the urban professional, who until recently would have spent the vast majority of their time out of their home, at work or to socialise.
Expectations are that, in the post-Covid world, this will be turned on its head. This means that residents will expect more from the places they live; more opportunities for engagement, more activities and more experiences that they can use to distinguish the working day from the time in which they relax and unwind. This is important as many of us are doing both in the same space as we increasingly work from home.
In this new world of less commuting, location becomes less important than amenities. Operators of Build to Rent schemes will have to keep up with the times if they are to remain competitive, attract the best tenants and keep tenant churn to a minimum.
So how do they maintain a competitive edge? They need to offer something more and something different for their residents. They need to create unique places that people want to live in. This could include all sorts of amenities, from ones we’re familiar with, like gyms, shops, cafes and communal gardens to ones we’re less familiar with, such as, yes, why not, a communal farm.
During the lockdown that resulted from the first wave of Covid-19, there was a huge upsurge of interest in gardening and growing fresh produce at home. The Royal Horticultural Society said that sales of fruit and vegetable seeds skyrocketed in this period. This was partly driven by worries about the security of our food supply chains, partly by an increasing interest in health and wellbeing and partly as a stress relieving activity.
PRS schemes are not typified by having lots of external space, especially in urban centres, but this doesn’t need to limit residents’ ability to grow at home. Innovative growing methods such as hydroponics and vertical and controlled environment farming can be applied to domestic settings to enable residents to grow to their heart’s content.
Imagine vertical farming as having an allotment in your building. That’s what we do at Square Mile Farms. By installing vertical farms in homes, offices and schools, we bring food production to the built environment to give urban communities access to fresh produce, but also experiences, engagement and opportunities to learn.
What would an indoor vertical farm in a multi-tenanted residential building look like?
Well picture a common area, such as a resident’s lounge or entrance lobby, or a disused room in the basement or roof, with plants growing in hydroponic towers on the walls. LED grow lights will compensate for the lack of sunlight, transforming (or should we say trans-farming) it into a lush space, growing all sorts of leafy greens and herbs all year round. This vision is what we’re working on with one of Europe’s largest PRS operators.
In addition, imagine residents having vertical farming towers (free-standing or wall mounted) in their own apartments or on their terraces, mini-farms if you will, where they’re able to grow salad, veg, herbs and more. Modern London apartments are typified by a lack of space, but this doesn’t need to limit residents’ ability to grow their own, whether outside or in.
The communal farm acts as the focal point, where residents gather to collect fresh veg, or meet for a tutorial on how to germinate seeds or transplant seedlings. Their in-apartment farm tower enables them to use the knowledge they’ve gained to grow themselves, benefitting from the presence of Square Mile Farms’ onsite community farmer, or digital community service, for tips and ideas on growing, food preparation and nutrition.
What are the benefits of having vertical farming in your building?
1. Wellbeing through fresh, nutritious produce
Research has shown that the nutritional value of fresh produce depletes over time. Did you know that Spinach can lose up to 90% of its vitamin C in the 24 hours after it’s harvested? Clearly, the closer the food is to the consumer, the better and you can’t get much closer than growing it in the same building.
It’s not only the produce itself that contributes to wellbeing. According to Mind, the mental health charity, spending time in green space or bringing nature into your everyday life can benefit both your mental and physical wellbeing. It’s said to improve our mood, reduce feelings of stress and boost our confidence and self-esteem.
2. Building a community through engagement and experiences
Having a farm inside a multi-tenanted building offers endless opportunities for engagement between residents. Whether they simply get involved in the harvesting or growing, or participate in workshops and seminars offered as part of the service, there are lots of chances to build up a community of engaged residents around a common interest.
3. Greening the grey
Growing indoors improves the indoor environment and ‘feel’ of a space. Humans have an innate affinity with the natural world, this is known as ‘biophilia’, and it explains why spending time in nature is so beneficial for both our physical and mental health. Having a farm wall also improves the air quality, dampens noise, and simply looks great.
4. Contribute to your sustainability strategy
A farm in the building has the benefit of virtually eliminating the food miles associated with the delivery of fresh produce (did you know it takes 127 calories of energy, in the form of aviation fuel, to import one calorie of lettuce across the Atlantic?), as well as helping to reduce the strain that the agricultural system places on natural habitats elsewhere. Having a farm in your residence can empower tenants to take action and contribute to building a more sustainable food system by growing their own food.
5. Contribute to return on investment
It goes without saying that owners and operators of Build to Rent schemes need to see a return on their investment. Communal farms and their benefits will attract good quality tenants through their novelty, and contribute to residents’ decision to remain for longer periods due to the contribution that urban farming makes to quality of life. Higher rents, reduced voids and happy residents feels like an asset manager’s dream.
Square Mile Farms is an urban farming business with a difference, it introduces vertical farming into urban spaces such as homes, residential schemes, offices and schools, in order to re-engage consumers with the food system to the benefit of their wellbeing and the environment.