Startup Profile: Edible Walls Inspire New Wave of Urban Agriculture
April 25, 2011 | Jeremy Ogul
(updated 04/11/12) As the push to “go green” in urban architecture has intensified over the past decade, so-called green roofs and green walls have gained in popularity. These vegetation-covered walls and roofs can reduce cooling costs, mitigate air pollution and add beauty to the neighborhood.
But the promise of green walls goes beyond just looking cool and staying cool. Green Living Technologies International, LLC (GLTi) is exploring how these architectural innovations might actually meet our growing need for food and inspire a new wave of urban sustainable agriculture.
George Irwin, Founder and CEO of GLTi, says his walls are edible. OK, the walls themselves aren’t edible, but what grows on them is. Green Living’s vertical farming products have been used to grow peppers, zucchini, squash, beets from seed, carrots, Sugar Baby watermelons and “more leafy greens than you know what to do with,” according to Irwin. Of course, gravity puts some limits on what kinds of foods can be grown on the walls. Corn and rice, for example, are two crops that don’t work well on walls (at least not yet).
The Origin of Green Living Technologies International
More than anything else, it was curiosity that propelled Green Living Technologies International (GLTi) to where it is today. Irwin had been working as a landscape contractor for two decades when a client asked in 1999 about building a rooftop garden. Faced with a lack of information on green roofs, Irwin’s “need to know” led him to develop his first sloped green roof application in 2002. As he tinkered with designs to fit more steeply sloped roofs, he eventually created a design that worked on a completely vertical surface; thus, the green living wall.
Of GLTi’s several patented living wall and roof products, the one most suitable for urban farming is the Mobile Edible Wall. The product is exactly what it sounds like: a versatile Edible Wall that rests on a pair of wheels so that the grower can easily readjust the angle of a wall for maximum sun exposure, or move it inside during the winter months for use under artificial grow lamps (GLTi offers an LED attachment). The Edible Wall units can also be affixed to an existing wall. According to the company website, even the inexperienced grower can operate the units.
Each Mobile Edible Wall unit contains multiple 1’x2’ panels (2’x2’ for commercial growers) set within a stainless steel frame that is mounted on wheels. The panels range in depth from three to six-inches to accommodate the growing media (up to eight inches in depth for rooftop units). Each unit comes with a drip reservoir at the top for irrigation and is designed accommodate both organic and hydroponic (soilless cultivation of plants in water) growing systems.
GLTi has developed its own unique growing media engineered specifically for use with its Edible Wall products called GLT bioSoil™. The GLT bioSoil™ product is derived from a fermentation process that uses 100 percent bio-solids. It is composed of 3 percent Nitrogen along with high levels of Phosphorus and Potassium and, unlike chemical fertilizers, it does not leech into the environment. Using GLT’s bioSoil™, each panel can yield 20 to 30 pounds of tomato or eggplant, for example, or 13 to 17 pounds of strawberries.
As for cost, the 100 percent stainless steel Mobile Edible Wall units retails for roughly $6995 while the commercial units cost approximately $8000.
Business Model and Subsidiaries
GLTi’s business model runs the gamut from manufacturing and design to product research and consulting services.
In 2009, GLTi established three subsidiaries: GLT Innovations, GLT Food Factories, and the GLT Institute.
- GLT Innovations functions as GLTi’s product research and development arm.
- GLT Food Factories seeks to take over vacant lots and industrial spaces and turn them into large-scale food production facilities by leveraging the company’s patented Edible Wall Technology. GLTi’s first commercial food factory project was done in Los Angeles to help feed the homeless. For the project, the company built and designed a series of Edible Walls, and trained local residents to plant, and harvest them.
- GLT Institute is the educational arm of the company, providing training for Green Living roof and wall installers, and partnering with educators to bring Edible Walls into classroom.
GLTi does not have outside investors and does not depend on any grants or other external funding. “This is a truly homegrown business – a grassroots organization that I started simply because it was cool,” Irwin said. While Irwin is open to investment, he is not interested in growing the company just to sell it.
According to Irwin, there is already a robust, nearly-saturated market for green roof installers and technology. What makes GLTi unique and differentiates the company from its competition is its focus on urban agriculture. The ability to produce food is an added functionality that other green roof and green wall companies do not support.
“I don’t know how big this market is,” Irwin said, “but I do know there are billions of people in this world that have to eat, and we can’t feed them fast enough.”
Irwin said he is seeing rising interest in both the educational and government sectors. GLTi is the official technology partner for a New York City high school that will offer students training in the green tech sector and give them direct experience with Edible Walls.
Irwin says his company is on the verge of expanding into full-scale commercial use food factories that can yield up to five times more crops per square foot than conventional agriculture. GLTi, according to Irwin, has gathered enough data to make large-scale Edible Walls profitable, with a return on investment possible within less than a year after construction. In the near future, he hopes to scale his patented green roof system to accommodate a 100,000 square foot food factory.
(Update 04/11/12) - On March 7, Green Living Technologies International (GLTi) announced that it will establish two pilot indoor urban farms, one at FoodLink, a regional food bank in Rochester, NY, and a second at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experimental Station in Geneva, NY. These indoor farms will employ GLTi’s patented vertical design layouts and organic food producing process for growing food indoors.
George Irwin, GLTi’s CEO says, “GLTi’s is pleased to introduce these two pilot programs in the Rochester area. Our goal goes beyond food production. By implementing a sustainable community program centered on indoor food production, we combine mentoring, empowerment, and education; as we create career opportunities by utilizing indoor food farming to help transform neighborhoods in the process.”