Monday, August 15, 2005

From Walmart to Sustainability

One consequence of the end of cheap oil will be the end of the big-box retailing model. What this means for our cities and towns across this country is that we will soon be blessed with a surplus of cheaply built retail buildings with no real apparent post petroleum-era usage. Lacking any sort of intrinsic architectural value or scrap value for that matter, most will likely wind up slowly decaying monuments to our collective stupidity, surrounded by acres of battered pavement.
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Or maybe not…we could unplan the Walmart first.
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With prompt attention, that old Walmart could become the newest farm. It may sound counterintuitive but I can envision something positive growing out of the wreckage of our consumerist culture. Hopefully it would certainly come in the nick of time, given the extreme vulnerability of our globalized food distribution system.
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Deconstructing the Big Box
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Typically these buildings often range in size from 100,000 to 210,000 square feet of enclosed space, surrounded by acres of parking. Included within the property are a number of valuable metals, plastics, glass and concrete that would be suitable for re-use in emerging local manufacturing and construction operations. Anything that would have value to others in the community should be salvaged. Such parts could include:

* Lights and wiring for reuse elsewhere in the community, in lieu of new production
* Large HVAC systems for reuse or parts stockpile for surviving businesses in the community.
* Store shelving and nonstructural construction could be melted down for component metals.
* Unneeded cinder block and ceiling tiles could be reused or recycled as well.

Once stripped, the roof could be cut up (construction is flimsy enough this could be accomplished by hand) and skylights installed. A lot of them in fact. If formal skylights are not available, simple glass constructions could be placed over the newly cut openings. The design ideally would be simple to construct and operate.
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The renovations wouldn’t have to be terribly elaborate. Just sufficient to keep the captured winter heat in and the elements out. Unlike a retail store, water leakage could be tolerated. The skylit portion wouldn’t have to cover the whole structure, just the central half to three quarters of the building, where the main crops would be grown. The areas around the walls would be utilized for small livestock quarters and fish hatcheries as well as agricultural support functions such as storage, food processing and office use.
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Adaptive modifications
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Since the HVAC system was stripped out early in the process, some ventilation would be required for the summer months. This could be accomplished by opening the sky light windows and by cutting large openings in the walls to draw in outside air. As fan use requires comparatively small amounts of electricity, summer time ventilation would require substantially less energy than the original HVAC system. These openings could be closed during winter time periods to retain heat. The whole ventilation setup could be manually operated and controlled (including the seasonal covers) to reduce the dependence on automated arrangements.
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Water management is equally critical in any reuse scenario. Water ideally should be captured from the outside and channeled inside to water storage units, ideally built along the periphery of the building. This would serve two functions. It would capture water for later use in irrigation while providing needed thermal mass to help keep inside temperatures more level. The storage containment could conceivably be created by building a parallel wall along the inside of the outer wall, at least half way to the roofline, if not higher. By careful salvage of cinderblock from the subject building and other abandoned structures, sufficient quantity of cinder block could be had at minimal energetic, time or labor expense. Only a batch of cement for mortar use would be necessary at this point. Once stored, the water could ideally be distributed to the various cultivated areas via drip irrigation systems. Should this prove unavailable, human labor and a cheap hose will suffice.
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Bringing in the Agriculture
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As noted, the central section would be utilized for the cultivation of crops. Since the store’s foundation precludes easy access to growing soil below, an alternate arrangement will have to be created and used. Several non-traditional cultivation methods, such Ecological Synergy or Biointensive methods utilize raised beds. After the flooring has been stripped down to the foundation, any conceivable building material from wood to concrete could be used to form the beds that will later contain the composted growing media. Again, perfection would not be required, a simple containment setup would do just fine needed.
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The solid concrete foundation would provide some advantages in fact. It would preclude tunneling rodents from raiding the crop. It would trap water better. It would also provide a good foundation for agricultural support services such as livestock raising (particular for fish hatcheries), food processing (like milling, shucking, canning or packing) and general storage (food or equipment). In cases where openings for drainage or larger plants like trees might be needed, those could be drilled through. By and large, by leaving the foundation in place, precious energy could be expended elsewhere.
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Outside the box
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Nor would all of the action be limited to the inside. Outside of the building, the acres of parking would also be dramatically altered. Again—like inside—cultivation would occur with BioIntensive or Ecological Syn agricultural techniques to better utilize the existing space. Unlike with the harder interior concrete foundation, the asphalt paving could be more easily upended and removed by hand. An ideal strategy would be to remove the pavement under the raised beds, while retaining it between the beds to allow all weather access across the property.
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The light posts would gain a new function in our adaptive farming scenario. They would become support posts for screens, if needed. If you go to any major hardware store you will see some examples of this sun screen over their garden section. Such a setup could be strung up between the existing light posts whenever cultivation required more shaded crops
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Outdoor uses would not necessarily be limited to raised beds however. Whole sections of pavement could be removed to allow the cultivation of orchard or vine crops across the property. In areas where climate permits, rice cultivation could also occur in what used to be the parking lot.
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Sounds interesting, but…
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At this point, some of you are undoubtedly wondering why? Why go through the hassle, why worry about retrofitting a Walmart or Target. To this, I’d respond that it would be a relatively easy way to squeeze a small but respectable amount of food production on what would have previously been wasted land. Even if the eventual number of people fed by such a setup remains small, it would be better than nothing at all. It would also allow those in more northern latitudes to maintain access to a supply of warmer climate crops that may not be accessible to them in the future. Unlike the creation of a greenhouse system from scratch, this setup would utilize a wealth of previously available building materials without being dependent of imported products or goods.
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Another benefit originates out the fact that big box establishments are located in suburban locations, closest to the residents in need of food supplies. Instead of traveling across the country via airplane and truck, that head of lettuce will travel at most, across town probably by foot. Thus, big box farming would potentially introduce some modicum of food security (and variety) to a local population without being dependent on outside inputs.
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Finally, this form of farming would depend far more on human labor rather than on the use of machines to succeed. With such a variety of crops being cultivated in as complex of an arrangement as has been described here, more people would inevitably be required to farm this arrangement. This is a good thing. With the collapse of the oil-driven economy, there will be a lot of individuals with time on their hands.

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Final words
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Ours is not the first civilization faced with a potential interruption of their food supply. Cuba and North Korea faced an (artificial) peak of energy supplies during the 1990s. Cuba responded by increasing urban agricultural activities ranging anywhere from vacant lots to roof tops.
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Every bit helps. Even converting a Walmart...

2 Comments:

Blogger AJ said...

Wow. I just literally blogged something very similar at kingmarketing.ca/weblogs/ajkandy.

I think I'm going to link to your piece, if you don't mind...rather than write the followup I had originally intended - you've already done it :)

8/16/2005 8:33 AM  
Anonymous Iowan said...

I was at the local supermarket a few nights ago when a rain storm broke out (finally, it's been very dry here). The market shares a huge parking lot with a Wal-Mart. The lot was designed to channel water to a central drain and the water was 3-4 inches deep at the drain. The upshot of this rambling is that the parking lot makes a great water catchment system and should probably remain in place rather than being torn up.

Otherwise, I can't think of a better use for a Wal-Mart building. Wal-Mart has destroyed my small town retail area (4 blocks of 2 story buildings surrounding a central park. The only downtown store doing much business anymore is Goodwill--a quarter of the buildings are empty and those being used house things like suntan parlors, exercise salons, etc. At least the park is being used for a twice weekly farmers' market.

8/16/2005 9:43 AM  

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