Plant room

Joe Holyoak

For once, more by chance than intention, this Endpiece is actually written on the theme of the issue. HP Sauce used to be made at Aston Cross in Birmingham. On the opposite corner stood Ansells brewery. The unique combined smell from these two buildings – malt, hops, vinegar and I don’t know what else (Cette sauce de haute qualite est un melange de fruits orientaux, d’epices et de vinaigre…. you may remember reading the HP Sauce bottle label) - was a distinctive example of olfactory placemaking, which I wrote about in UD108.

Both institutions migrated away years ago – Ansells to Allied Breweries in Burton, and HP Sauce to Heinz in the Netherlands, and Aston no longer has its distinctive smell. What was the dense inner-city social node of Aston Cross is now also devastated by highway building and faceless redevelopment. But the HP site was at least bought and redeveloped by another business dealing in exotic foodstuffs: East End Foods, a huge supplier of Indian food ingredients. The chairman of this family company, the genial Tony Deep Wouhra, told me that the location was quite deliberate, as he was conscious that HP was an iconic element in the urban landscape, and he wanted to reproduce its landmark quality by building there.

The huge cash-and-carry warehouse, with 1,000 solar panels on its roof, has a big cylindrical glazed volume on the corner, which is both its entrance hall and a vertical urban farm. On several levels, trays of plants, growing hydroponically in water enriched with nutrients, slowly rotate around the space on a sort of miniature fairground circuit, in a light, heat and humidity regulated environment. It is intended as a demonstration installation, mainly for educational purposes, not for economic production.

But clearly this model of internal vertical farming is capable of being expanded on a big scale, at which economically viable food production in the city is possible. Wouhra is motivated by two imperatives. Firstly to source his products as close to home as possible, and secondly to ensure the products are pure. He employs an Indian agronomy firm, Jain Irrigation, to advise him. Not being an expert, I don’t know the limitations of what can be grown vertically. At East End Foods, they are growing stuff such as basil, chard, spinach, chervil, chives, dill, coriander, mint and parsley – all fairly small plants. The argument is that by growing vertically, productivity is increased. You can grow more plants per square metre than you can on a square metre of ground, and you can grow them faster. Growing times vary with species, but some are as short as three weeks.

Growing more in the city of what we eat in the city is clearly a good thing: reducing food miles, and increasing the freshness of food. But at the same time it occurs to me that there is a dystopian side to the future that I am imagining. What will be the environmental impact, and the energy impact, of enormous mechanised highrise greenhouses? And conversely, will our patchworks of urban allotments survive, that contribute so much to the city in environmental and social terms? Will we continue to be as alienated from the sources of our food as we are at present? There is a global question too, arising from Wouhra’s ‘import only what you cannot grow here’ ethic. If we can grow green cardamoms in Birmingham in a controlled environment, instead of importing them from Guatemala, what do Guatemalan peasants do for a living? I had a related thought last year, when after my heart operation I was expertly looked after by a Filipino nurse. I wondered, who is nursing the hospital patients in Manila?

URBAN DESIGN 140 Autumn 2016 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 140 Autumn 2016

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East End Foods premises on the old HP Sauce site, Birmingham


Vertically farming herbs hydroponically as a demonstration project


Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer, working in masterplanning, site planning, area regeneration, historic conservation, and community participation.

He is also on the Editorial Board of the URBAN DESIGN journal.