Sustainable greenhouse

With so many amateur and first-time producers coming into the marketplace, it’s important to consider the primary factors that go into building a sustainable greenhouse facility. Humanity has the ability to create and control the environmental factors by which natural organisms are grown, so the responsibility to ensure the operation is as eco-friendly as possible is paramount. Here’s a brief guide to building a carbon-neutral sustainable greenhouse – one that should last for years:

Getting Started: Site Selection

Finding the right location for your greenhouse is the most important step, as improper placement can be an expensive and wasteful mistake. Placement along an east-west orientation with the longest side facing south will maximize available sunlight, providing energy savings over a long-term operation. Geographic limitations apply, so consult this chart to find the most accurate placement information depending on your latitude.

Depending on your available space and foundation options, you can go one of two ways with your type of greenhouse: standalone and gutter-connected greenhouses. Gutter-connected greenhouses tend to cover about 20% less surface area than a comparable freestanding facility, but they also allow for compartmentalization, giving producers the flexibility to grow multiple crops within the same building and the ability to expand the greenhouse in the future. On the other hand, freestanding greenhouses are easier to ventilate through natural means, conserving energy in the process.

No matter where you place your greenhouse, remember one thing: manually constructed or custom greenhouses will be much harder to relocate than an all-in-one solution, so make a commitment to any specific site for several years.

Greenhouse plants
Image courtesy of Putneypics.

Next: Foundation Considerations

Few greenhouses require specialized foundations for optimal usage, but more permanent facilities should consider cement and gravel foundations with wooden blocks to anchor the building. This method requires a bit of preparation with basic tools and equipment. The larger the greenhouse facility, the more earth will need to be moved. Consider renting a backhoe or excavator to maintain a level base and save time.

Building a combination concrete and gravel foundation will require excavation to the frost line in order to place the concrete footing. Check with local building inspectors in your area to ensure there are no permits required before you begin construction. With this type of foundation, the concrete is poured to a 6″ to 8″ width with 4″ x 4″ wooden blocks secured around the perimeter as foundation bolts.

A porous floor is a better option for producers, as water runoff will pass through without additional effort. If you’re planning on a concrete floor, slope the cement towards a centralized drain that exits outside the walls of your facility. Check with local environmental agencies to make sure you’re complying with water runoff policies, especially if you plan to use pesticides or fertilizers.

Moving On: Energy Consumption

Greenhouses require electricity, so your design should accommodate for electrical wiring and connections. Many greenhouse suppliers offer plug-and-play electrical systems to streamline the process. If you don’t feel confident that your design will adequate meet your requirements, consulting with a manufacturer may be a better option for first-time greenhouse builders.

Heating costs in greenhouses can account for 60-70% of all energy consumption in greenhouse facilities, leading eco-conscious producers to consider more sustainable energy solutions. If space allows, consider implementing utility-grade solar arrays as a primary energy source. Modern solar energy solutions can capture up to 2,500 terawatts of accessible power at an affordable rate and creative producers find ways to make use of the space beneath their solar arrays, too.

Finally: Water Use

The most economical solution to greenhouse irrigation is to implement natural water resources as your primary source. Irrigation pumps can reach water wells and natural streams nearby, but local water tables will dictate how much you can use. Check with your local water rights management group before you tap into a natural water supply.

For best performance, high-efficiency water wells and well-restoration projects can yield impressive results, but pre-existing wells can be restrictive and increase a producer’s costs by about 200% year-over-year.

Whether you’re a specialized grower or producing several varieties of crops, the good news is that the basic energy requirements between most crops aren’t too varied. Basic farming practices that have been in place for hundreds of years still apply, meaning that the most sustainable greenhouse facilities are often the result of smart, efficient farmers. Low or no-till techniques, careful runoff control, and wary fertilization and pesticide practices will yield the best, most energy-efficient results for your operation.

By Drew Hendricks

Drew Hendricks is a tech, social media, and environmental addict. He's written for many major publications, such as Forbes and Entrepreneur.