Danny Kovach: Greenhouse Builder by Day, Food Systems Visionary by Night

Danny Kovach: Greenhouse Builder by Day, Food Systems Visionary by Night

Every city has visionaries working to transform their local food system. Some operate out of city government, some run hyper-local farming businesses, some create and strengthen social bonds through urban gardens, and others are educating children in and outside of the classroom about our food and where it comes from. In Vancouver, Canada, Danny Kovach is one of these visionaries working to make his city a better place to live.

Danny studied architecture and construction at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. While there, he recalls having a conversation with friends about humans eventually living on Mars, and “how they’re going to need biospheres, which are really just large greenhouses.”

This got him thinking about our food system back here on Earth, and how many of the closed-loop technologies that are currently being developed for urban and controlled-environment farming are the same technologies that will eventually enable us to live in harsh and new environments. Danny credits this conversation with having a large impact on his goals and aspirations since tech school.

But while Danny likes to draw inspiration by thinking about the future, he also is inspired thinking about the past. Since the dawn of humankind, “food has been the common denominator in all cultures,” Danny remarks, “but people have lost touch with it recently.” Danny wants to see people spending more time invested in their food and reconnecting with our roots, and is driven by the urge to help people do so.

For work, Danny designs and sells greenhouses at BC Greenhouse Builders. The company is family run, going back three generations to when it was founded in 1951. As a small company, their focus is on customizable greenhouse structures that will give their clients exactly what they had dreamed up.

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“The culture of the company is very much driven towards providing a quality product with great customer service, and I’ve had the good fortune of working with fun and skilled people,” says Danny. “We enjoy coming to work to design and build challenging (and really cool) greenhouses.”

Traditionally, the company has been building custom greenhouses for mostly hobby gardeners looking to grow their own food at home. But more recently, BC Greenhouse Builders has started manufacturing larger institutional projects, such as rooftop greenhouses for universities and elementary schools alike, and more community inspired glasshouse architecture. “I’m very interested in passive design and sustainable architecture,” says Danny, “so there's been a great complementary relationship between what I’m interested in and the direction of manufacturing the company is providing.”

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Outside of his day job, Danny is an avid member of coFood Vancouver, a neighborhood collective that operates a collaborative garden on a vacant piece of land awaiting development. But Danny is no ordinary gardener. With support from BC Greenhouse Builders, and his community members, Danny has been hard at work developing a modular aquaponic system that could theoretically be transported anywhere fresh food is needed. “The modularity and mobility are two big factors that we want to focus on for this system,” explained Danny.

 The vacant lot that would soon be home to coFood Vancouver's collaborative garden.

The vacant lot that would soon be home to coFood Vancouver's collaborative garden.

The project first started with like-minded people in the community who salvaged a freight container. They cut out the metal roof and replaced it with simple wood framing, insulation and a polycarbonate roof to provide a growing space. With their permaculture background, they incorporated a proof-of-concept recirculating aquaponic system, using Koi to provide nutrients for leafy greens.

“Their idea was to provide a functioning example to engage the community, and that’s when I originally found them,” says Danny about his introduction to the collaborative community in his neighbourhood. “I was excited about the potential, and the collaborative community was all about sharing knowledge and skills, so we got to work planning out the next iteration of the design.”

Over many group discussions and dinners the idea for the project evolved, and they decided to establish the project node Alpha Aquaponics with three design phases. The first phase, currently underway, is devoted towards prototyping a modular hydroponic growing system in their collaborative garden that allows the group to build and test components. “Swapping in and out different modules which serve different purposes gives us the flexibility to try different things without having to build new parts from the ground up,” explains Danny.

 Design drawings for the modular hydroponic growing system.

Design drawings for the modular hydroponic growing system.

Once phase one is complete, phase two will be a redesign of the original shipping container. “We’re going to professionally design and build a greenhouse roof courtesy of my experience and resources available at BC Greenhouse Builders,” says Danny excitedly. “The intent is to have a turn-key greenhouse in the form-factor of a shipping container, complete with heating, ventilation, shade, electricity and plumbing, that’s ready to deliver to a site and just plug in.”

Danny sees a great deal of potential for their modular, mobile system to be replicated and used around the city. “You can grow a whole lot more using these containers or a greenhouse,” he claims, than you otherwise could on the same amount of garden space. And the mobility of a shipping container makes the system extremely flexible: “You can take one or more of these growing systems and place it on a brownfield site, start growing food immediately, and then relocate the system to a different area when the lot is ready for development.”

Phase three has been reserved for the rebuild of the aquaponics system within the container, but the design of phase two would allow for any type of growing apparatus inside. “The flexibility to serve different purposes is important to us, and our aim is to engage and facilitate as many needs as possible. But, we think aquaponics holds a lot of potential because it’s a circular system and reduces the need for unsustainable inputs,” says Danny.

 coFood Vancouver's collaborative garden, after the vacant space was transformed.

coFood Vancouver's collaborative garden, after the vacant space was transformed.

For cities to become sustainable, Danny believes that they will need to start producing their own resources, especially when it comes to food. As for which sort of growing methods cities will use, Danny sees it being “a lot of mixed resources,” since every growing method–indoor, outdoor, rooftop, etc.–has its own unique set of benefits and associated costs.

But the key path to success, as Danny sees it, for sustainably growing food in cities will be less about farm location, and more about farm composition. Whether food is being grown on a rooftop greenhouse or in a residential basement, the important point for Danny is that the farming systems should be modular, decentralized and serve their neighbourhood.

As an analogy, Danny refers to our large-scale urban infrastructure. “The challenge with developed nations is that we now have all this outdated infrastructure that's very rigid, making it difficult and costly to update,” he explains. Danny would like to avoid the same issue arising with urban farms as newer technologies bring brighter possibilities to the food sector.

Danny sees the systems that his team is working on as a solution to this outdated design methodology, because “with modular systems, it’s much easier and cheaper to update and install new equipment,” he says. Returning to his architectural roots, Danny also emphasizes that you need to design systems that make sense in their immediate environments. “If we want to make cities sustainable, we need to design for that environment. Using modular systems, we can pick and choose what parts to integrate  into new or existing architecture.”

While his overarching theory may be simple, Danny recognizes that integrating food production back into cities will be a complex process that is bound to have its successes and failures. “We definitely have a lot of learning to do in the next 15 years,” he says, “I think collaboration will be key to our success.”  

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