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17 April 2018

Architect Tony McGrail Works to Use Sustainable Design to Bring Fresh Food to Communities in Need

Dre Taylor (left) and HOK’s Tony McGrail at a recent Nile Valley Aquaponics work day.

A project architect in HOK’s Kansas City office, McGrail is a lead designer for a proposed expansion of the Nile Valley Aquaponics urban farm.

Nile Valley represents an innovative and sustainable model of producing fresh, healthy food while also rebuilding a community and mentoring at-risk youth. In recognition of Earth Day on April 22, McGrail discusses why he believes in Nile Valley’s grassroots mission to nourish his city.

First of all, what is aquaponics?

The simple definition is it’s the symbiotic relationship of growing plant and animal life together. In the case of Nile Valley Aquaponics, the animals are fish, specifically tilapia, and the plants are fruits and vegetables. The fish generate waste that is used to fertilize and feed the plants. The plants filter water and return it to the fish. Nile Valley’s name comes from Egypt, where the Nile River has nourished life for millions of years in this natural process.

Tell us a bit about Nile Valley and its mission and purpose in Kansas City.

Nile Valley is the brainchild of Dre Taylor. Dre is a civic activist who a few years ago founded Males 2 Men, an organization that provides mentorship to kids growing up in and around the East Side of Kansas City. This part of the city is historically black and impoverished with a preponderance of crime. Dre was born in the neighborhood and has committed his life to trying to improve it for future generations, with Nile Valley being an extension of that. The neighborhood is also what is known as an urban food desert, with very few options for those seeking nutritious and healthy food. With Nile Valley Aquaponics, Dre is now producing tens of thousands of pounds of fresh fruit and fish, as well as jobs and education for those in the community.

How did you get involved in assisting Dre in his efforts?

Dre’s Nile Valley endeavor has come a long way from the school basement where it started. The property where it now sits was largely abandoned and primarily owned by the city’s land bank and a non-for-profit. As Dre worked with those entities to acquire the property, he began to fix up the land. His efforts got some publicity in the local news, which generated a buzz. Around this same time, I was involved in a leadership program with the Kansas City chapter of the AIA, Pillars. I was fascinated with Dre’s story and reached out to him to see if our program could do a charrette that could provide him with concepts for Nile Valley. We spent a half day touring the property and working with him, creating a handful of sketches. Dre was like, ‘This is great! Can you do some more?’ So I brought it up to Chris DeVolder and Amy Chase of the HOK leadership team here in Kansas City.

And what was the reaction from the Kansas City team?

They were a little skeptical at first. Designing farms that operate on poopy fish water is not exactly an established HOK practice area or market. Not to mention, hardly anyone even knew what aquaponics was. But they quickly realized the many layers of this project, especially when it comes to sustainability and community. So we agreed to provide some pro-bono renderings and designs that might help Dre and his vision to expand the farm. And since we’ve become involved, we’re now exploring how this type of sustainable food production could be part of other project types, such as stadiums, mixed-use developments, healthcare facilities, airport terminals and commercial office spaces as a way to provide people with access to fresh food.

Tell us about your plan for Nile Valley. Did you have to study up on agricultural design beforehand?

The concept of aquaponics was not completely foreign to me or my HOK colleagues on the project—Jake Baker and JJ Nicolas. We all graduated from the Kansas State architecture program, where we studied aquaponics as part of our environmental systems class. What I hadn’t seen before was an aquaponics system like what is used in a greenhouse on the scale that Nile Valley does it. And I have to say, what he’s done with limited resources and support is amazing. They’ve dug three trenches (much of it by hand!) that are 100 feet long and deep enough—6 feet—that they provide geothermal warmth in the winter. His greenhouses are made of plastic tarps that, in colder months, he covers with a transparent black cover to capture solar heat gain and keep the indoor temperature a balmy 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Our design opens up the site, making it transparent and welcoming to the community. We want it to be a place where people can hold events and where kids can come and learn about farming and food. It proposes new, permanent greenhouses, additional community grow beds and repurposing the shipping container presently on-site into a market and store. We envision that the expansion could double the amount of food currently grown on the site and ensure it remains a beacon for sustainable living in a neighborhood most in need.

What’s next for Nile Valley Aquaponics?

Dre and Nile Valley are in the middle of a capital campaign for the expansion, with two parallel organizational entities being formed. One would maintain non-profit community outreach and educational programming and another would make the food production a for-profit entity. This would allow them to accept both investor and philanthropic capital as well as grants and alternative funding.

Related:

Kansas City Star: Raising Fish in Food Desert Gets Boost from HOK Design Firm

Nile Valley Aquaponics Earns Honor Award in AIA Central States’ Excellence in Design Competition