Farmer’s garage

Feb 26, 2018

Autonomous vehicles are on the way, and when they arrive, parking decks will increasingly become obsolete, and will need to be repurposed.

Cars that can drive themselves, using radar, LIDAR, and other imaging devices will appear within the next five years. The technology will allow them to follow a few feet behind one another, utilizing our roadways more efficiently and safely (93 percent of auto accidents are due to driver error). People will no longer need or want to own their own vehicles, nor pay taxes, maintenance, insurance, or parking for them. One wonders what will happen to the thousands of parking garages, the majority of which will become redundant as a result.

Most of those structures were not designed with a secondary use in mind. Most were limited to code minimums, utilizing precast concrete beams with a seven-foot clearance, very deep floor-plates, open perimeters, and little, if any, heating, ventilating, or air-conditioning. In other words, they are not easily convertible to alternative uses such as offices, apartments, or even data centers. To make matters worse, many were built with sloped floors to allow a continuous search pattern while trying to find a parking place.

So what are we going to do with these very solidly constructed structures when many of the cars parked in them today are replaced by a vehicle that you summon on your cell phone? The autonomous vehicle knows where you are, picks you up, takes you to your destination, drops you off, and goes on to pick up other passengers. Since it is projected that autonomous vehicles will be electrically powered and able to park themselves at an efficient charging station, what will happen to all those gas stations on prime corners in our cities?

We’re going to see a drastic reduction in air pollution and global warming. On the flip side of that positive, society will have to deal with such things as what to do with the displaced employees in service, policing, insurance, and parking.

On the West 2nd District project that I’m deeply involved with in Reno, Nevada, we’ll be building parking initially because of current demand for ample parking close to stores, restaurants, and amusements. When I hear the cry for more parking, I can’t help but ask, “If you could call an autonomous vehicle that drops you off at the front door of your destination and picks you up and takes you home, would you still opt to own, register, maintain, insure, and park your own private vehicle?” I normally receive a resounding, “NO!”

So, what kind of parking structures will we build today with an eye toward the inevitable future that includes autonomous vehicles? For the massive West 2nd District project, we’re designing structures that can be repurposed as needed in the future. We’re looking closely at hydroponic farms, where we can grow all sorts of produce that you would normally shop for in your local supermarket. And, by the way, those businesses are transforming as purveyors such as Whole Foods (now part of Amazon) allow you to shop online and deliver your groceries to your door, and, probably, will offer an option to enter your house and put your produce in your refrigerator.

A great advantage of locally grown produce is freshness. Even organic market produce from places such as Whole Foods and Sprouts or the local co-op is usually grown a month or more before and stored during that period in a cold storage facility and then trucked for several days to the store. If you ever have a chance to buy lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, and other fruits and vegetables that have been freshly picked as opposed to a major supermarket’s produce that may be many weeks old by the time it gets to your table, you’ll know what I mean.

There are multiple reasons for us to pursue this option. Reno is in a high-desert climate with more than 300 sunny days a year, so water is scarce. In the project, we’re installing an on-site waste treatment/water recycling system, with water quality sufficient to flush toilets and clean enough for your dog to drink without becoming ill. The recycled water will irrigate our landscaping and fill our cooling towers. This will allow us to reduce our water consumption for the project by 50 percent. But we’ll actually recover more water than needed for those uses, so we’ll be able to do some farming with it as well. We have lots of sunlight and plenty of rooftops to place photovoltaic panels. In fact, one or more of our buildings will have clear, photovoltaic vision glass, so we’ll have adequate electricity for LED “grow lights” and other uses.

We’ll put in a proof-of-concept garden in about two-and-a-half years. Our produce will be a market basket of fruits and vegetables, and eventually our planned project will feed the residents of West 2nd District and supply our restaurants. At the moment, we’re working with a local company that is making the growing tubs, the irrigation system, and the monitoring and control systems for irrigation, lighting, and drainage. They’re also putting together a full-fledged shopping list of things we can grow here. At the same time, we’re looking for a “farmer/entrepreneur” interested in operating a whole new “farm-to-table” enterprise, as I think this is a business opportunity that can be applied throughout the world. We will be ready for those autonomous vehicles when they come. Will you?

Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at

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