As if the idea of transforming glass and steel skyscrapers into twenty-story farms isn’t progressive enough, it turns out that researchers think the real future of vertical farming actually lies in “pinkhouses.” These warehouse-like spaces are built to nurture plants with a cocktail of red and blue LEDs, either supplementing natural light with the wavelengths friendliest to plant growth, or replacing it altogether. Essentially, the houses are giant “plant factories” that grow millions of tightly stacked plants using pink light and recycled water.

If the idea seems ripped from the pages of a science fiction novella, that might be because pinkhouse pioneer Cary Mitchell, a horticulturalist at Purdue, developed the idea as part of his efforts to figure out how to grow plants in space. He recently shared the whole story with NPR’s The Salt, and it’s a fascinating one. Mitchell currently sticks to using LEDs in addition to natural light, but Texas researcher Barry Holtz has already developed a 150,000-square-foot warehouse that grows 2.2 million plants in 50-foot stacks completely free of sunlight. Holtz boasts that the pinkhouse technique offers both 20% faster growth and tighter control over his crops’ growing conditions.

Besides looking insanely cool, pinkhouses promise all kinds of advantages to the prospective urban farmer (or as Mitchell points out, probably suburban; giant warehouses don’t come cheap in city centers). Though it’s relatively expensive for growing commercial crops, pinkhouses use far less energy than conventional greenhouses by using uber-efficient LEDs and allowing for the reuse of water within an enclosed space. According to Holtz, a pinkhouse is more efficient than an outpost of KFC—and more photogenic to boot.

[via NPR]