The team at Overstock's corporate headquarters in the harsh, dry climate of the Utah desert wanted to boost the company's workplace culture to retain and attract employees.
One of the ways they sought to do this was by not only providing fresh, responsibly grown produce on their cafeteria menu but also by encouraging their employees to learn how to grow their own vegetables in a professional, working greenhouse.
The greenhouse would be a visually attractive, interactive environment. Its purposes would be to enhance workplace culture, promote sustainability and wellness, and serve as a multipurpose space for other employee activities.
John Burgoon, one of Prospiant's in-house solutions architects, explains how this unique project was conceived, designed, and constructed in partnership with Overstock and how it now operates for the daily well-being of all employees and their families.
e-commerce tech company building a greenhouse
Overstock initially bought this piece of property from the local government to build their new corporate headquarters campus in Salt Lake City. The land had previously been an old smelting facility, a steel foundry in an industrial area. "Overstock cleaned up the area as the foundation for their new headquarters," he says.
The corporate headquarters has a circular, Roman Colosseum-like design with interior gardens that are in the shape of a round peace symbol called the Peace Coliseum. "They wanted to create a campus-like environment, similar to a tech campus such as those used by Google or Apple, but one with a theme that promoted peace and sanctuary for their employees."
"They also had installed a walking track around the perimeter of the entire property so that employees can go outside during their lunchtime and walk or run around it. A smoothie bar and cafeteria were also included inside the main Peace Coliseum building."
Fitting Prospiant's Venlo greenhouse design into the company's vision and culture
"When Overstock started planning the cafeteria's design, one of the things that came to mind was to serve fresh, responsibly grown vegetables for their employees," John remarks. "As Prospiant worked in collaboration with the Overstock team, the project became much bigger because they wanted a working greenhouse where people could participate in growing the vegetables that they would eat at the cafeteria. Eventually, they grew several types of crops in the greenhouse. These included everything from flowers to vegetables as well as leafy greens for their employees to eat there."
As the Venlo greenhouse was constructed, Prospiant included raised garden beds to not only create an easily accessible hobby-sized kitchen garden but to also create an area that could be utilized for various purposes; the greenhouse would also function as a multipurpose space for events.
"So far, they have hosted hot yoga classes, kids' learning programs, and even weddings for their employees," John says. "The greenhouse is ideal for hot yoga because of the heat and humidity within the space. They also had several children's groups visit and learn how to grow their own vegetables. And all this happened while helping to offset cafeteria costs by growing their own fresh produce. Since its creation, the greenhouse has become an oasis of sorts in the dry desert climate."
Structure and equipment
In addition to the classic full-glass Venlo greenhouse structure of 20,000 square feet (about four times the area of a professional basketball court), the project included a small head house. It took about a year to design and build. Prospiant also included a greenhouse foundation with in-slab heat: a necessity for cold and dry desert winters.
The Venlo greenhouse also collects harvested rainwater. It was part of Overstock's mantra of using as much of the natural resources as they could within that environment.
"The greenhouse has now become an indispensable and central part of their focus on the well-being and health of their employees. The employees frequently go out into the greenhouse and help the head grower to grow crops and learn to grow their own food. It's now a core aspect part of their employee culture — and their corporate culture — to have this facility that is a large part of their employees' everyday experience on the campus."
The Overstock project was a smaller-scale version of bigger turnkey greenhouse projects that Prospiant usually undertakes. "But what was really customized about it was their approach to wanting employees to be involved in the growing process, which meant including features like the raised garden beds," John points out.
"A big commercial growing facility build wouldn't usually include raised growing beds, but they were incorporated here for ergonomic reasons and to enhance the user experience. This also had the added benefit of making it easy to separate soils among diverse types of plants. For instance, the soil for tomatoes would be treated differently than it would for peppers or leafy greens. That is the only thing which is different from most commercial facility projects."
Because an operating greenhouse produces fruit and vegetables, when somebody new comes into the space, they need to adhere to the greenhouse sanitization rules as they enter through the head house. This means that visitors must move through a sanitation point to wash their hands and clean their shoes to eliminate the risk of them bringing in any unwanted pests or diseases from the outside.
Prospiant also designed the greenhouse to make it somewhat wider in the aisle down the center to create space for various activities such as yoga classes, community events, and kids' learning.
Prospiant installed all the internal growing equipment and computerized automation systems. "So a large part of our post-construction role included startup training (which is done for all our customers), in addition to all the computerized automation controls and greenhouse equipment," explains John.
"Everything in the greenhouse is fully automated. During the commissioning process, we talked with the head grower/s about everything and made sure that all worked smoothly. We ensured that the customer learned about the automation software's components and capabilities. As they grow, this will allow them to refine their own automation 'recipes' to drive everything automatically, or have the computer trigger various systems such as irrigation, lighting, cooling, and heating."
"The system installed in the Overstock Venlo greenhouse is state-of-the-art. The irrigation feature was also Prospiant's own design, as were the water reclamation and benching systems. Although we did not manufacture the grow beds, they were purchased through us."
Utah gets a lot of snowfall, but it's a very arid climate, making it a challenging environment for plants. Winters there are dry, and water constantly needs to be pumped into that air so the plants can live and grow; otherwise, they will burn up. Because the air is dry year-round and lacks moisture, water misting systems were installed to add humidity to it to help the plants grow. The misters also keep the greenhouse's interior cool in the summer in the hot and dry desert climate.
HVAC and fan systems
This Venlo greenhouse did not need HVAC; as a standard greenhouse, it works off venting. Its roof vent and high-pressure water system cool the inside. As water is misted into the air, the air cools and drops down to the floor, then vents open to let the hotter air escape outside. "It is a concept similar to forced recycling, but based on temperature," John says. "It's very sustainable and has a low carbon footprint as well."
"While these types of greenhouses are standard in the vegetable growing world, they simply are not typically used for this project's purpose, which is to enhance employee culture."
Typically, a commercial tomato greenhouse would be built in the same way but on a much larger scale. "This Overstock project, however, was more of a miniature boutique-style, smaller-scale greenhouse."
The location is also unique in that employees can take a train directly to the facility. "So there is that public transport aspect to it, too, which is quite rare in the U.S. The train runs right past the greenhouse."
With a project like this, the customer is not so focused on making a profit from their produce because the greenhouse itself is a showcase, and the nice by-product is fresh and healthy vegetables for their kitchen and cafeteria. "This type of project is particularly significant at a time when companies are trying to retain employees. As part of a growing trend, companies are attempting to improve their work environments so that people will be more likely to stay. Creating a healthy, happier, and more vibrant company culture is a 'win' for everyone."