Turning A Vacant Cleveland House Into A Fancy Farm

The BioCellar is a farm, in a basement, in a vacant house, in a declining Cleveland neighborhood. Its goal: Using food to pull people out of poverty.

In East Cleveland, one out of every five houses is abandoned. There are so many vacant properties that even when they’re falling apart, the city can’t afford to tear them all down. So when demolition crews came out to raze a crumbling 112-year old vacant home on East 66th Street, they didn’t quite finish the job. This house is now turning into the world’s first BioCellar.


The BioCellar, the brainchild of a Cleveland biologist named Jean Loria, will use just the basement of the house–the rest was torn down–and will top it with a greenhouse so crops can grow inside.

“We’re turning it into a place for the community to come together and have access to urban agriculture,” says Rob Donaldson, the architect who designed the greenhouse. “We want to turn vacant structures into a community asset.”

Why a cellar? At depths below four feet, the ground stays at a constant temperature, so even in the middle of a harsh Cleveland winter, the room won’t get colder than 50 degrees. With light flooding in from the glass roof above, food can grow year round.

The BioCellar will run off the grid, with solar panels on the roof, a passive ventilation system, and possibly geothermal heat. The food can be sold locally. But as much as the project may have environmental benefits, its main purpose is to improve the neighborhood and provide jobs.

Former prison inmates are building the greenhouse, while learning construction skills. They’ll have the opportunity to grow food there as well, thanks to Mansfield Frazer, one of the leaders of the project. Frazer, who runs the nonprofit Neighborhood Solutions, also owns a vineyard on a former vacant lot nextdoor to the BioCellar. Chateau Hough, named after the neighborhood he hopes will soon see better days, just had its fourth growing season, and Frazer hopes the BioCellar will have similar success.

Though the greenhouse will grow a variety of food, one of the first crops will be mushrooms. “All of what we do is wealth creation, and we have to grow what we can grow for the highest dollar amount,” Frazer says. “Shiitake mushrooms are $12 a pound.”


The process to build the BioCellar hasn’t been easy–the demolition was delayed several months and only happened recently, which means most construction probably won’t happen until after the winter. When the workers looked at the basement, after carefully removing the rest of the house, they discovered that the century-old mortar between the stones in the foundation was crumbling and would have to be rebuilt. But the challenges aren’t necessarily a bad thing, says Donaldson, since they give the workers another chance to learn new construction skills.

After demonstrating that the first BioCellar works, the team hopes to help a network of others pop up on vacant lots throughout the city. To make the project as accessible as possible, they’ve designed the building with clear glass so visitors can easily peer in from the outside.

“We want to have people see what’s going on,” says Donaldson. “We want people to understand how they can bring urban agriculture to their own communities.”


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.