A giant polar puzzle: Greenhouse proves a tough bit of kit: caretaker hopes chickens, tourists among what takes root

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Melissa Berl figured it’d be a familiar bit of woodwork, just in a much bigger box.

“My first thought was like ‘it should be like IKEA stuff because everything is cut and someone has already designed it,'” she said. “But the instructions were confusing, so it has been something like a puzzle.”

She and about 15 others turned the hundreds of planks, screws, fabric and fixtures from a gigantic crate into the frame of Longyearbyen’s first outdoor greenhouse last week.
They cautiously tested the fit of large portions before fastening them down and – in the many instances when something didn’t seem to fit – exchanged cell phone photos with a person in Alaska that designed and provided the structure.

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Benjamin Vidmar, left, and Melissa Berl try to figure out how a fixture fits while building a new greenhouse from a “kit” in Nybyen last week. At right, the the interior of a completed model, which is specifically designed for Arctic conditions. Among the cold climate features are heavy insulation and anchoring. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The greenhouse next to Stormessa in Nybyen is part of a “sustainable living” project by Polar Permaculture Solutions that has been (pardon the pun) growing the past couple of years. Berl, 25, who moved to Longyearbyen from Straubing, Germany, this spring, said she volunteered to help build the greenhouse after seeing the organization’s website.

“The last year I was going around Europe working on farms,” she said. “I was surprised to find something like that here.”

“We used to have a farm, but not anymore.  I miss that.”

The greenhouse – specifically designed for Arctic conditions – will hopefully have its heavy insulation, extensive concrete anchoring and other final fixtures in place within two weeks, said Benjamin Vidmar, Polar Permacultures’s founder and director.

The next puzzle will be what pieces make up the inside of the greenhouse. Vidmar said he’s hoping to house more than just plants (and the many thousands of worms he uses for composting purposes), with chickens, rabbits and quails among the lifeforms he wants to see thrive inside.

“We want to show how everything connects,” he said.

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A large crate containing the parts to Longyearbyen’s first outdoor greenhouse includes lots of items that don’t quite seem to connect or be identifiable, according to those building the structure. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

While Vidmar said he’s hoping the greenhouse will provide at least some vegetables to local eateries, “there’s no point in buying chickens from Brazil” if locally raised ones exist.

Getting permission to raise livestock for food will likely prove challenging, but Vidmar said he’s optimistic after overcoming plenty of obstacles for the projects his organization is now involved with.

“Nobody thought it was possible,” he said, referring to the greenhouse. “Now it’s there. We will get chickens. We just have to ask enough times until we get it.”

Among the setbacks Vidmar had to deal with was a fire in Stormessa this spring that covered all of the plants and equipment in his basement greenhouse with toxic dust. He and other helpers were forced to discard the plants, scour the equipment and start over. The arrival of greenhouse itself was much delayed, even though the $7,000 shipping cost was roughly equal to the price of the structure.

Vidmar, who hopes the greenhouse will be a tourist attraction as well a warm gathering place for locals, said plenty of lessons have been learned during the setbacks.

“The next time will be easier,” he said.

Next time? How many is he planning to build?

“As many as we can get support for,” he said. “As many as it takes.”