The Farmhouse: Integrating food production with architectural practices

by Ofentse Sefolo
The Farmhouse: Integrating food production with architectural practices

Over the last two years, Precht Studio developed a modular building system that investigates the connection of people with their food and created a building that connects architecture with agriculture. “I think we miss this physical and mental connection with nature, and this project could be a catalyst to reconnect ourselves with the lifecycle of our environment,” says Chris Precht.

His wife and partner, Fei Precht, adds: “Our motivation for the Farmhouse is personal. Two years ago, we relocated our office from the centre of Beijing to the mountains of Austria. We live and work now off the grid and try to be as self-sufficient as possible. We now have a very different relation to food. We are aware that this lifestyle is not an option for everyone, so we try to develop projects that bring food back to the cities.”

A building that educates
The Farmhouse runs on an organic lifecycle of by-products inside the building, where one process’s output is another process’s input: Buildings create a large amount of heat, which can be reused for plants such as potatoes, nuts or beans to grow. A water-treatment system filters rain and greywater, enriches it with nutrients and cycles it back to the greenhouses. Food is an important part of our daily lives, and the Farmhouse is an educational statement that it’s no longer a mystery where our food comes from and how it lands on our table.

Link between architecture and food
But food and shelter are human needs and architects can rethink their relation. There is an opportunity to reconnect architecture and agriculture and change them to the betterment of both. The foundation of the Farmhouse is to encourage citizens to grow food locally, but it also continues this ecological aspect with its architecture.

An ecological solution to food procution
In the next 50 years more food will be consumed than in the last 10 000 years combined and 80% will be eaten in cities. We need to find an ecological alternative to our current food system – what and where we grow and eat. Topics such as organic agriculture, clean meat, social sourcing and “farm to table” will be key elements of this change. This means that our urban areas need to become part of an organic loop with the countryside to feed our population and provide food security for cities.

If food is grown within the region, the supply chain and the use of packaging are shortened. Stacked gardens reduce the need to convert forests, savannahs and mangroves, and allow used farmland to naturally restore itself. Vertical farms can produce a higher ratio of crop per planted area. The indoor climate of greenhouses protects the food against varying weather conditions and offers different eco-systems for different plants.

Timber key building product
Trees provide the main building material for the Farmhouse. Cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels are used to develop the modular system of structure, finishes and planters. Working with CLT has many benefits. It is precise to fabricate, easy to transport and quick to install.

Living with wood also has ecological benefits: Trees grow by means of a natural source of energy. The process that creates structural engineered wood products takes far less energy than steel, cement or concrete, and produces fewer greenhouse gases during manufacturing. Furthermore, wood stores carbon (approximately one ton per cubic metre). Thus it has, compared to other building materials, a lighter overall environmental footprint.

The benefits of prefabrication
The Farmhouse consists of a fully modular building system, which is prefabricated offsite and flat-packed delivered by trucks. Prefabrication of a modular building kit shortens the time for construction and its affect on the surroundings.

The building system is based on structural clarity of traditional A-frame houses and connects to a diagrid that runs the loads through the building. Each wall of the frame exists of three layers – an inside layer with finishes, electricity and pipes; a middle layer with structure and insulation; and an outside layer with gardening elements and water supply.

For single-family structures, this system gives a tool to home-owners to design their own place, based on the needs and demands of living and farming. Structural and gardening elements, waste management units, water treatment, hydroponics and solar systems can be selected from a catalogue of modules, and offer a certain flexibility for various layouts.

The hands-on approach of the DIY movement played a big role in the design – not only for the gardening part of the building, but also for its construction. This method allows owners to self-construct their tiny houses based on their chosen layout, resulting in architecture that is home-built with food that is home-grown.

Ensuring natural light and ventilation
Taller structures are assembled as duplex-sized A-frames, which provide a large open space on the first floor for a living room and kitchen, and a tent-like space on the second floor for bedrooms and bathrooms. The angled walls provide space for gardening on their outside and create a V-shaped buffer zone between the apartments. This also lets natural ventilation and natural light into the building. The building invokes a direct connection with a natural surrounding that stands apart from the concrete landscape of cities, almost like a tent that is surrounded by nature. It provides a yin and yang of colourful gardens and healthy interiors.

Where concrete goes wrong
With the domination of the “international style” with concrete frames and curtain walls, these buildings became mostly unanimous and uninspiring. It made cities look alike, thereby disregarding culture or climate. These cities are filled with ivory towers, which just consume from the environment without giving anything back. They are island and their connection with the surrounding stops at the doorman.

Architecture needs to connect with eco-system
“Due to population growth and the vast expansion of our urban areas, we also pushed nature outside and became distant to it. If we stay disconnected with our eco-system, we cannot tackle the issues of our time,” says Chris. “Reversing climate change, less pollution and a healthy food system are now part of architecture. These problems won’t be solved by new technology or new products alone. They will be solved by empathy. And this can become a task for architects. If we want to encourage people to care about the environment, we need to bring the environment back into our cities.”

Acknowledgement and thanks are given to www.precht.at for the information contained in this article.

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