Monday, December 31, 2012

Agriculture + rural architecture = agritecture



By Krista Hulshof, Founder of VELD architect

Architecture is about more than pretty buildings.
As a young architect, my training was really about problem solving,
design thinking, sustainable technical training, and yes, aesthetics.
Rural spaces can benefit from these skills, too.

When I tell people I am an architect I usually get a response of awe. Most people associate architecture with building tall flashy buildings, and although some “starchitects” get those projects and those roles, I want to work in my childhood communities, with farmers and the rural community.

I grew up on a dairy farm and loved it, but for some reason I always knew I wanted to be an architect. So I went to the “big” city of Waterloo to study at one of Canada’s premier architecture schools. Upon completing my undergrad degree and starting my masters, there were a lot of ideas and projects in the architecture world focused around food and urban farming. Being a farm girl, I was disappointed with the lack of knowledge about farming and where people’s food comes from, so I set out to create a sustainable farm project that started with an actual rural farm. My colleagues were designing vertical farms that I thought were “pie in the sky”, but those city slickers had one thing going for them: no preconceived notions. I spent many months breaking out of my box of what farming “had” to be, so that I could create a sustainable farm. 

Woven Lea Farm from author's "agritecture"thesis

My goal for my thesis was to apply my new background of architecture to my old understanding of agriculture. Having spent four years learning how to design energy efficient buildings, I was amazed that this technology was not being translated to the rural construction industry. But sustainability means more than energy—it also relates to the economic, cultural, and ecological aspects of agriculture.  I spent 12 months researching, diagramming, calculating and of course designing my sustainable farm. 

Through those 12 months I dreaded the approach of graduation and the real world. I wanted to make a career out of designing farms, but what farmer hires an architect? There were only a few agriculture projects that I knew of that involved an architect, such as fifth Town Cheese, and the University of Guelph Diary research farm. 

Inventing the role of "agritect"
 
Nevertheless, after graduation, I took the leap and started my own architecture firm that specializes in “agritecture”. My goal is to bring passive heating, cooling, ventilating, and lighting technologies to farmers and rural communities, to reduce energy costs, and create more sustainable farm buildings. I bring an outside view and big picture thinking to a farmer. I strive to help find efficiencies and wasted possibilities, and help with long term planning. I want to create a more sustainable agriculture industry one barn at a time.

Mason Lane Farm (from deLeon & Primmer Architects)
Farmers are meeting more stringent building codes, municipal regulations, and policies that need navigating and negotiating. I also know that many rural policies are not up-to-date with the realities nor the needs of the communities and farmers they serve. Architects are trained to assist with precisely these issues, helping farmers creatively negotiate and design to minimize burdens, and meet standards. 

I also feel there is a role for me to play in agritourism. Agritourism is about creating a brand and an authentic experience for visitors, with limitations. Just because the farm smells does not mean the general public wants to experience the full force of the manure tank! Designing an agritourism experience to be fun, exciting, safe, efficient, and unobtrusive is important, and putting this puzzle together is the role of the architect. The rural community has a great opportunity now to present themselves in the best possible manner to the general public and urban culture.


As an architect I would be remiss if I didn’t mention aesthetics. You might be thinking to yourself, “here comes the artsy fartsy part”, but there is a reason we all draw a red gambrel roof barn with a green tractor and fences when we think of "rural" as children. There is a collective understanding of the rural landscape as a place in harmony with nature, beautiful, and peaceful.  As we continue to lose traditional bank barns, we destroy our own rural culture and the rural landscape. 

Building for the future
 
My design intent is to create buildings that are true to materials, site specific, and culturally sensitive. I combine traditional and contemporary architecture to both tie our rural landscapes to history and show off our modern future. Farmers, through every barn they choose to design and build, shape the image of the rural landscape. With the help of good design they can leave a legacy for many generations just as past generations have left us a rich history.

Architecture in my practice is about the design of buildings, big or small, and helping people live and work in effective, beautiful, and sustainable spaces.
 
While many people worry that the rural population is declining, I am one example of farm kids that are coming back to their communities with more creative and professional skills than ever before. It is a great time to be involved in the rural communities, where young professionals can have a bigger impact in a smaller pond. 

Krista Hulshof is an architect with a strong interest in agriculture and sustainable building design. She is an avid cyclist as a way to enjoy the rural landscapes on Ontario, Canada. Check out her services at http://www.VELDarchitect.com. You can follow her on twitter @VELDarchitect, keep up with information, ideas and trends at theagritect.wordpress.com, like VELDarchitect on Facebook, or be inspired on Pinterest.

Visit RUPRI and the Rural Futures Lab for more research, policy papers, and news.

Images provided by the author.

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