October 1, 2009

Boulder Farm Communities & Green Architecture. ~ via Bryan Bowen

I just visited Cure Organic Farm, just east of Boulder, out Valmont Road past the post-industrial butte sites and through the fringe-lands between the City and County.  I drove my Subaru, characteristically, short of time again…my over-busy lifestyle competing with my desire to hop on my road bike for an enjoyable, relaxing, healthy ride through our countryside.

We’re working on a grant-funded greenhouse project with the intent of making zero-energy consuming, healthy local food producing greenhouses that can operate year round.  This one will be under 1,000 square feet (to meet the building permitting rules that constrain the land). A greenhouse like this could accompany any farm or neighborhood around here, or be repeated as a building to make a larger food producing facility that could really help localize food production in our region on a big scale.

Right now, most of the local farmers have easy access to “hoop houses” which are very light on materials, flexible, and inexpensive, but require the use of propane or natural gas heat to substantially extend the growing season in our climate.  An evolved version of these are made by Haygrove.
We’re taking the opposite approach.  Based on passive solar principals: absorbing the sun’s free energy and storing it to get through the colder nights, we’re hoping to assist in our society’s gradual shift away from fossil fuels.  The innovation we’re evaluating is movable nighttime insulation, with  intelligence behind it.  Synergistic Building Technologies is the lead innovator for the windows and moving insulation, and I am the architect Marco Lam, a local acupuncturist and Naropa University teacher, is helping us with permaculture.  We think it’ll work, and hope to make a good contribution to the place we live.

Anne Cure is a local hero and part of a movement, farming organically on land owned by another local hero, Farmer John Ellis.  Today I met Anne and John out on the land, as I wandered around marveling at the sun dappled reality of this place.  A long table runs in a 60 foot long line under big shade trees.  Plastic chairs sit sort of randomly along it, and you can easily imagine farm hand meetings and big farm-to-table meals.  I’ve spread out my rolls of pristine white bond paper drawings here to talk through ideas, and stuck big dirty rocks on the corners.  Everywhere shows evidence of work and growth, and there is activity all over the place.

There are the chickens, ducks, and all sorts of current and past agricultural efforts going on.  There are artifacts, decaying archeology that’s real and not just the old-plow-in-the-yard suburban decoration.  Anne’s kiddo runs around visiting the others as they work independently, but together to get ready for the CSA pickup tonight.  I’m terribly envious of this kid, and feel like I need to find a way to bring my children out here.  It’s always grounding and eye-opening to come here.  It shifts my vision.

It seems so obvious that we ought to be doing more of this, and I always want to pitch in when I arrive.  I hope our County is able to find a way to support what these folks are doing, through zoning or subsidies, whatever works.  Community support is strong, and there are a lot of young people out there who are looking at this new, old, timeless and once again promising future path.  I also know there is plenty of market pressure to make this economically viable, especially as oil linked things such as pesticide, fertilizer, and transport fuel begin to weigh down the monoculture agri-industrial giants.

It astounds me how most of what we need to do is already known but not practiced.  I know how to design agriculturally tied cohousing communities that are net-zero energy, food producing, waste-water treating, storm water harvesting, and most of all, more pleasant to live in.  We’re doing it on several projects now, ranging from New Mexico to Alberta.  People all over are working to get these types of communities and neighborhoods built.  I even found great traction for these ideas at the Congress for New Urbanism conference in Denver this summer.  With this kind of thinking and action bubbling up (even being recognized by entrenched groups of established professionals and bureaucrats), so much of what we do can be relocalized and retooled with minimal effort. It’s astounding.  Look at the guys who are turning medians into gardens, parks into orchards, and intersections into works of art.
My firm now has a constant flow of work, adding food and energy producing greenhouses to existing homes.  There is a clarity growing about what should be globalized, and what localized.  I don’t mind the occasional banana from three thousand miles away when most of my food now comes from my own region.

I’m excited to get to work.  I am going to be able to pop out from behind the drafting board (which is now usually a computer) and actually build something.  Our good friends at tres birds workshop are jumping in to lend a hand, making this process much easier and faster…and more fun.

In a few weeks, once the harvest is complete and gleaning efforts have taken any remaining food to folks who need it, we will excavate, pour foundations, and begin stacking 2’x2’x6’ concrete blocks made of leftover redi-mix into a greenhouse shape (assuming the permit is ready).  We’re already gathering lumber from other construction sites, counting out leftover metal connections, and placing truss orders (made of small caliper, sustainably grown/harvested wood).
We’re stepping out of the normal architect and general contractor-driven approach of using all new materials that are readily available from stores, and looking to our community for re-resources.  It’s much greener, and perhaps harder to replicate in some ways, but it’s part of the vision: we’re looking beyond retail to find a solution. Just like farmers.

I think our culture has this idea that farmers are out there doing it by themselves, lone wolves.  Every time I talk to these guys, it becomes more apparent that there is a vibrant, strong network that is our farming community.  Resources and labor are shared.  Mutually beneficial relationships are the norm.  A kind of redundancy and diversity that makes it work, and makes our greater community culturally rich.

As I walked away from Anne and John and the others, I started to think of the work waiting for me in the office.  Marketing our small practice, dealing with accounting, doing paperwork for various jurisdictions, overseeing the work my cohorts and I are doing, and as much sketching as I can sneak in.  We’ve got a fine set-up.  Still…a morning of planting garlic sounds really nice right now.  I’ll admit, it’s a naïve, fair weather fan’s reaction, a grass-is-greener point of view…but still.  When I passed the farm stand I dropped a dollar into the box and grabbed a random peach.
It was, by far, the best peach I’ve had all season.

In a few weeks, I’ll be a doing a tour of the cohousing communities of the Front Range in partnership with the Cohousing Association of the US.
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