Youth farm design proves effective in both savings and uniting community


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New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina was in dire need of positive social and structural restoration when the Grow Dat Youth Farm was conceived in 2010. Since it was completed in 2013, it has become an architectural model of environmentally conscious design, innovative reuse of construction materials, and successful social entrepreneurship.

Now entering its fourth year, the Grow Dat Youth Farm has employed more than 150 high school students to grow more than 30,000 pounds of healthy food for the community. The students receive a stipend (and often educational credits), along with valuable job skills. Most of the food was sold to sustain the program, but it has also provided some 12,000 pounds of food to low income New Orleans residents.

The program has taught the youths communication, work and leadership skills. In addition, it has been a shining star in sustainable and successful collaboration among a variety of non-profit and for-profit organizations.

A major key to its success is its architecture, which kept construction costs low, provided Grow Dat with very economical utility costs, and is so aesthetically pleasing that it has become a sought-after site for private events, thereby providing the program with another income source.

“Design has been a key part of our sustainability, and shows that good design on the front end produces results on the back end,” said Johanna Gilligan, Director and founder of the Grow Dat Youth Farm. “It was originally designed for environmental reasons, but has resulted in financial savings.”

grow dat_3The 6,000 square-foot facility was designed by architecture students at Tulane University School of Architecture under the direction of the Tulane City Center, an outreach arm of the Tulane School of Architecture. New Orleans City Park provided a four-acre site, which has since grown to seven acres, in exchange for freshly grown produce from the farm.

Besides their design work, architecture student-interns also provided extensive work on the construction team. In fact, professional sub-contractors were hired for only steel beam installation and electrical work. All other work, including welding and environmental engineering work, was completed by the students under the supervision of professionals and Tulane City Center staff such as ecologist Dan Etheridge and architect Emilie Taylor.

The project spanned four semesters, with upper level architecture students reaching substantial completion of the design/build in the fall of 2011. Collaboration and flexibility in design were important through the design/build project, with design improvements being made even as construction was underway.

Numerous partners and donors joined Tulane City Center in supporting the project, and the architecture students worked closely with the program’s founder, engineers, other health and landscaping experts, and the high school students in the pilot program to design the facility. Environmental stewardship became a major theme, and is reflected in the facility’s water management system, on-site wastewater treatment with toilet composting, and the use of recycled materials, sunscreens and other bio-remediating landscape elements.

The final site facility includes a 4,800 square feet covered outdoor education area, 880 square feet of enclosed space, kitchen, lockers, bathrooms and crop processing and storage areas, and just 320 square feet of air-conditioned office and meeting space. Seven recycled shipping containers, square tubesteel columns, and recycled steel trusses were used to create the large outdoor classroom and supporting spaces, as well as food processing and storage spaces.grow dat_1

The containers required only small pier foundations at the corners, which helped spare adjacent cypress tree roots. Large canopy roofs were erected above the shipping containers to shade the metal containers and prevent solar heat gain, while also providing spatial definition for the outdoor classroom and food processing areas. The classroom space is used for a variety of events, including demonstration cooking, small group meetings, weddings, farmers markets, art sales and other activities.

Large sliding blackboard walls can enclose the kitchen spaces, and all materials for the sliding doors were fabricated on site using cutout corrugated metal from the shipping containers. Extensive sun shading was created with a vine-covered shade screen façade, and rain screen protection for the shipping containers.

The design has won both an Honor Award and the Members Choice Award in the American Institute of Architects Louisiana Design Competition. It also received the 2012 SEED Award, a national award for sustainability and environmental leadership.

“We got buy-in from a few partners in the beginning and expanded on that,” Gilligan said. “The on-going belief in this program, and the stability of our founding staff of five still being here, has resulted in a lot of interest. We are exploring how to train other groups in our model through our current strategic planning process.”

Grow Dat Youth Farm was originally designed to address a local social need of providing meaningful work for youths and healthy food for under-served urban areas. However, it’s collaborative design with an eye toward both aesthetic appeal and environmental stewardship has resulted in it becoming much more.

“It is a hub for environmental groups and community volunteer groups,” said Scott Bernhard, director of the Tulane City Center from 2007-2012 and architect-of-record for the project. “This built environment is a compelling place that provides value as both a venue and a community gathering place.”