To tackle climate change, our cities will need to combine architecture and agriculture, say two young architects—in honor of Earth Day, see how their truly green building concept proposes to do just that

By 2050, cities across the world will see their populations increase by some 2.5 billion people. That’s according to a report by the United Nations, which points out that 55 percent of the global population currently lives in urban areas and that, if trends hold true, that number could rise to two out of every three people. With the 50th anniversary of Earth Day being celebrated this year, one thing is certain: the need for sustainable architecture has never been more pressing.

“In the next 50 years more food will be consumed than in the last 10,000 years combined, and 80 percent of it will be eaten in cities,” says architect Chris Precht, who, along with his wife and partner Fei, is the founder of Studio Precht. He believes architecture has a vital role to play in sustainable urban planning: “Cities need to become part of our agricultural system,” he says.

A concept for a home with an interlocking green roof
Working as Penda, Chris and Fei Precht created the concept for Yin & Yang House. Built on an extremely small plot of land in Germany, the home features an interlocking green roof and would allow its owners to achieve food independency.

Eco-Friendly Warriors

For the Prechts, finding eco-friendly solutions to a potential global food crisis is personal. Three years ago they moved from Beijing, China—where they’d established a successful architectural practice under the name Penda—to the mountains of Austria.

If we want to encourage people to care about the environment, we need to bring the environment back into our cites—Chris Precht

“We now live and work off-grid and try to be as self-sufficient as possible. We grow most of our food ourselves and get the rest from neighboring farmers,” Fei says. “It’s given us a different way of relating to food. But we’re aware that this lifestyle isn’t an option for everyone, so we try to develop projects that bring food back to cities.”

The Farmhouse building concept by Studio Precht
The A-frame structure of the Farmhouse’s modules creates inverted gaps between apartments. These V-shaped buffer zones allow natural light and ventilation to reach the building’s vertical gardens.

Creating Urban Farmland

It’s for this reason that Studio Precht has designed the Farmhouse. Their concept for sustainable housing, in which residents grow their own food via vertical farms built into the structure, recently won gold at the 2020 Berlin Design Awards. “We want the building to encourage citizens to grow food locally, while invoking a direct connection with natural surroundings,” Chris explains of its design. “In a way, we construct our farmland and we plant our building.”

The process of food production becomes visible. It reenters the center of our cites and our minds—Chris Precht

The pair envisions the high-rise building’s modular system being constructed of cross-laminated timber panels. These leave a lighter environmental footprint, as it’s precise to fabricate, easy to transport, and quick to install. The process of creating structurally engineered wood is also sustainable—using less energy than steel, cement, or concrete during manufacturing and producing fewer greenhouse gases in the process.

The interior of the Farmhouse
A large open-plan living space occupies the first level of each module. Occupants would be able to build their homes using as many modules as they choose, or taller housing blocks could be formed by arranging the A-frames into stacked duplexes.

The design of each of the Farmhouse’s modules is based on the structural clarity of traditional A-frame houses, with angled walls that allow space for communal or private gardening on their outer sides. Different modules would house the various systems of vertical farming, such as hydroponic units for growing without soil, waste management systems, or solar panels.

The building would also run on an “organic life cycle” of by-products, channeling any residual heat into growing crops; using a water-treatment system to filter rain- and gray water, before cycling it back to greenhouses; and composting food waste to, in turn, grow more food.

The food store of the building
An indoor food market would be located on the ground floor of the tower, along with a root cellar for storing food in winter and composting units for turning food waste back into growing material.

Reconnecting Cities and Minds

The Precht’s eco-friendly reasoning is sound. By growing fresh food within a building, the need for transport and the use of packaging is vastly reduced. Stacked gardens reduce the use of ground space, allowing previously over-utilized farmland to naturally restore itself, and vertical farms produce a higher ratio of crop per planted area. “It also means the process of food production becomes visible,” says Chris. “It reenters the center of our cites and our minds.”

I think we miss a connection with nature. This project could be the catalyst that reconnects us with the life cycle of our environment—Chris Precht

He firmly believes that any architectural solution needs to work to on a psychological level, too. “If we want to encourage people to care about the environment, we need to bring the environment back into our cites,” he says. “Reversing climate change, reducing pollution, creating a healthy food system—those problems won’t be solved by new technology or new products alone. They will be solved by empathy, and that’s become a task for architects.” 

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