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Sustaining Denver: Discovery Greenhouse!

In early October, a group of architects gathered with other designers, engineers, students, and friends, at Cap City Tavern to share a beer and help support a good cause.  Architecture for Humanity (AFH) was showcasing two greenhouse projects designed for Feed Denver. For $10, participants got two beers and a ticket to cast a vote for their favorite design. You got to hang out with friends, enjoy a few beers, and check out Architecture for Humanity’s latest endeavor, which happens to be the Denver chapter’s first effort in support of a local organization. What could be better than that?

The seed for the greenhouse project was first planted back in June, when the director of the local chapter of AFH, Sarah Karlan, put out a call for volunteers needed to design a prototype of a sustainable greenhouse for Feed Denver, a local non-profit. Their mission is to build community-based urban greenhouse farms and markets that empower people to feed and sustain themselves and their communities and, in the long run, strengthen and secure the foodshed of metro Denver.  As a fledgling organization, Feed Denver has made strong headway towards accomplishing this goal with a garden at Stapleton and another one at 42nd and Steele.

During the initial gathering of the interested volunteers, Lisa Rogers, the founder of Feed Denver, shocked the group with some startling statistics: only 0.1% of the food consumed in Colorado is actually produced in Colorado. In 2008, Coloradans spent $5.7 billion on food, and yet only $4.9 million of that came from local sources:  enter the need for a well-designed structure that would enable increased efficiency of locally grown food. Greenhouses not only get communities involved in their own nutritional well-being, they create the possibility to invest profit from produce sales back into the local economy, creating a “cottage industry.” If that doesn’t bolster Feed Denver’s mission, I’m not sure what does!

To provide local fresh produce year round, farmers rely on greenhouses to extend the growing season through the winter months. In the past, Feed Denver has utilized the inexpensive hoop house, whose disadvantages include the inability to capitalize on the abundance of sunshine present through Colorado’s winter months as well as the lack of insulation, which prevents plants from freezing overnight and during those blustery days when the mercury really drops.

Here’s where the real challenge for us designers came in: AFH asked that the prototype design be sustainable, self-sufficient, and completely “off the grid”. Oh, and also a relative cinch to construct, considering that the construction crew was going to be a volunteer crew. Undaunted by this monumental task, as many as ten different design groups took on the challenge and began brainstorming. As the weeks wore on and the process evolved, some groups combined efforts, others dropped out, and eventually it came down to a choice between two: the Discovery Greenhouse, with contributed efforts from Women in Design members, and a Portable Greenhouse by a group of designers from SLATERPAULL Architects.

When it came down to decision time in October, Women in Design’s Discovery Greenhouse took the vote in a very tight contest, winning by only 2 votes.

WiD AFH Greenhouse

Of course we were rewarded with the satisfaction that winning instills, but in my opinion, the real reward was collaborating with our diverse and passionate team. Kathy Ford, Nicole Delmage, and Brigitte Kerr formed the WiD team early on, and as they saw common themes, they combined groups with James Oeinck, Rob Ollett, Lisa Moses, and me. None of us had previously worked together, yet somehow navigated the demands of the project and the always-challenging team dynamic to ultimately arrive at the finish line not only with a design in which we all took pride, but with new-found friends as well.

The competition at Cap City was not at all about winning: both teams’ designs will eventually be built; the vote only determined which greenhouse would be funded first. The ultimate winners are the individuals in the neighborhoods and communities in which these greenhouses will exist. They will be the ones sustaining the production of produce, therefore helping to sustain themselves: all because a group of concerned, dedicated designers took AFH’s motto “Design Like You Give A Damn” seriously. That’s really what it’s all about.

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