Almost Genius: A Rain-Gathering Farm House for Migrant Workers


From our friends at Fast Company, "bridging the fuzzy border between design and business."

Endemic Architecture's proposal for a rainwater-collecting, farm-worker hut seems like a good idea. We just doubt anyone would shell out for it.

An elaborately futuristic eco-hut for migrant farm workers won an award in the ideas competitionD3 Housing Tomorrow recently. The hut -- a concept called Canteen Farm House -- claims to solve two entrenched problems at once: Harvest agrarian irrigation water and comfortably shelter seasonal workers accustomed to fetching up in decrepit shanties. Noble stuff. We just doubt it could ever actually get built.

We'll get to that in a moment, but first, a few more words on the proposal, by L.A.-based Endemic: The structure would be 800 square feet -- about the size of a small one-bedroom apartment -- with an "elastic, expanding exterior skin" designed to collect, store, and distribute storm water. Rubber "canteens" in the skin would gather water and swell as they fill up, then route the water to existing irrigation infrastructure.

[The skin before it swells]

As for the bizarre shape of the house: It'd be in service of the canteens; all those curious, complicated angles reminiscent of a moon lander are designed to maximize the skin's collection and storage capabilities. The skin would hold 34,000 gallons of water at a time -- enough to irrigate almost 50 acres for nearly a month during cultivation season. Assuming we're talking about the Midwest, which gets, on average, about 36 inches of rainfall a year, the architects say the canteens could fill to capacity some 20 times a year, providing enough water to meet 90 percent of local irrigation needs.

The hope, then, is to build entire clusters of these Canteen Farm Houses, creating cozy communities for migrant farm workers and easing pressure on existing (and often depleting) water sources, like aquifers and rivers.

It's a seductive idea, not least of all because it seems like two solutions for the price of one. Which raises the specter of cost: Would these things be affordable?

We doubt it. As anyone in the construction industry will tell you, the more complex a structure's shape, the more expensive it is to build. (See: Everything by Frank Gehry.) And the Canteen Farm House is nothing if not complex. What's more, it's terribly inefficient use of space. A one-bedroom house? If you want to create humane living conditions, you'd have to build thousands of them. Then your construction costs really shoot up.

That raises another question: Who's footing the bill here? Certainly not the farmers, most of whom historically couldn't be bothered to pay workers a living wage. Possibly government agencies, but only when the failure of existing irrigation infrastructure reaches crisis levels. And even then, there's the sticky issue of these buildings housing migrant workers -- a population politicians all over America would rather pretend doesn't exist, let alone be legitimized by government-funded shelter.

In all likelihood, a nonprofit like Architecture for Humanity or Design Corps would take on a project of this kind. And those guys never have enough money to do anything but the simplest designs. In which case, the Canteen Farm House, after all the cost-benefit analyses and the ruthless value engineering, might look -- and act -- a lot more like a plain old farm house.

-by Suzanne LaBarre. More images at Fast Company

[Images courtesy of Endemic; hat tip to Bustler]

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Tags: Design Competitions | Living With Less

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