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Japan’s intriguing indoor garden

Japan’s intriguing indoor garden

The Nest is made from a hollow concrete base and wood frame with a corrugated plastic skin. Photo: Shinkenchiku-sha

This innovative design for a community garden functions like an open greenhouse, writes Stephanie Mahon

Community and food gardens can be difficult to design, as the aesthetics of the scheme must often give way to practical concerns. A group of graduate students from the College of Environmental Design at University of California, Berkeley, has overcome these issues with flair, however, designing and building an extraordinary vertical growing space that is equal parts open building and enclosed garden, both beautiful and functional.

Nest We Grow began as an entry for the annual LIXIL International University Architectural Competition, a sustainable design challenge. Professor Dana Buntrock of the Berkeley Department of Architecture was invited to enter the fourth LIXIL competition, and chose a team of two Taiwanese, two Chinese and one American graduate student to tackle it. Their concept, Nest We Grow, is a meeting of East and West, combining experience of renewable materials in California, where the students are studying, with an understanding of horticulture and community in Asia, where many of the team are originally from.

The tea platform sits at the centre of the Nest, surrounded by planters. Photo: Shinkenchiku-sha

Intriguing ideas

“The project revolves around the lifecycle of the foods of Hokkaido,” explains team member Yan Huang, “which helps to determine the elements that make up the Nest, including growing, harvesting, storing, cooking, dining and composting. The fertile farmlands of Hokkaido provide abundant and varying foods, and create a horizontal agricultural landscape. The Nest, on the other hand, creates a three-dimensional frame, which elevates this landscape vertically.”

The construction covers 85m2, and is made of a concrete base with wood frame and corrugated plastic shell. The timber frame mimics “the vertical spatial experience of a Japanese larch forest, from which food is traditionally hung to dry”.

Team members Hsiu-Wei Chang, Fanzheng Dong, Yan Huang, Baxter Smith and Hsin-Yu Chen discovered that their entry had won in March 2014, and some of them flew to Japan to prepare for the build at Memu Meadows in Hokkaido. There, they were lucky enough to receive guidance from the competition’s chief juror, architect Kengo Kumawho is known for reinterpreting traditional Japanese architectural elements using natural materials. Also a professor at the University of Tokyo, his work includes the new, revised design for the Tokyo National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics.

The project broke ground in September 2014 and two members of the team, Hsiu-Wei Chang and Hsin-Yu Chen, stayed in Japan to oversee and document the construction process. The completed Nest displays all the ingenuity and innovation the team’s design promised, with clever, original yet simple ideas implemented throughout, turning it from a design showpiece into a functional, usable space.

UC Berkeley team members (from left to right) Hsiu-Wei Chang, Fanzheng Dong, Professor Dana Buntrock, Baxter Smith, Hsin-Yu Chen and Yan Huang. Photo: Shinkenchiku-sha

Super space

The exterior structure is a cube of pleasing proportions, which becomes a beacon of soft light on cold winter evenings. The funnel-shaped roof harvests rainwater and snowmelt – collected water is delivered to tanks that are used to irrigate plants. The most striking element inside is the central tea platform, which includes a sunken firepit for making tea. Placed around it are low wooden benches for people to sit and interact, or simply enjoy the structure. Surrounding this area are planters, integrated into the floor, into which vines have been planted. Netting and hemp rope is attached behind them, which will guide the climbers upwards to create a green membrane that eventually wraps around the tea area.

On the third and fourth levels there are two types of planters, in which local vegetables are grown. The plants here can take advantage of the improved light and thermal environment, prolonging their growing season. “The planters are hung from the wood structure in areas with sufficient sunlight, and are used for growing beans, lettuces and shallow root vegetables such as daikon radishes,” says Yan Huang. “Pumpkins, cucumbers and eggplants require a lot more sun than shade-tolerant plants like beet, lettuce and potato, and are therefore placed towards the southern part of the Nest.” Many of the other smaller planters dotted about the structure contain autumn wheat.

Illustration of plan of Nest We Grow. Photo: UC Berkeley CED Nest We Grow team

Clever construction

The concrete block at the base of the building has many functions. As well as creating a ‘microtopography’, it helps to block the prevailing northwest wind, and its thermal mass helps ease the daily temperature fluctuations. It also features small openings that can be planted up. Inside, at this ground floor level, shelves are built into the lower concrete walls for food storage. A kitchen is also embedded into the wall, along with a log oven, water tanks and compost toilet. "People come in, gather, prepare and enjoy the local food together. This allows us to maximise the ground floor area as community dining space, with a large table for many guests."

The polycarbonate skin lets light in and heats the space during winter. “We were aware of the short growing season in this area of Hokkaido, so by working with transparent plastic corrugated sheets we were able to extend the usability of the Nest for plants and people. The sheets capture heat from the sun, creating a greenhouse environment,” explains Yan. “During the hot season, sliding panels on the façade and roof can be opened to promote crossventilation.” During autumn and winter, with the panels open, fish and vegetables can be hung to dry on the wood frame, echoing the traditional, local ‘cold wind drying’ method for food preservation. This openness also helps the building interact with the surrounding scenery. 

Structural and mechanical engineers, as well as a versatile contractor, were joined by local farmers and growers on the project, which was completed by the end of November 2014. Members of the original design team returned to Memu Meadows for the launch party, where Kengo Kuma himself said a few words about the finished Nest. “I believe Kuma-san is pleased with the project,” says Yan Huang. “I was in Tokyo this summer and met up with Saikawa-san, who told me that Kuma-san likes the project a lot, and even introduced the Nest to his mentor. We have not had a chance to go back and visit, but the project looks like it’s in pretty good shape.”

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