Projects: Light Farm

The massive amount of double glazing windows that cities like Brussels discard every year has already sparked our RELUX. The LIGHT FARM takes the idea of reusing double-glazing windows in new constructions even further: it involves more than 800 m2 of glazing that will be demounted from an office building that currently goes through complete renovation. The LIGHT FARM will give a new life to the windows by turning them into the outer envelope of a farm building in traditional barn shape. The LIGHT FARM will eventually harbour a full-fledged wooden house,  but also spaces for stables, craft workshops, mediation and yoga classes… OSMOS is closely involved in all aspects of the design and development of this exciting project that we co-develop with the Poznan-based architecture office Tez Architekci.

Living in a greenhouse

The idea of surrounding an entire house with an outer shell made of glass might sound fantastic. But for over four decades environmentalists and architects have experimented with the idea of combining habitat and greenhouses. The result are often wonderfully comfortable spaces that are neither “inside” nor “outside”. Olivier Darmon has reviewed many of these projects in his excellent book “Serre et habitat”.[1] A pioneer in this area was the Swedish architect and researcher Bengt Warne (1929 – 2006), whose first “Nature House” built in the mid-1970s in Stockholm already expressed the general design principles that we use in the LIGHT FARM: by moving the impermeable layer of the house a couple of meters from the insulation layer and building it in glass, Warne’s nature house harnesses solar energy in the same effortless way as horticultural greenhouses and creates larger, lighter and warmer spaces than conventional houses. These spaces are peculiar spots in which you are not completely outside – the glass will protect you from rain, wind and noise – but also not completely inside – like in a winter garden the atmosphere is closer to nature than in a house with walls.

Warne’s idea has been emulated by his students and other architects so that Scandinavia, Germany and France are dotted with similarly striking projects – for who does not empathize with the character in Jacques Brel’s chanson Ces gens-là who wants to live in a “house with loads of windows, with almost no walls”?

 

Money, money, money, must be funny, in a rich man’s world

If it is so great, why don’t you see more people living in greenhouses? The most prosaic reason takes us from Brel to Abba: money. The higher the quality of the glass layer, the closer you get to the thermal and aesthetic quality of the top-of-the shelf projects that have been built in Sweden. But glazing is expensive. Building a massive greenhouse in double or even triple glazing to optimize the effect – like the incredible Nature house in Uppgrenna – is extremely expensive. This is the reason why contemporary architects like Lacaton & Vassal, who have made habitable greenhouses a hallmark of their extremely successful office, have moved to using alternative materials, like thin single glazing, Plexiglas, poly-carbon sheets. The Schuurbain in Wedelgem, Belgium designed by architect Atelier Vens Vanbeele is an example of this solution. In fact, many projects reviewed by Olivier Darmon start with standard horticultural greenhouses in which they then create the residential volume. These projects still reap some of the benefits of the underlying principle of combining habitat and greenhouse, but the inferior quality of the materials reduces the thermal and aesthetic performance, especially after a couple of years of usage – only glass can be thorougly cleaned and does not get “blind” like other materials.

 

Affordable high-quality materials through circular economy  

For months the design of the LIGHT FARM was in a dilemma: we were attracted by the high-end projects from Scandinavia, but building the farm with new glazing would have exploded the modest budget of the client. We abandoned the idea of going for alternative materials of inferior quality: we wanted the building to age gracefully.

And then one day – Eureka! – the solution to this dilemma was found by scouring through photos of cute do-it-yourself greenhouses that enthusiasts built in their backyards. In fact, Pinterest is full of evidence that you can built decent greenhouses from a bunch of odd-sized windows that you took off the dumpster when your neighbor wanted to throw them away. Each of these greenhouses is unique, joints and structure are puzzled together through laborious craftsmanship – and the results are often charming, but neither reproducible nor upscalable. Or so we thought until we saw the design of the new headquarter European Council in Brussels! Designed by Belgian architects Samyn et Partners, the building includes two enormous façades that are entirely made from reclaimed windows that were collected from demolition sites in all 28 (27, 26?) Member States of the European Union. These façades offer similar advantages to the Nature Houses of the 1970s: a first layer of protection against wind and rain, but also thermal and acoustic insulation.

What Samyn et Partners did with the European Council is, however, more symbolic that ecological: sourcing odd-sized windows from many different locations also does not make any economic sense. A far more sensible strategy is to look for nearby sources of discarded windows that come in similar dimensions. And, as we quickly found out, Brussels has more than enough of them. The lifespan of many office buildings built in the 1990s has reached its end, and we soon found a sizable office building in Auderghem owned by the insurer AXA that was to be renovated. The Brussels-based office architectesassoc. that is in charge of the renovation were immediately interested and open to the idea of reusing the more than 700 windows in the building – in fact they had already offered the materials to our colleagues from ROTOR, who then established the contact.

In essence, the LIGHT FARM combines the design principles that pioneers like Bengt Warne promoted since the 1970s, but renders them affordable through circular economy principles that tap into the existing stock of high-quality building materials.

 

[1] Olivier Darmon, Serre et habitat, Ouest France, collection « Archi pas chère » ; 2013, 144 pages, 15,90 euros