Should architects be citizen scientists?

After working in architecture for over a decade, Darrick Borowski, principal of New York–based firm ARExA, found himself increasingly interested in the relationship between design and broader natural systems. He moved his family to London to enroll in the Architectural Association’s Emergent Technologies and Design Programme, which “completely shattered how I previously understood architecture,” he said. Approaching design through the lenses of biology, evolutionary development, and complex systems, the program convinced him that “architects can and should participate in research — reading scientific papers, extracting learnings from other disciplines, and employing these principles in our work; we can be critical of them.”

While at the Architectural Association, Borowski and fellow students Nikoletta Poulimeni and Jeroen Janssen formed Edible Infrastructures, a collective focused on researching design strategies for self-contained urban food systems. Thinking about the new cities popping up in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa each year, they wanted to see if computational techniques could be used to integrate food production into masterplans from the outset.

Drawing from studies of human caloric intake and patterns of eating and farming, the team developed a computational model to calculate land use distributions that would allow for adequate food production for different population sizes and densities.

Edible Infrastructures’ computational rules

The model also took into account factors such as the need for low-energy distribution through efficient circulation routes, optimization of solar exposure for different kinds of crops, and provision of recreational facilities.

“You still end up with a very urban experience,” Borowski told me, “but woven into the urban fabric are productive commons, as we’re calling them — farmable areas — and a food distribution network.”

Overview of modeled neighborhood showing cultural center (left), shopping street (center), and wholesale farm shop location (foreground).

Overview of modeled neighborhood showing cultural center (left), shopping street (center), and wholesale farm shop location (foreground).

The team then applied the model to simulate two food-producing neighborhoods in real environments, one in Brooklyn and another outside of Stockholm.

They chose to study Sweden due to predictions that northern countries will eventually need to absorb climate refugees displaced from equatorial regions.

Proposal for new city near Stockholm

They are currently working on publishing a book about their research.

With his firm ARExA, Borowski is now working on several projects that apply many of these ideas on a smaller scale. The Keene Energy & Agriculture Project, intended to provide year-round local food production in northern climates, will use methane gas extracted from landfills to heat and light high-intensity greenhouses in Keene, New Hampshire.

The Troy Mills Sustainable Food Center, also in New Hampshire, will help support local farmers by converting an old textile mill into a food hub, including research facilities and a packaging and distribution center for small-scale independent farms.

Site of the future Troy Mills Sustainable Food Center

Another ARExA project uses the idea of food-producing common spaces as a central organizing element for a residential tower. And a greenhouse (shown above) planned for a school rooftop in lower Manhattan inherits its structural logic from natural systems, utilizing the algorithm for packing seeds on the head of a sunflower.

As a studio professor in the interior design department of the School of Visual Arts, Borowski tries to pass along an appreciation of research to his students. “The traditional mode that I was taught is that scientists define the principles, then technologists implement them into technology, and then we as architects employ that technology in our project,” he said. “The approach I’m advocating is really looking from the ground up at us having an active role in that process, not only in shaping the kinds of technologies that come to market but in harnessing the underlying principles in natural systems to change the way we shape our built environment.”

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