Act: Inspiration

Farm Architecture: Form, Function and Place

August 17, 2017

“How can the design of farms and farm buildings be beautiful, functional and express a sense of place?” This was the central question explored by Mark Hoare, Kim Wilkie and Stephanie Evans during their parallel session “Harmony Principles in Farm Architecture” at the Harmony in Food and Farming conference earlier in July.

In his opening talk, architect Mark Hoare drew upon a theme prevalent in the conference: interconnectivity. He described the importance of an agricultural system based upon the interconnectedness of farming, living and landscapes, involving both the animals and people who are a part of them.

Gesturing to an image of a beautifully designed Cumbrian hillside barn, Hoare described the interconnected relationship between home and barn where people both live and work in the same location, so the necessity for farms to engender hard work and allow space for relaxation are paramount to their success. During the subsequent audience discussion, a farm labourer supported this idea, describing the value of having a sociable farm environment in order to encourage communication and allow for breaks during the long working days, particularly in the summer months.

Kim Wilkie, who is a Royal Designer for Industry, echoed the points made by Hoare, complimenting farms built around the a ‘courtyard system’, in which a central area is enclosed by buildings and the main entrance opens on to it. This design, argued Wilkie, allows functional space for farm activity as well as space for interaction between farm workers and those who ‘dwell’ on the farm. Wilkie also described buildings which make use of the natural topography of the land as the most pleasing to the eye. “If you allow the practical to dictate what a building is doing”, he commented whilst gesturing to an image of a typical Dutch barn, “you’ll end up with fantastic shapes which don’t necessarily look like the Parthenon,” but which are equally as beautiful.

An important point was raised by Stephanie Evans, who works for the National Trust, that the spaces in between farm buildings are also crucial to the success of a design, sometimes more so than the buildings themselves. Hedgerows and fences, for example, attract the eye when gazing across a farm landscape, whilst the farm gate is often the first thing one might see when entering the site. Thus, the spaces in between need to be considered and invested in for the success of the farm design as a whole. In terms of restoration as well as new builds, the question is sometimes one of how to make the building “disappear into the landscape”. At the National Trust, holistic designs which respect the natural and cultural heritage of a location are admired, as well as those which are functional, flexible and adaptable to change.

Sustainable building designs, claims Evans, are increasingly important given the rapid rate of change affecting our landscapes globally. Buildings designed for “disassembly” are better able to adapt and have a greater capacity for recycling and upgrading. This may seem counterintuitive in terms of sustainability, but as Samuels argues, the needs of a farm can change rapidly, and farm buildings should be able to adapt to suit these.

Designing for disassembly is a relatively new concept for the design and building community and fits into the Design for Environment agenda which considers the environmental and human health impacts over the life-cycle of a product. Designing for disassembly intends to maximise materials conservation from building end-of-life management, and create adaptable buildings to avoid buildings from being removed or abandoned altogether. This idea fits in very well with Dame Ellen MacArthur’s notion of the Circular Economy, in which she explains that products should be designed to be recycled. A systems-thinking approach to design, in both manufacturing as well as in architecture, should take insights from the natural systems, where there is no such thing as waste. To counter the multitude of farm buildings which have fallen into disrepair due to being no longer useful, or too costly to maintain, farm buildings, according to Samuel, should be easy to assemble and disassemble, and use materials that can be recovered and re-used, either on-site or elsewhere. This requires a radical overhaul of the design process, with consideration of how each building material can potentially be used next. Designing for disassembly is a strategy to “prevent obsolescence and mitigate economic factors (such as labour costs) that encourage destructive demolition and disposal of buildings”.

The session ended discussing the future of farming, and the possibility that in terms of sustainability, this might take the form of more small-scale farms and a re-distribution of land, such that instead of a 100-acre farm, it might be more sustainable to have ten, ten acre farms.

Watch a film of the session here.

Teaser photo credit: By Uwe Barghaan – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Bonnie Welch

Bonnie Welch grew up in rural Somerset and has a keen interest in global sustainable food and farming practices and permaculture. She is currently a masters student of Food Anthropology at SOAS University in London, and prior to this spent four years living in Amsterdam, where she studied a Liberal Arts and Sciences degree and worked for sustainable food charity, ASEED Europe. She joined the Sustainable Food Trust in May 2017 as an intern for the Harmony in Food and Farming Conference.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, resilient architecture