SHoP Architects

Designer Daniel Toretsky of SHoP Architects was familiar with DC Greens, a Washington, D.C.–based urban farm and food justice organization, because he had spent time volunteering there as a high school student, collecting and weaving branches for a Patrick Dougherty–designed archway at a local elementary school. DC Greens, which has been around since 2009, aims to enrich an underserved part of the city via its urban farm and a community wellness space. New York–based SHoP Architects, whose recent D.C. designs include the Midtown Center, a 14-story mixed-use office, dining, and retail complex arranged around a large new public plaza, took on the project on a pro bono basis.

When Toretsky heard that DC Greens needed to find a new home because its current site was being turned into a substation for the local power company, he saw an opportunity for his firm to get its hands dirty designing a new home for the organization and the important community-building that takes place at its urban farm site. While SHoP doesn’t have hard-and-fast rules about taking on projects on a pro bono basis, they aim to focus their efforts on work with a strong community connection. Stakeholders hope that The Well at Oxon Run will change the narrative around urban farms and community health hubs by being a space where elders and youth can engage in healthier living, artistic expression, cultural transmission, and community connectedness.

After two years of brainstorming sessions with partners, community leaders, and neighbors, SHoP unveiled a plan for a new DC Greens site in early 2020, in partnership with The Green Scheme, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, and the D.C. Department of Energy and the Environment. The farm site will occupy 50,000 square feet, providing space to grow up to 150 varieties of fresh produce, herbs and edible flowers for community use.

SHoP worked in conjunction with WDG as the local architect and SK&A Structural Engineering Consulting. We chatted with Toretsky and his co-designer on the project, Minyoung Song, about the process behind designing a site that was more down-to-earth than the firm’s usual fare.

What was the collaborative design process for this project like?

DT: The place that really seemed best [for the farm] was this neighborhood in Ward 8, in Southeast D.C., where there’s really a food desert—there are no grocery stores nearby. It was kind of a perfect place, and there’s a beautiful patch of open park there that [DC Greens] has done a lot of community outreach around. They ascertained that this was wanted by the community.

MS: The client hadn’t ever worked with an architect before, so it was a process for us to educate them on how we could contribute, other than just fulfilling their programmatic needs. We drew up our past work on a similar scale, including a community park in Greenport, N.Y., with a carousel and camera obscura. We walked them through what architecture can contribute to this sort of program that, in and of itself, will be a contribution to the community. We just completed a building in downtown Washington, D.C., and we are working on two others in the area. We had sort of built a Rolodex of other design professionals in the area and got them to volunteer their services for this. It filled up the design team and then kicked it off as a real project.

DT: We’re really committed to making the city that we work in better for everyone, and we’ve done a number of high-profile projects. This project fit our interests really well, and this was a way to reach other communities.

MS: Our first meeting with the client and the community was a super informal one.

DT: We went to the site, sort of holding off rain the whole time. The wind was blowing and there wasn’t any picnic table or anything, so we set up a folding table and chairs. Community members came, and one even brought her kids, these two little infants. We put them on the table and they prevented the drawings from blowing away. That set the tone for the whole process, really. We were very serious about what we were doing, but there was also a high level of inclusion and [of ] taking people’s ideas really seriously. One way that manifested was through people in the community getting really excited about this idea of the Front Porch and thinking of it as this connection between the family and the community.

When did the design process for this project start?

DT: July [2019]?

MS: It was hot. It was really hot. [Laughs.] It was a really fast process. The client is on a deadline to move out the space and to get all the plants out of the ground.

DT: There’s a whole orchard of fig trees.

MS: The community members were on subsequent conference calls with the client for the design presentations. We were trying to find inspiration from local heritage. There is a strong go-go music culture, there are graffiti walls, stuff that’s very vibrant, and they were trying to incorporate that into our language for the buildings.

The clients had an aversion to certain types of materials, and we were trying to keep it down-to-earth and more familiar.

DT: One of the client’s interests was turning a grove of trees into a memorial for people who had died of gun violence.

Can you tell us more about the clients having an aversion to certain materials?

DT: Certain materials signifiy some gentrification that’s happening in that area right now, and the clients had mixed experiences previously collaborating on certain projects.

DT: Certain materials signifiy some gentrification that’s happening in that area right now, and the clients had mixed experiences previously collaborating on certain projects.

What were the most challenging parts of this project?

DT: There was the issue of the fence, which we knew we would have to have from the beginning. Urban farms always have a fence, for safety, just to make sure the resources stay under their control. We knew from the beginning that would be at odds with the mission of our project, which was to be inclusive and community-minded.

So the fence was almost a driver, where we divided it into a bunch of sections. Parts became porous art walls, and parts became what we called “amulets”—pavilions along a chain that would allow for programs like a classroom and a gathering space, a lending library, and a farmer’s market. These things start to activate the space, and the community would have 24-hour access to these pavilions.

MS: The whole fence surface is like a canvas. The whole project, depending on fundraising and budget constraints, is very scalable. In the future, they could add more amulets if they needed to—it can keep growing. We also designed it with materials that could be easily maintained—we used very available and workable materials.

We knew we had to design to a certain budget, but the client is a good fundraiser and thought she could raise more money. It’s a functioning farm, too, so we had to be sensitive to certain rules we had to follow in terms of how the plants grow.

DT: They don’t just have plants growing, they have kids coming in [for programs]. Horticulture is a really big driver of everything.

MS: The farmer [Kate Lee, farm director at DC Greens] has very specific ways she works. We had to consider all these traffic patterns.

DT: Right, we hadn’t considered the turning radius of a wheelbarrow.