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Ethan Russell-Benoit & Omar Khalifa

Syracuse Univeristy, New York USA. 

The Farmscraper seeks to address two major problems for the city of Syracuse, NY: a lack of affordable housing near downtown, and a lack of full service grocery stores downtown or near affordable housing. The Farmscraper unifies within a monumental mass timber green house structure a vertical hydroponic farm, farm to table restaurant, farmers market, indoor/outdoor park, and an affordable housing tower which is subsidized by the economic activity on the lower levels.

Each of the 26 apartments for up to 72 residents has access to balconies and private planters looking out into the slowly rotating 12 story vertical farm as well as views out over the city. The farm becomes central to the experience of the housing spatially as well as environmentally. The greenhouse traps solar heat gain in the cooler months and in the warmer months the large vertical volume of the farm generates buoyancy ventilation to passively cool the entire building The large sloping surface of the greenhouse also optimizes rainwater collection to irrigate the farm.


The Farmscraper is about creating symbiosis between various programs and publics within a building, between the building and the surrounding city, and between the building and the global environment sequestering carbon in the timber structure and passively conditioning the building. The project hopes to be a model for how architecture can play a more active role in improving quality of life within our cities.

Ethan if you could start by giving us an introduction to yourself, where you have studied, what stage you are in your architectural career/degree and also any of your interests or specialities?

I am a  5th year student in the BArch program at Syracuse University School of Architecture from Massachusetts. I would not say that I have any architectural specialties and my interests are quite broad. Working at a small New England firm and taking a monographic elective on the residential work of Marcel Breuer has reinforced my fascination with the design of the single family home. In stark contrast to that, studying abroad in Florence and taking a visiting critic studio with Daniel Vasini of West 8 has kindled an obsession with how architecture can participate with the city on an urban scale. I’m also fascinated with the ever present dialogue between form (object) and space. I don’t love the idea of becoming a specialist in any one thing, and I think my broad spanning interests reflect that.



Your project seeks to address both a lack of affordable housing and poor access to fresh vegetation in Syracuse NY, what inspired your research in this area? 

The desire to work on affordable housing and access to fresh produce comes from a number of influences both personal and analytical. I worked for many years before going to architecture school in a soup kitchen on weekends. When you spend time getting to know these people and hear their stories, you begin to see everywhere how good people with some of the biggest hearts are being left behind and ignored by society. Many of us take fresh food for granted but for many it is out of reach. Soup kitchens teach you just how precious fresh food is and they also show you the power of food to bring people together.
Living for 4 years in a rust belt city I was very aware that there was a large underserved population in Syracuse. When researching the area to propose a program for the site we found that much of the affordable housing in Syracuse was scattered around the periphery and far from any grocery stores. Our given site was in the heart of downtown and there too there were no full service grocery stores. One quick search based on a hunch presented a very strong foundation for our research that had a very personal connection.

The Farmscraper scheme addresses the issue through a High-Rise timber structure what persuaded you to build vertically with your proposal?


The high rise massing strategy came from a number of places. Most simply it was a requirement of the studio to design a mass timber tower in excess of the current code allowances to showcase how it can work and how attractive it can be. While this was a requirement of the studio, the tower is also a sound development practice for the context especially given our chosen program. The site, which was M. Lemp Park in downtown Syracuse, is surrounded on three sides by many buildings of roughly six stories, but across the street are several towers of around 15-18 stories. The density of the tower is appropriate but the height was also needed to provide as much unshaded access to direct sunlight as possible for the plants in the vertical farm.


Timber High-Rise architecture is becoming an ever more popular but also viable method of construction, do you feel that this may hold the key to sustainable construction in densely populated areas?

Mass timber high rises very well may be the key to sustainable construction in our cities, but that is only the case if it is paired with sustainable forestry practices. Engineered lumber is amazing as a building material because rather than representing a huge amount of the embodied energy and carbon footprint of a structure, it actually sequesters carbon from the atmosphere in its structure. Many engineered lumber products can even be made from scrap wood and small trees, but the reality is if our engineered lumber is being produced through unsustainable practices that contribute to deforestation then mass timber will be no more sustainable than concrete or steel. Sustainability is a problem that must be tackled holistically. Architects, unfortunately, cannot do it alone.

Your project utilises a number of sustainable and green initiatives, could you explain these and your thoughts behind them? And do you feel this is something which architecture should always look to incorporate within design?  

While I do think all architects have a responsibility to think about sustainability in their projects that can be manifested in many different ways: sourcing local materials, socially responsible development, etc. Not every project can or should pursue the same passive strategies and I also don’t believe that every project should be aspiring to LEED certifications or Passivehaus standards. 
Every project presents different opportunities to design sustainably. The desire to include a large greenhouse in our program presented us with a unique opportunity to passively control the environment within all of the other programs. Double skinned facades, solar chimneys, and sun spaces are all tried and true strategies for passively heating and ventilating buildings. We hybridized all of them by creating such a large vertical greenhouse over the entire project. 
In the warmer months warm air rises up and out of thermostat controlled louvres at the top of the building drawing fresh air in to ventilate the building. This phenomenon will work from waste heat alone on cloudy days; on clear days as the sun gets more intense and increases demand for ventilation, the added energy accelerates the upward rise of the air. Residents can always control the airflow through their own units by opening and closing windows. In the cooler months the entire space would be tempered by trapping solar radiation within the greenhouse.Our form also optimizes rainwater collection off of the roof and allows for some of our southern exposure to be used for solar thermal heating.

Through these design components you create a vertical urban village for the residents whereby they can live almost independently do you feel that this philosophy could tackle issues with social housing?

In our project we created a tower with 26 units: 10 two bedroom family units which are fully autonomous, and 16 studio loft units that share 2 large kitchens and living spaces but have ample room for a small private living area. Communal living with the bare minimum of private amenities has been standard in social housing since at least prior to World War II. Once upon a time this was a utopian design about creating an ideal communist society, but even prior to the collapse of that model social housing has often been reduced to raw numbers, calculations of floor area, occupancy, and subsidy costs. Humanity and dignity are cast aside in favor of maximizing the number of units to the dollar. Our project asserts that humanity and dignity must be the first factor in that calculation. Social housing ought to provide privacy and autonomy, access to ample fresh air and light. We go even further to provide private planters to grow some of their own food. Social housing should lend agency and autonomy to those who live in it, not an enforced dependence on a neglectful system.

You put the exploded isometric drawing to great use to clearly explain the process and components of your project, what or who inspires your illustrative style? 

My illustrative style has developed through my interactions with a number of professors over the years. Graphically one of my biggest influences may have been Molly Hunker of SPORTS Collaborative, but the more subdued colors come from years of studios with more senior faculty before and after my studio with Professor Hunker.


Could you give us an insight into your design process?

My design process evolves each semester as I try to embrace the process that each professor puts forward. The constant through all of those experiences has been thinking through sketching and modeling. Early on in a project I accumulate piles of trace paper and scrap material on my desk as I hack through ideas and try to get down to the core of my concept and begin to develop architectural strategies of reinforcing that concept. What Professor Park focused on for process during this semester was regularly zooming in and out in scale. Developing one drawing as far as you can and zooming back out to reassess the effect of what you drew on the reading of the concept. From the overall form down to the details, everything, every drawing and model feeds into the same feedback loop to reinforce your concept at a global level.

If you could offer one piece of advice to our architecture student followers what would it be?

My one piece of advice to your followers is to never stop dreaming big. This project was produced in a comprehensive/integrative studio, do not look at the contingencies of the real world as limiting you. Seize those contingencies as opportunities to make your architecture do and mean more.


Finally, where can people find out more about you and your projects?


Instagram: @erbenoit & omarskhalifs


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