Oscar Rodriguez guest blog: 3 Green Buzzwords, Building Integrated Agriculture and a Black Eye

Inspiration can strike at the strangest of times. Tonight I’m delighted to post a guest blog written by Oscar Rodriguez, Director,Architect and founder of Architecture & food.  Originally  I asked Oscar to brief summary of Building Integrated Agriculture to be included in our February Futures daily inspiration campaign. However to my absolute pleasure  instead I can present you with the following pontification.

Three Green Buzzwords, Building Integrated Agriculture and a Black Eye

I was complacent. I didn’t have my “man sao” up, a forward guarding hand which translates as “asking/seeking hand” in Wing Chun, a Chinese close-quarter martial art I have been learning now for two years. Having successfully slipped the first jab, my sidai (wing chun younger brother) landed the second on my right eye. He retracted his hands in horror and apologised repeatedly, as we do in our considerate training sessions, suggesting we stop. I cupped my eye, pinched out a few tears, prodded it to check the swelling and after a couple of minutes, carried on with the exercise. A few hours later I welcomed my first ever black eye.


Man Soa as demonstrated by Grand Master Ip Man

Man Soa as demonstrated by Grand Master Ip Man

The next day I was having an exploratory conversation with two representatives of the Environmental Industries Commission at Ecobuild 2014. After discussing Building Integrated Agriculture and the value the EIC’s representation could afford it, the conversation veered into more general drivers underpinning the green agenda.

“Resilience is going to be the next “thing”. For a while it was adaptation but we’re beginning to accept that climate change disruptions are going to be inevitable.”

I’d heard this a number of times before. Normally I might have just nodded and agreed. My response this time bypassed all of my usual filters.

“Well… if sustainability is lasting the duration of a fight until it is done, ensuring your resource base is there to deliver upon your defensive and offensive strategies, adaptation is having the flexibility and agility to…”

“duck and dive” interjected the representative, smiling, already hooked on the analogy and, I suspect, aware of the black eye.

“exactly…, but also gauging the distance between you and your opponent, interpreting their structure and intent and responding to relative strengths…”

I paused to collect my thoughts.

“…then resilience is being able to take a hit, or several, and carry on delivering both the latter and former until you reach a parity with your opponent that tires both of you out, assuming of course, you don’t want to destroy your opponent because you depend on it…”

The analogy of a fight is simplistic and almost puerile and not one I wish to promote, however it holds some value with expressed caveats. Our resource use patterns and cities are inherently antagonistic by current design; compartmentalising and reorganising nature’s components to deliver us the products we demand at the volume and rate we demand them. We typically exceed natural renewal phases, run structural deficits and create further conditions that do not factor into our economic reasoning both for fear of uncompetitive price inflation and a lack of appreciation of their complexity. As a devout Adam Curtis fan, I would more readily see this relationship as a dance, but short of a vicious tango, the imperative to include the very real threat of pain and destruction that climate volatility and resource construction present us, precludes this optimistic and light-hearted analogy.

Part of the problem lies in the transference of values. Seeing nature as “mother”, a source of unconditional love and nurture, is problematic unless we are ready to accept the punishment she seems intent on handing out. We can’t reason with her, plead for mercy, have no idea where the naughty step is and have failed miserably in our attempts to steward her; an attitude which itself harbours the hubris we are riding the tail end of.

If resilience is to be the next “thing” it suggests a war-like footing of sorts. But damaging nature ultimately damages us, her unruly tenant who has been lobbying frantically to drive down the rent. The scale and ferocity of her reactions to our behaviour are already making our economies creak and we will need to adopt a defensive position that buys us the time to overhaul the design of our cities if we continue to believe them to be the most efficient and effective way to house our bulging populations and experiments in civility.

We therefore need more effective guard hands.

The Thames Barrier is a good example. On the 11th February 2014 the BBC reported on the Thames Barrier’s record usage. [i]

 “It has closed 28 times since 6 December.

This represents one fifth of all the closures – about 150 – since it was inaugurated.”

 The Environment Agency published an image of how this year’s record tidal surges would have affected London in the absence of said barrier and reassured us that despite being designed to last until 2030, it will likely offer us protection until 2060-70, around the time I will be retiring. And then?


How London might be affected by flooding from the sea without the Thames Barrier ii


Guard hands alone will not be enough to reach that parity we seek with nature where we exert no pressure on her that drives reactions that threaten our survival and way of life. In Wing Chun we are taught that the best defence is not to be there. We keep our guard hands up at all times, ready to respond, but our greatest defensive asset is our footwork. Through side-steps and twists, we stay close, tracking hands and feet, reading and feeling our way through an engagement.

Building Integrated Agriculture (BIA) is one such “side-step” and “guard hand” combination. Food, after all, was the primary strategic design parameter for cities when we depended on the sun’s radiation and its derivatives alone. In disintermediating the food chain by growing fresh produce at walkable distances to demand, there are no logistics exposed to climatic volatility or natural disasters, representing a side-step away from an upstream supply chain disruption. Greenhouses create micro-climates designed to be symbiotic with their host building which protect crops from pests and adverse environmental conditions, representing a guard hand against local disruptions. Crossovers occur where local food systems mitigate thermal losses, stimulate local economies and by tangibly re-engaging urbanites with their food supply, encourage transitions to more vegetable-centric eating patterns, offsetting the excessive demand for meat.

In November 2012, I founded Architecture & food, a design consultancy dedicated to developing urban food production infrastructure and the architecture of BIA. For now, our focus is London, a global financial capital and a leading proponent of the globalised trade network that has stretched supply chains on the back of cheap, fossil fuel-based mobility and driven by international finance leaving it critically exposed and dependent to the tune of 80% on foreign imports by one 2002 estimate.[ii] London also houses 20,000 hectares of roofscape, most of it pitched and unusable but at the author’s own estimate[iii], approximately 10% could potentially be converted, employing a range of different BIA models. These range from “Grow to Eat/Share” subsistence and communitarian models employing simple containers, raised-bed planters and agricultural green roofs, to fully commercial “Grow to Retail/Wholesale” greenhouse models employing water-based growing technology. Our London Rooftop Farm Survey is further refining this figure, identifying compliant flat roofs whose owners we engage with the prospect of reducing their roof maintenance liability, hosting a new potential tenant and operational savings in key metabolics alongside place-making narratives centred on good food.[iv]


Lydford Estate Rooftop Greenhouse Project vii

Lydford Estate Rooftop Greenhouse Project vii


We are currently working with CityWest Homes, exploring the viability of retrofitting a horticultural operation onto the roofscape of the Lydford Estate in W9, serving local residents and businesses. We expect gaining community buy-in will be our toughest challenge so offering something of real value to residents will be paramount. Alongside a dependable supply of stable-priced, high-quality, fresh produce, we are exploring using the existing community hall as a community grocer, complemented by a community kitchen, hosting food literacy cooking training courses targeting local residents; all designed to keep demand for fresh produce local. Horticultural training courses for local residents and schools complement the labour model and may eventually allow us to move the initial team of expert horticultural technicians onto other sites, gradually replacing them with local technicians, ideally from the estate itself, further weaving the growing into community life. The models we are exploring also make use of local food waste which we process via Anaerobic Digestion into liquid and solid digestates, to be used in both horticultural and mushroom production while capturing supplementary gas supplies for local use.


The concept and is steadily commercialising in the US and Canada with notable growers like Lufa Farms, Brightfarms and Gotham Greens leading, retrofitting horticultural greenhouses on industrial buildings and supermarket stores. They supply supermarkets, grocery stores and restaurants, selling the message of hope in a product that, in not travelling, retains its flavour, is nutritionally richer and price stable into the long term. Sky Vegetables in the Bronx, NY goes further. In occupying the roofscape of a social housing new-build it supplies fresh produce to a food desert, contributing to its community both economically and socially, training urban farmers and encouraging transitions to more vegetable-centric eating patterns through direct engagement.

Sky Vegetables iv

Messages of fear are muted for now in recognition that hope sells more effectively while these models are required to serve a business case. However, every new successful development in this field questions our current food system and wider attitude to global trade and resource use. We are only truly starting to respond to how we intend to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves as populations grow, demographics shift, resources become ever more expensive to extract, climate becomes more volatile and the frequency and severity of natural disasters rise.


What are our guard hands? Where and how do we side-step? What needs to change? How do we support our chosen way of life into the long term? These are some of the questions the three green buzzwords dominating the green agenda must address. Compartmentalising them only partially satisfies this epoch-defining challenge.


Oscar Rodriguez





[i]        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26133660

[ii]       Best Foot Forward Ltd, City Limits – A Resource flow and ecological footprint analysis of Greater London, 09/02

[iii]         http://www.academia.edu/1872929  London_Rooftop_Agriculture_A_Preliminary_Estimate_of_Londons_Productive_Potential

[iv]       http://www.architectureandfood.com/#!london-rooftop-farm-survey/cwg1


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