How we built the AvantGarden

What does it take for a group of strangers to come up with a feasible, sustainable and innovative concept of a future urban greenhouse?

A transformation of a building in a center of a quarter with a goal of creating a place where people can grow food, learn new skills, trade goods, and meet together, is a task that usually requires a number of experienced professionals and a lot of time. In our case, we had a group of strangers and 6 months to come up with something feasible and extraordinary. While our proposal might not be as detailed as it would be from actual project developers, I am proud to say that we managed to go in a very similar direction. This was confirmed both by the jury and other teams’ proposals.

But we should rather take it from the beginning. When lectures and workshops provided by organizers of the challenged ended, all we had was an already existing building and an infinity of options. With a group of people coming all together with different knowledge and interests, it took us quite a while to even get on the same page. We started with a classic team-building exercise, writing down our wildest ideas on post-it notes and figuring out what others’ visions are, where our dreams meet and how we can broaden our personal scopes. We figured out that social aspect and engagement of the community will play a primary role in the project and I am glad that we kept to it.

However, the objective of the challenge was still aimed to solve the problems of the current food production systems. Due to our different backgrounds, we had to get a better overlook of all available technologies and solutions together first. It was not hard for us to decide on combining multiple of these and we decided to go with a two-looped aquaponic system, mushrooms, and other smaller production systems. The aqua connection to the plant part was important for us because we understand problems that come with it in reality. Nonetheless, exactly these details and decisions were what we spent the most time on in a negative way. For some reason, most likely poor focus and management, we were stuck and going in circles for two or more months with this.

When we finally decided to pause, completely change direction and move on, it was already April or May, a middle of the competition. We were tired of all of the technical talks and turned to the very opposite – to get inspired by nature, being sustainable and cooperative. Coincidentally, this workaround lead us to solving these technology decisions later, since the only possible solutions resulted from this. Suddenly, we were able to work simultaneously on multiple topics, while progressing at the same pace. We compiled all energy flows for each system and symbiotically cycled them, we looked into a production range of farmers in the neighborhood and calibrated our production to complement and not compete, and we also researched on needs and interests of citizens and visitors of the future building. All of this, of course, took us many weeks as well, but we were moving forward much faster than before.

It is always nice to dream about things, but putting it into reality and making it work is a whole different challenge. With only a few weeks left in the competition, we began for the first time work with some specific numbers. Since our aim was to create a modular project, where each part of the concept can be scaled or moved, we needed to organize them in the actual building. To our surprise, with our design to feed the whole quarter, we needed only about 1/3 of the building for food production. This fact strengthen our vision that change of food production lays in the community, and therefore we were able to stick to our original goals. Not only we dedicated most of the area for people, but we also wanted to be welcoming and inclusive. We came up with a cooperative ownership, where everyone can join through money or labor.

Such an ambitious proposal, however, requires a lot of resources and brings a lot of risks. We calculated each and every item of our project, from setup costs, through running costs and revenues. We wanted to empower the community, not put an externally funded project in the middle of a quarter and hoping that it simply works. Thanks to the cooperative ownership, we provide citizens and local businesses with a recipe what can be done, but in the end, it is their decision what the want to build in their neighborhood. The strongest point of our proposal is this concept of a succession, where the building grows with the community, similarly as in nature. This allows for an independency on investors and supports local interests, production and craftsmanship.

All that was missing was to put all these ideas into sentences that explain it as a whole. It was a demanding two weeks sprint, but we ended up with a result that we can be really proud of. Speaking of which, we also prepared a website with a detailed description and a download of our complete proposal, so be sure to go there as well. In the end, for me personally, I couldn’t wish for a better experience. I have gained an incredible amount of knowledge, not only in an agriculture, economics, circularity, social and other but also in teamwork, time management, and work ethic. And the best fact is that our journey does not end here – we are now good friends, with our own individual projects, and we are working together on a better future. But all about that in another article!