GrowNYC’s New Center Brings Sustainability to the Heart of NYC

Farmhouse, a new profit-generating event space designed by Oregon-born environmental architect Thomas Kosbau, highlights the mainstreaming of sustainability.

Farmhouse, by ORE design. Courtesy ORE Design

Behind a pair of nondescript, framed glass doors on East 13th Street lies Farmhouse, a sprawling, glossy new white-box space with a curious collection of fixtures and installations. Is it a gallery? No, it features a large growing wall sprouting herbs and plants. Perhaps an office? Nope—what kind of office has a demonstration kitchen in the center? What about a museum? Can’t be—a large conference room dominates the entire back area, and there is no art hanging from the walls. So what is it?

Farmhouse is an education center for sustainable food production, and GrowNYC’s first physical space. GrowNYC is best known in New York for its neighborhood recycling initiatives and for operating over 50 local green markets, including the iconic Union Square flagship market just a short walk away. With the opening of Farmhouse, GrowNYC hopes to open up new fundraising opportunities by renting out the space for private events, while centralizing many of its administrative and programming functions under one roof.

Farmhouse’s construction and design reflect the complexities of urban development in New York City, and the constraints within which nonprofits are forced to operate today. Its creation was made possible by a public-private partnership with Hyatt Hotels, which owns the center’s host building near Union Square. In exchange for permission to build more hotel rooms, Hyatt was required to house a community facility in the space.

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Thomas Kosbau, center left, discussing Farmhouse at an opening event.  Courtesy ORE Design

GrowNYC in turn tapped Kosbau, an Oregon-born architect who had previously done pro bono work for them, including leading the design of a community garden in the East Village. Kosbau has a growing resume of notable green building projects around the world under his architectural studio ORE Design. For GrowNYC, Farmhouse represents a new experimental foray into generating revenue. It’s its “first brick-and-mortar and first for-profit venture. It’s not for-profit in its own entity,” Kosbau quickly clarifies. “But it is a fiscal driver for the non-profit, and it also allows them to fiscally sponsor other non-profits.” This plunge into profit-motivated territory, a far cry from the neighborhood greenmarkets and workshops the organization was accustomed to, informed the development and design of the community space.

Farmhouse’s design is thoughtfully conceived and realized in response to GrowNYC’s functional requirements and the space’s constraints. Kosbau implemented a series of “moves,” or strategic changes to the interior’s design, in order to unify what he described as an architecturally and functionally disjointed space. For Kosbau, the programming criteria was “not a headache, but very difficult, in that it had to be a demonstration kitchen, a conference center, a learning space, and have lots of storage.” And, given that it occupies the ground floor of a 178-room hotel, the ‘very rough’ space was ridden with wiring, piping and other infrastructure, which was unable to be significantly modified, and had to be worked around.

“The space itself had so many idiosyncrasies,” Kosbau says. “We tried to play with those idiosyncrasies as strengths in design.” Firstly, and most strikingly, the infrastructure running across the ceiling is obscured by an abstracted ceiling motif, comprised of acoustic panels arranged in a “zipper-like” formation, that recalls the architectural typology of the traditional American farmhouse. Across the open, nave-like central space, the ceiling pattern culminates in a salvaged wood-walled conference room, “carrying the shape of the farmhouse,” according to Kosbau. Next, Kosbau placed a hydroponic green wall—“a house inside of the farmhouse”—in the space’s stationary “wet areas,” where water infrastructure is mostly heavily concentrated. Directly adjacent is the unisex bathroom, a collection of all-gender stalls, consistent with the project’s open plan and design approach.

The hydroponic green wall at Farmhouse. Courtesy ORE Design

Bringing environmental issues and a sustainable sensitivity into the mainstream clearly figure as prominent priorities for GrowNYC and for Kosbau. And with the opening of Farmhouse, GrowNYC further consolidates its position as a regional leader in green practices, sustainability education, and now, environmental design.

Of course, some may argue that the structure is less a potent greenspace and more environmental theater. After all, how productive can a small-ish vertical garden truly be? Could it be that such profit-driven developments as Farmhouse, advanced under the guise of non-profit programmatic expansion, distract from the more structural (and less easily perceptible or entertaining) causes of environmental degradation?

There’s no denying that Farmhouse signifies the degree to which urban agriculture has gone mainstream, and how, as a result, “green” considerations are increasingly recast in for-profit arrangements. But it is the opinion of this author that even symbolic spaces can have powerful, material consequences—and, in this sense, the inviting Farmhouse may just plant the seeds of sustainability in the minds of its visitors.

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