Modernism and farm building design

Architecture is one of my favourite hobbies. I love seeing how buildings function and how they are put together. I built a really neat L shaped wooden framed building for a goat farm back in the 1990s and I built my own high efficiency house in 1997. Last Friday I went to Venice for a long weekend to see the Biennial exhibitions of 65 nations curated by Rem Koolhaas. As a top architectural professor he had set the world’s designers the task of describing how their country had “absorbed modernism”. Approaches ranged from the slightly sardonic Russians to the enthusiastic Peruvians.

Modernism can broadly be described as using new techniques of building – steel frames, concrete, plastic and new building services like water, electricity and ventilation which were rarely available before the modern age. Modernism has often been criticised for concrete brutalism and massive government social projects such as the tower blocks now being steadily demolished as failures.

Farm building is a modernist phenomenon as steel and concrete construction is now almost universal and the old stone built, tiled barns have long been sold off for residential developments with its own issues of social conflict.

The great criticism of modernist architecture is that it ignored the needs of users and many buildings have been abandoned. Several pavilions (France, Sweden, Norway) focused on the failures which have been many.

I think it is time we should take a similar approach as to how modernist farm building has ignored the needs of its users, both animals and humans. We have also tended to define farm buildings as simply the roof and sides and to leave out the services that make the building function as Corbusier said as “a machine for living in”.

For humans new materials and services have made new scales of building and levels of comfort possible. Lighting, heating, ventilation, doors and floor materials are all part of the design brief of the architect. One great feature of the Biennial was huge pavilion called “elements” which looked at all the components that make up a modern building from door handles to roofing sheets. A modern building can be described as a great assembly of components to meet the needs of users.

In dairy farming we should spend more effort on the needs of the cow and the services she needs to have a comfortable, productive life. The bedding, lighting and waste removal should all be part of the design rather than just put into an empty shell. I see too many examples where cow flow is compromised, ventilation is non-existent and cubicle pitches do not match the pillar spacings. My chief complaint is that the floor material usually smooth concrete is completely inappropriate for the needs of the cow and barely suitable for the humans who spend time on it. I still have leg problems myself from standing on hard concrete for several years milking cows.

The inevitable complaint is that buildings cost a lot of money so we put up the cheapest possible but this is false economy if the buildings then damage cow health.

Since the closure of Silsoe and ADAS buildings units we have not had a research facility in the UK that takes much interest in buildings design but it is clear that new technologies in lighting, ventilation and flooring can have a beneficial impact on cow health and welfare. In a few weeks time at the RAU we start a new project to look at how building design itself can reduce heat stress in cattle. The project is in collaboration with a Nigerian university where obviously heat stress is more of an issue than here. I often see cows standing at building doors with their noses in the air, this is a sign that they are seeking fresh air indicating that the quality is poor inside.

There was little work in Venice about rural buildings (which are usually an architect free zone) but some interesting examples of adaptation of old farm structures such as grain stores did appear from Portugal. There were some interesting design examples from Lichtenstein as farming has diminished to a minor activity in that rich banking enclave. Farm buildings were being proposed to be adapted to be “invisible” factories. Given the large numbers of steel frame buildings on closed up dairy units maybe we should be thinking along the same lines. Whereas the last makeover of farm buildings was to make attractive dwellings with rustic features maybe the next phase of makeovers should be to adapt those steel frames to new dwellings and workplaces in the countryside.