An Unusual Crop

An Unusual Crop

Heidi Butler,

Sometimes tomatoes grow in gardens. Lots of tomatoes. Sometimes creativity grows. Lots of creativity.Geoff Rybitski (left) and Jake Barrow

Imagine a hay loft that isn't really a loft, but that could also be used as an amphitheatre. Kelly Allen did. Allen is the Northampton Community College English professor who dreamed up the community garden now located on the periphery of campus on a tract of land known as the College's "East 40." In less than 4 years the garden has grown from a shed and a few garden beds to a 4.5 acre eco-center that encompasses a bio-swale, solar power station, hoop house, forage forest, apiary and plots for close to 40 community gardeners. School and community groups visit frequently.

The amphitheatre will get heavy use. Did we mention that it will look like a butterfly?

Here's where NCC architecture students come in. Second year architecture students not only designed the amphitheater, they are also building it. From the ground up. Literally. Step one was installing nine footings, nine feet apart. In rolled the heavy equipment: NCC groundskeeper Mark Stettler on a tractor outfitted with a large auger. Under the watchful eye of the students, he rolled up to one of the marks they had carefully measured out and began to drill. And drill. And drill. Despite rain the night before, the ground was unyielding. Was there a boulder underneath? It did not auger well.

Surprised but undaunted, students tried using hand tools to loosen the earth. It was a valiant effort, but unsuccessful.

"These are the kinds of problems you run into on a construction site," said their professor, Ken Trionfo, an architect who owned his own construction firm for 15 years. "You can read about principles of design all day long. You can draw terrific buildings, but sometimes when you get out on a site, life throws you a curve. You have to adjust to site conditions."

The problem-solving began. Not far from the garden sat a backhoe being used in another construction project. "We may have to use the bucket," Trionfo told the class. "We only have to go down three feet." It worked.

On Day Two the sounds of a cement mixer could be heard as students carefully positioned five cement blocks in each hole and poured the fittings, hoping the rain would hold off long enough for the cement to cure. It did.

For the next few weeks students will spend all of their class time learning what goes into building a structure from foundation to roof. It's an opportunity many architecture students never get. "It's invaluable," said Trionfo.

In due time what was once an idea in Jake Barrows' and Geoff Rybitski's head will provide shelter for hay and for audiences who come to the garden to her speakers or perhaps musical performances in the pastoral setting. The latter is the dream of William Eaton, Jake and Geoff's friend from NCC's Good Growers Club.

Like other members of the architectural design class, Barrows and Rybitski had been challenged to work as a team to design a structure that would show creativity, but that also would be functional, economical in cost and use of materials, and able to be built in the time allotted.

The class voted on the best designs. The professor did not get a vote. "That was scary," admitted Trionfo, but the class "put their trained eye on it," and reached consensus quickly. The designs they chose were the ones he would have picked.

The exposed skeleton draws attention to the natural materials that frame the open space. The opposing angles in the roof conjure up images of a giant butterfly alighting in the field.

"We wanted something that would give a personality to the East 40," Barrows explained. Aesthetics was not their only concern, however. He and Rybitski are proud of the fact that - consistent with the focus on making best use of resources in the garden - the hay storage space/amphitheatre is designed to use standard-size lumber. No cuts will be required other than angled cuts," said Rybitski. The result will be very little waste of materials.

Standing on the construction site near rows of carrots and cabbages, Barrows and Rybitski agreed, "We hope it will help bring more people to the garden to enjoy all of this."