by Jerry ElengicalFeb 25, 2022
An ambitious venture combining architecture, technology, engineering, and urban horticulture, 'Agrotopia' in the city of Roeselare, Belgium, is said to be Europe’s largest public building devoted to food production, designed and implemented by Rotterdam-based van Bergen Kolpa Architects in association with META architectuurbureau from Antwerp. In realising the 9,500 sqm research facility and greenhouse for clients REO Veiling (a leader in fresh fruit and produce within the region) and Flemish horticultural research institute Inagro, the two firms were aided by the expertise of engineering consultants Tractebel as well as greenhouse construction specialist Smiemans Projecten. Perched atop the headquarters of REO Veiling in Roeselare - which also acts as an agricultural auction market, the intervention takes the form of a massive greenhouse with an aluminium, steel, and glass exterior that merges seamlessly with the concrete base of the industrial building beneath.
Serving as one of the logistical headquarters for access to produce - particularly with its role as the site for REO auctions, the monolithic concrete architecture of REO Veiling’s headquarters is a resolute and solid plinth for the multifaceted research and cultivation facility that crowns it. In fact, the glimmering layered steel and glass envelope of the new structure is a stark contrast to the heaviness of the datum it rests upon, which borders one of Roeselare’s ring roads on its western face. Although, the strong geometrical design sensibility and industrial character of both structures does mitigate this dichotomy of heaviness and lightness to some extent. The prominent point of view afforded by the building's position along Roeselare’s skyline grants stunning unhindered views of the surrounding landscape. Moreover, the instantly striking façade design - featuring the structure’s name embossed along the roofline, gives urban horticulture a dramatic face and presence within its context.
Niklaas Deboutte, Founder, Partner, and Managing Director of META Architectuurbureau shares in an official release, "Agrotopia is a test case: building a greenhouse atop an existing building has never been done before on this scale and it presented many opportunities and challenges. The integration of the steel greenhouse with the concrete substructure of the industrial building and complex installations has resulted in a true public building of exceptional architectural quality for the city of Roeselare."
In essence, the new superstructure consists of a standard greenhouse fitted with diffuse glass, extending onto the two cantilevered sections of the original building at the front and rear. "With Agrotopia we have differentiated and perfected the standard Venlo greenhouse," notes Jeroen Smiemans of Smiemans Projects in a press statement. Towards the front face, the glass structure forms expressive vertical bay windows that can regulate illumination requirements with the aid of targeted sunscreens. Alternatively, the greenhouse expands to a double-height volume on the building’s rear face, with horizontally-oriented trusses enveloping the structure’s face to form jagged rhythmic profiles along the edifice which assist in maintaining adequate levels of diffused sunlight inside. The double-height volume of this section of the greenhouse was devised in order to allow for vertical cultivation - a method that is gradually gaining prominence in cities seeking to make intensive use of residual space left over from the sprawl of urban development.
From the entrance, as one steps beneath the ceiling framed by an abundance of steel trusses, a sense of monumentality pervades the interior design. A broad, ascending staircase along the building’s front face leads into an urban horticulture square at the heart of the complex which contains visitor facilities. Mia Demeulemeester, Chief Executive Officer of Inagro, mentions in a press statement, “With Agrotopia, we have created a unique location for practical research and the development of innovative techniques for greenhouse and urban agriculture. At the same time, this is the ideal place in which to conduct large-scale and professional research into the emerging field of urban horticulture. Thanks to the proximity of REO Veiling, where the growers convene, we can strengthen the link between research and practice. We also want to use a visitor corridor in the greenhouse to give the general public a better understanding of greenhouse horticulture and contemporary agriculture and horticulture."
"Together with the clients, Inagro and REO Veiling, we have realised an ambitious building with numerous innovations. A single building featuring different climate zones, sustainable and economical use of space, research into leafy vegetables and fruit vegetables in the city, opening the rooftop to a public function, circular use of space and energy, to name but a few," relays Jago van Bergen of van Bergen Kolpa Architects. In realising the horticultural program within the structure, the architects enlisted the assistance of Wageningen University & Research, BU Greenhouse Horticulture, experts in the realm of greenhouse horticulture. Hence, inside its complex structural design, the new greenhouse structure accommodates cutting-edge facilities for research into the cultivation of fruits and vegetables, along with an educational trail for the general public that runs through the layout in tandem with the primary functional spaces.
One particularly notable feature of the cultivation program within the complex is its use of four unique climate zones that permit the growth of produce with varying conditional needs. From tomatoes and lettuce, to bell peppers and strawberries, Agrotopia’s configuration is entrenched in creating a diverse crop yield. However, this was no easy feat to implement at scale in reality. As per the architects, a major concern throughout the design process lay in reconciling the demand for warm and humid conditions replicating the native ecosystems of plants cultivated in the greenhouses, with the standards of thermal comfort that visitors would require. In their view, Agrotopia was not solely a place for plants to flourish - it also had to provide for all the needs of those coming to learn and work on the premises.
Frederik Ghyssaert of Tractebel engineering reveals in an official statement that this was achieved through "box-in-box spaces that were created for research and education with a climate adapted to people. For public spaces, fogging was used to temper the wind chill on hot days." Starting with the visitor corridor around the building’s periphery, the design employs buffers and heating methods to regulate internal conditions, including pipe heating and LED lighting mechanisms, in addition to a raised concrete floor that contains supply lines for irrigation, wastewater, and CO2.
Besides these zones, the structure has also been fitted with state-of-the-art rainwater harvesting mechanisms and innovative water recuperation systems - the latter is said to reuse urban waste heat for this purpose. Circular design and efficient resource management were of prime importance throughout the building’s conceptualisation. According to the architects, almost no water is wasted throughout the structure’s functioning, with run-off from irrigation recycled and reused. The new structure also reuses surplus heat from the nearby Mirom waste incinerator to warm the greenhouse when necessary - another mark of the architects’ commitment to sustainable design.
Existing in symbiosis with the remainder of the city, Agrotopia responds to the challenge of maximising efficient space usage in cities uniting the worlds of sustainable architecture and cultivation into a singular monument to urban agriculture that forms a sustainable, glittering crown for a landmark point of convergence within Roeselare.
Location: Oostnieuwkerksesteenweg, Roeselare, Belgium
Client: Inagro, REO Veiling
Area: 9500 sqm
Architecture: van Bergen Kolpa Architects - META architecture office
Construction and Installations: Tractebel
Horticulture techniques: Wageningen University & Research, BU Greenhouse Horticulture
Greenhouse construction: Smiemans Projecten