AR Work 2016 Highly Commended: sites of hydroponic vegetable production double as sources of contemplation for office workers
Rows and rows of leafy greens are moving about in plastic troughs, dipping their roots into nutrient rich solutions. It takes only 55 days for a seed to complete its journey and become a fully grown vegetable, using only 10 per cent of water compared with crops grown in the fields. We are in the outskirts of León, Guanajuato, at the headquarters of Mexican agroindustrial Next Vegetales, where lettuces are grown on hydroponic beds.
Due to the very specific requirements of the greenhouse in terms of light, oxygen, temperature and humidity, their new offices had to be kept separate from the production environment, yet it was very important for Manuel Cervantes Céspedes, director and founder of CC Arquitectos, to connect the two spaces and provide the 20 office staff at their desks with views of germinating seeds moving through the hydroponic system’s floating platforms. Cervantes expresses the will to bestow the team with a ‘collective experience of working together with a shared sense of purpose’.
‘This entire desk area being almost exclusively made of glass partitions, everyone looks out to the rows of leafy lettuces’
The office chairs are only separated from the lettuce gullies by a thin layer of glass – extra coating had to be applied to guarantee absolute watertightness, and the greenhouse’s taller ceiling height enables natural light to still flood its interior. Managers and heads of teams have individual offices while the rest of the staff sit around a long table in the central space. This entire desk area being almost exclusively made of glass partitions, everyone looks out to the rows of leafy lettuces, while the greenhouse workers have direct views onto the directors’ computer screens.
On either side of the glass walls, company managers and greenhouse workers wear the same outfit: dark blue polo shirts and padded jackets become their daytime uniform, making it impossible to read the hierarchy between team members. What is being produced is right there before everyone’s eyes, for the everyday staff as well as for the clients coming to visit the office, making the process transparent and conveying an honest approach to business, all in a harmonious environment.
Next Vegetales Office Manuel Cervantes Cespedes 4
Source: Onnis Luque
Next Vegetales Office Manuel Cervantes Cespedes 6
Source: Onnis Luque
Next Vegetales’s new offices have been in use for two years, as has the adjacent greenhouse. The construction of these facilities coincided with the expansion and modernisation of its production, an ongoing process. Both administration and production tasks were previously housed in the older greenhouse on site. Although still adequate and in use for hydroponic culture and material storage, the offices had somehow been shoved into this same building – dark, damp, and too small. A change in ownership led to the commissioning of new offices.
The cutting-edge technology in the new greenhouse combines products from worldwide leaders in the field: the prefabricated greenhouse structure comes from French firm Richel Serre, the mobile gully system is a product of Belgian company Hortiplan and the climate control installations are made by Dutch Patron Agri Systems International. The temperature is kept at 26 deg C, the humidity rate at 80 per cent, and the interior air can be entirely renewed in less than three seconds.
Next Vegetales Office Manuel Cervantes Cespedes Plan
Most of the manual labour has been replaced by automated digital control systems, requiring fewer greenhouse workers. Next Vegetales, conscious of its key economic role in the area, is aware of the importance of these jobs for the local population. Keen to win the loyalty of its employees and build a cohesive team for the long run, they decided not to fire anyone. The company is expecting to double its output this year and grow again during the last phase of development, in 2018. In the meantime, the greenhouse workers are enjoying a more relaxed rhythm, and they still get to take home the external leaves of lettuces, removed before the packaging for being the oldest and blandest, so as to use them as fertiliser in their personal crops of corn.
The company’s ethics and values are reinforced in the office design. Crucial to both client and architect was the creation of an environment that would not feel corporate. Amid the meticulous control of the greenhouse’s environment, the industrial quantities of lettuce being churned out each day and the scalelessness of the surrounding farmland, it was crucial to create offices of a human scale and comfortable atmosphere.
A site devoid of constraints, Cervantes was confronted with vast open fields, crops all around, distant horizons. The client initially referenced the hacienda’s main house as the model of what he envisioned the project to resemble. The architect’s first challenge was the reinterpretation of this colonial structure into a contemporary form adapted to the project’s brief. Here, Cervantes keeps the void as core element of the architecture, but decides to create a porous structure, open to its surroundings. The gated checkpoint at the entrance of the property enabled him to draft a building plan with open circulation routes, allowing people to come in and out at various points, blurring interiors with exteriors.
Next Vegetales Office Manuel Cervantes Cespedes 1
Source: Onnis Luque
Next Vegetales Office Manuel Cervantes Cespedes 0
Source: Onnis Luque
The different programme elements are spread out over a relatively small surface area and distributed around a central courtyard, with a concrete slab covering the ensemble, bringing the units together under one roof and providing shade. The whole is inundated by daylight and naturally ventilated. Cervantes keeps the toilets away from the desks, the meeting rooms away from the reception, so that the layout of the different volumes encourages chance encounters among members of staff outside the actual office rooms. The team is relatively small (20) and the architect was insisting on creating a homelike environment.
If it is true what they say, that toilets are a reliable indicator of a good project, here each washroom unit is spacious and accommodates a large basin made with concrete and walnut, without gender distinction. These are the details that make people care about the spaces they inhabit, and trigger a more respectful use. Another example is the small kitchen area. Since there were already two canteens on site, one in each greenhouse, no such space was planned in the new offices; but the employees prefer not to walk across site in hot summer months, so they have provided for a fridge, sink and microwave in one of the building’s recesses. The lack of door encourages staff to clean up after themselves.
Generous proportions in the interiors go hand in hand with unconventional dimensions, so certain elements such as the large walnut doors are bespoke. Beyond the building’s shell, the architect also convinced the client to commission the furniture, designed with Habitación 116, rather than picking it out of a catalogue. In the large meeting room, the same walnut was used for the table and cupboards, sitting on a base of recycled wood. This not only provides a stronger sense of identity throughout, but is an important contribution to a more homely environment.
Next Vegetales Office Manuel Cervantes Cespedes Sketches
These small examples are telling of a larger trend in Cervantes’s work: simple answers to complex questions. Simplicity is what makes his projects powerful. His architecture very much belongs to the ground it is sitting on. Impartial, yet considered. The ingredients are already all there: site, light, local materials. A few lines are enough, the geometry is kept clean. As his sketches show, the design process is guided by the projection of users experiencing spaces and inhabiting the proposal, an approach that forces him to think always at the scale of the human body. Tectonic elements come together naturally, elegantly orchestrated to frame the landscape and connect people to their surroundings. No need for layering, no need for camouflage. Construction is transparent, the structures look as they are – Cervantes likes to hold cladding manufacturers responsible for a lot of the bad architecture in Mexico. His real strength lies in the controlled use of the fundamentals.
At the Next offices, this makes for a series of very versatile spaces. The meeting rooms come in different sizes and the large multipurpose room for training can be split into two for smaller workshops and sessions. The employees rely mostly on their laptops, making it easy to move around. Every room and patio, bench and corner, whether technically indoors or outdoors, can be used to work in, each with different views.
‘The vegetable garden is inevitably a source of production, but these insertions of landscape are true sources of contemplation’
Courtyards and pockets of domesticated gardens permeate the scheme. The will to blend interiors and exteriors led the architect to use the same flooring material, Santo Tomás marble, throughout – two different finishes are applied however, polished indoors and acid washed for non-grip surfaces outdoors. The landscape forms an integral part of the architecture – natural and built environment are not defined as such, but inevitably come together as one. Cervantes worked with his long-term landscape collaborators Tonatiuh Martínez and Hugo Sánches, from Entorno Taller de Paisaje. They are present from the very beginning of the projects, complementing CC Arquitectos’s ideas about space and ensuring the architecture comes about as the conscious extension of its location.
The vegetable garden is inevitably a source of production, but these insertions of landscape are true sources of contemplation. The tall walls of the small enclosed patios contrast with the distant horizon lines, affording ‘a point of rest for the gaze’. It was important to provide an alternative to the larger, wilder, open landscape around. The architect confesses he would have liked the patios to be boxes of rammed earth, inspired by Rick Joy’s designs in Arizona. But neither the budget nor the climate – it rains heavily in the summer months – allowed it.
One of these domesticated gardens was created by Jerónimo Hagerman, an artist that Cervantes regularly collaborates with. His installation consists of a series of rectangular benches and small water features, combined with cissus antarctica plants growing vertically along threads. These sit against a yellow painted wall, acting as a backdrop and inspired by the yellows of the ribbon-like tape strips used in the greenhouse as insect catchers. Employees are encouraged to use the gardens when requiring a bit more calm or simply wanting to smoke a cigarette.
Next Vegetales Office Manuel Cervantes Cespedes 1 1
Source: Onnis Luque
Currently, the back garden is a large open field planted with apple, avocado and guava trees. At first, it was going to be the car park, but cars were instead relocated further north, hidden behind earth mounds made from soil excavated during construction. There’s no spoiling the views.
On the edge of the site, the existing stone wall – there used to be a dam here – was retained to separate the car park from the new office complex. A long and narrow garden was planted alongside it, punctuated by food containers for the birds and giving employees a pleasant ‘phonecall walk’. The architect was keen to keep the trees on site, and several cutouts can be seen in the walls, letting trunks and branches grow freely.
The staff seem very pleased with the working environment and a family atmosphere is felt throughout. When asked what they would change, the only request was the addition of an asado, a traditional barbecue for lunches and gatherings in the back garden. The avocado trees should have their first crop of fruits in the new year, so that’s the deadline.
Next Vegetales hydroponic agriculture offices
Architect: Manuel Cervantes Céspedes
Structural engineer: Mauricio Pantoja, Fernando Calleja
Landscape: Entorno Taller de Paisaje
Photographs: Onnis Luque