Montana State University

Towne's Harvest wash house displays fruits of collaboration

July 19, 2012 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

A dozen MSU graduate architecture students designed and built a produce wash station at the popular Towne's's Harvest Garden in an unusual collaboration between two sectors on campus that don't often interact. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
This summer hundreds of people will eat produce raised at Montana State University's Towne's Harvest Garden, and the vegetables will taste fresh and delicious. Not many will know that the produce represents the fruits of collaboration.

That's because the vegetables grown at the popular MSU sustainable farm are washed in a 180-square-foot building that was built with the cooperation of many sectors of the MSU campus. The project involved students from the School of Architecture who designed and built it and students now using the house at the farm as they work for the MSU College of Agriculture and College of Education, Health and Human Development's sustainable food and bioenergy systems program.

"I think (the wash house) is really beautiful, but for me what was really beautiful was what happened when two worlds came together," said Erin Chamberlin, a recent MSU architecture graduate who worked on the design-build project.

The seeds for the idea of the wash house were actually planted more than a year ago when famed architect Coleman Coker and MSU architecture professor Christopher Livingston co-taught a studio to graduate architecture students. Coker, award-winning architect, founder of Buildingstudio and former partner with the late Sam Mockbee, commuted to Bozeman from Texas several times during the fall semester of 2010 to work with the students.

Livingston said that when the studio was looking for a design-build project that Coker could work on with MSU students, they interviewed farm users on potential projects, according to David Baumbauer, manager of the 10-acre MSU horticulture farm west of campus that includes the three-acre Towne's Harvest Garden, to see if the farm had any structural needs. The students suggested that it would be handy to have a wash house in the field. Previously, vegetables were transported for washing after harvest, resulting in a loss of water and soil from the garden.

Chip Hammer, a recent MSU architecture graduate from Billings, recalled that from the beginning, the design problem was an exercise in compromise. Each student came up with a concept and drawings. Then, Coker combined the students into groups, where ideas were melded together until there was just one collaborative common design.

"It was not easy, but it definitely was good experience," Hammer said of the design process.

The building was built nearly entirely from recycled materials. The lumber was harvested from the trees cut down to make way for the new chemistry research building on campus. The flooring was built from old tables that came from the MSU Plant Growth Center and the polycarbonate siding came from MSU greenhouse siding damaged in hail storms.

Hammer said that Bill Clinton, adjunct assistant professor who teaches woodworking to MSU architecture students, helped the students build the wash house in the Cheever Hall woodshop.

Chamberlin, who is now working as an architectural intern for the Denver-based sports architecture firm of Sink Combs Dethlefs, said as difficult as was the design-build of the house, it was nothing compared to the students moving the prefabricated structure from Cheever Hall to the Towne's Harvest Garden in time for their final review.

During finals week, the students worked on site to complete installation of the polycarbonate siding and put on the finishing touches. But the day before their final critique, a savage blizzard made for challenging conditions as strong winds and blowing snow slowed construction to a crawl, blew over the over the weighty equipment and tossed around polycarbonate sheets like playing cards. The students thought there was no way they could finish the project in time for their review, but worked through most of the night to complete the project.

"I'm happy to say it was finished by the time we got out to the farm to see the project (the next day) ...snow still caked to the side of the building from the horizontal winds the night before," said Chamberlin, who is currently working on a project for the U.S. Olympic Training Center. She added that while the project was a challenge "... it was 'top three' on my greatest experiences in the architecture department at MSU."

The building is now in its second season of use at the farm. Ben Shepard, a senior from Livingston and a sustainable food bioenergy major who works on the Towne's Harvest Farm, said the tool storage at the wash house is invaluable and "it works great, especially for root washing."

"There's an infinite number of things that we do monthly in the field, and that building is a handy starting point," he said.

Nic Acker, a senior sustainable food bioenergy energy major from Chicago, said the design is attractive, but the best thing about the wash house is the collaboration and problem solving that occurred between two areas of campus that don't usually interact.

Livingston said the wash house was an invaluable lesson in problem-solving for his students, maybe because of the challenges.

"We saw this as a good opportunity for our students to receive real hands-on experience, while giving another group of students an opportunity for a better farming experience," Livingston said. "It's good when it works both ways."

Christopher Livingston (406) 994-6985,