INDIANAPOLIS Frost has given way to a hard freeze on a small patch of farmland, temporarily dormant, in the heart of Marion County. The ground makes the most of a somewhat unenviable, albeit fertile, floodplain and hosts the Center for Urban Ecology (CUE) farm, a 1-acre sustainable agricultural project.

Brandon Sorge of IUPUI and Sean Berthrong of Butler University get a tour of the mobile greenhouse from Timothy Gray.

Brandon Sorge of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (from left) and Sean Berthrong of Butler University get a tour of the mobile greenhouse from Gray. (Photo by Lisa Renze-Rhodes)

Built to promote urban farming, boost research and educate the community about local food production, the CUE farm has been in operation since 2010. And while outreach efforts via restaurants, grocers and private buyers have been strong, farm manager Tim Dorsey said he and the rest of the CUE team were eager to find ways to further leverage the foothold they’re making.

Not an easy thing to do on a small parcel of land with a limited growing season. So when a former colleague suggested an on-site greenhouse would let the group foster plant starts sooner and more often throughout the seasons, Dorsey was intrigued. A greenhouse would obviously help boost production, but state and federal laws prohibit construction of a permanent structure in a floodplain.

So Dorsey turned to Timothy Gray, professor of architecture at Ball State’s College of Architecture and Planning. Sustainable and green design have long been a part of Gray’s professional practice, and he’s traveled as far away as Sri Lanka, where he helped find suitable reconstruction options for locals affected by a tsunami.

Previous portable project

With a $50,000 grant from Butler University, the owner and operator of CUE Farm, Gray and a group of 17 students began working on a mobile greenhouse. They looked first to what architecture students had already done.

“This CUE project was actually the fifth in a series of projects supporting urban farming,” he said. “We started to test this idea of mobility when we built a shipping container classroom.”

That project was for a charter school-run farm near where East 23rd Street intersects with the Monon Trail, in  Indianapolis’ Hillside and Oakhill neighborhoods.

A classroom housed in a shipping container and built by Ball State students, called “the urbarn,” is shown.

The “urbaRn,” a classroom housed in a shipping container, is a structure created by previous Ball State students. Like the mobile greenhouse, it’s on the urban farm on Butler’s campus. (Photo by Lisa Renze-Rhodes)

“Containers are easy to move when the farms move and can be (building) permitted, yet called a temporary structure. Urban farming operations tend to be subject to relocation, as cities grow and change.”

The container classroom, dubbed the “urbaRn,” was no exception, having moved when the charter school that ran the farm closed. The classroom now sits on the CUE Farm site, on the Butler University campus. The project underscored for Gray and his students the importance of adaptation and mobility.

“We’re interested in creating facilities that are ‘new architectural,’ ” he said. “It came to be very liberating — testing the idea of mobility.

Liberating, and challenging.

Duke Bennett, ’16,  with Indianapolis architectural firm arcDESIGN, said that after spending the fall 2015 semester designing the mobile greenhouse, he and some of the other students had a few concerns about making the structure actually work.

“But as we got further into the second semester, it all started to come together. That’s really the invaluable part — being engaged and immersed in the project, and then it’s surreal to see it in use. It’s unbelievable.”

College of Architecture and Planning students are seen building the mobile greenhouse.

College of Architecture and Planning students spent a semester building the mobile greenhouse. (Photo submitted by Timothy Gray)

Some of the challenge came from the requirements Dorsey had for what would be that finished product. Mobility was key for the structure overall, but the interior shelving needed to provide flexibility for plant types, ventilation needed to be responsive to the seasons, and the whole thing needed to work with water and dirt.

Innovative solutions to a client’s needs

“I was definitely blown away when I started to see how it developed. I was amazed at how detailed they made it,” Dorsey said, adding that one plan adjustment the students created came after builders and the client met to discuss the progress, about halfway through the project.

Dorsey needed an entry/exit that would be easy to use when his hands were full of plants or tools. So rather than the staircase that had been planned, students built a drop-down ramp that’s strong enough to withstand heavy wheeled carts being pushed up and down.

“That was just one of the creative ways they responded to my wishy-washiness relative to functionality,” he said. “When they were about 95 percent done, and I was introduced to the near-final product, I was just so impressed that this was undergraduate students who had built this. Their responsiveness to the adjusting demands and requirements was amazing.”

Photo shows a 1-acre urban farm in the foreground and a mobile greenhouse behind it.

The mobile greenhouse anchors the 1-acre urban farm. The facility gives farm managers more flexibility by extending crops’ growing season. (Photo by Lisa Renze-Rhodes)

While Dorsey may have categorized his needs as demanding, the students said the experience was exhilarating.

“There’s no experience I can think of in my college career that was like this,” said Sean Costello, ’16, who now works with architecture firm Fanning Howey in Indianapolis. “We did the complete drawing, and the trailer was the only thing that the students didn’t build. So we designed and basically built this thing — it feels awesome.”

He credited Gray and other professors for creating opportunities for their students.

“This is what Ball State architecture is. The professors set us up not just for a concept but for an actual product. You can’t ignore how it will affect real people, and that’s real life. The building has to work; it can’t just be a concept.

“It was always the first thing we talked about in our classes — how we’re going to affect a community. But to actually be a part of that, and see how you’ve impacted lives for the better, well … that hasn’t really sunk in yet.”