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Fabric protects agricultural assets

January 1st, 2012 / By: / Case Studies, Feature

Duane Thorbeck proposes fabric barns as a sustainable choice.

Today’s commercial animal agriculture industry consists primarily of metal-skinned post-frame structures. Often referred to as pole barns, these facilities dot the country’s rural landscape, housing hundreds or thousands of farm animals and producing products used throughout our daily lives.

And while many of these structures are adequate for standard animal farming operations, environmental, safety and animal welfare concerns increasingly impact the agricultural industry as a whole.

That’s where the vision of architect Duane “Dewey” Thorbeck, FAIA, FAAR, founder and director at the Center for Rural Design (CRD) at the University of Minnesota, comes in.

Thorbeck has embraced sustainability in architectural design of future commercial farming facilities. His proposed design—a fabric-covered dairy barn—uses inexpensive and environmentally friendly basalt continuous filament fabric as the roof and wall material in a series of adjacent and connected animal spaces.

“Fabric is a material that has not been used for large-scale dairy facilities and I wanted to illustrate its potential to optimize productivity, reduce energy consumption, maintain cost competitiveness over building life and be environmentally friendly,” Thorbeck says. “It can be price competitive—providing a durable enclosure while allowing sunlight to illuminate the interior environment for cows and people.”

Farm-based fabric architecture can also be easily modified to meet technological advancements and changing code requirements in commercial farming practices. And while there have been some standard pre-engineered fabric structures that have been used for small dairy facilities, none has been used for any large-scale commercial dairy operations. Thorbeck’s barn design is intended to house a large population—approximately 2,500 dairy cows.

As the director of the CRD, Thorbeck has worked on research projects with the Minnesota Milk Producers Association to develop sustainable guidelines for commercial dairy facilities. “These guidelines suggest that architectural form should follow function, climate and place,” Thorbeck says. “This design concept illustrates a commercial dairy facility that is more sustainable and architecturally integrated with the regional landscape. The curving and rolling roof makes a visual connection to the geological landscape of Midwestern dairy regions, and organized with a series of adjacent and connected animal spaces.”

The barn functions with a single rotary milking parlor for 50 cows that operates continuously. Manure is processed through an anaerobic digester to create methane gas to generate electricity for farm operations, solid waste is separated in the process to create bedding, while liquid waste is spread on fields as fertilizer.

“The animal agriculture industry needs sustainable guidelines that will improve the character of the rural landscape,” Thorbeck says. “These guidelines should also provide more socially acceptable animal housing, improve working conditions and workers’ health and increase biosecurity to enhance food safety and food security.” Thorbeck’s architectural advanced fabric dairy barn may do just that.

Maura Keller writes frequently about fabric structures and industrial applications of specialty fabrics.

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