At first, the images of Thammasat University Rooftop Farm seem like renderings, but they are in fact real. Designed by Landprocess, which is led by landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA, the 1.7-acre rooftop farm in Bangkok, Thailand, is not only mesmerizing but also a model of sustainable multi-use infrastructure.
This kind of infrastructure is exactly what we need in an urbanizing world dealing with climate change, flooding, pollution, and a lack of access to high-quality fresh produce.
The most successful forms of this infrastructure use an integrated design approach in which architects, landscape architects, and engineers cross disciplinary boundaries and unite to create better projects for people and the environment.
According to Voraakhom, the initial design for the new campus building was just a building. But she convinced the architecture and engineering teams to collaborate with her on a new concept. Given a large park was being developed in front of the building, why not just continue up over the building and link the rooftop green space with the park on the ground? “In the end, the design team and the clients all agreed this option will have a bigger impact,” she said.
For Voraakhom, the $31 million project shows what is possible through an integrated design approach — and also what landscape architects can bring to the table. In an email, she explained her thinking:
“My profession, landscape architecture, should not be left as the last amenity to be added while finishing up a project. Landscape architecture should not take up the last of the budget for some minor greening. Instead, landscape architecture should be the source of the initial concept and be the voice for, and restorer of, a healthy urban environment. If architects and engineers work more collaboratively with landscape architects, I’m certain we can strengthen our climate-focused architecture in significant ways. At the beginning of any project, we need to bring everyone on board, at par, to openly discuss and brainstorm, especially across disciplines, without fear of judgment or domination. With that, I’d like to express my gratitude and officially thank the architects and engineers with whom we worked with on this project for allowing us to be a major part of the overall concept.”
Integrated design enabled the entire design and engineering team to layer in solutions to multiple problems.
The first big challenge was managing the vast amount of rainwater that lands on Bangkok, creating frequent and destructive floods. Inspired by traditional terraced farming found in mountainous regions across Southeast Asia, the rooftop farm uses an intricate structure and gravity to cascade rainwater down each level.
Landprocess explains: “As rainwater zigzags down the slopes, each level harvests runoff from the previous cell, forming unique clusters of micro-watersheds along the terrace to help absorb, filter, and purify rainwater while growing food for the campus.”
The structure slows down water 20 times more efficiently than a conventional roof, and any run-off is captured in four retention ponds at the feet of the building, which can hold up to 3,095,570 gallons of water.
To address the problem of the lack of local access to healthy organic foods, the design team created a productive rooftop landscape. To soak up all that free water, Voraakhom’s firm introduced nearly 50 kinds of edible species, including rice, indigenous vegetables and herbs, and fruit trees.
There are Jamaican Cherry, White Cheesewood, Camphor, Red Sandalwood, and Ceylon Oak trees, intermixed with azaleas, lemongrass, holy basil, amaranth, rice, and okra. Rows of dill, Thai eggplant, red and green oak-leaf lettuce, green roselle grow amid the source of Thai food’s heat: bird’s eye chili peppers.
After one season’s harvest, the team discovered the roof can grow 20 tons of organic food annually, enough for 80,000 meals in the campus canteen. Food scraps are composted and returned to the roof farm, creating a sustainable food cycle.
Another issue the project addresses: urban Thai are increasingly divorced from their agricultural heritage. The rooftop farm helps reconnect students and community members to their history and educates them about sustainable, organic growing practices.
A century ago, King Rama V created the Rangsit rice plantations and a vast network of canals on the site of the rooftop farm. King Rama’s goal was to make Thailand a major jasmine rice producer. Paved over as Bangkok expanded, the rice fields were lost, but through this project, rice production has returned in a contemporary form.
Through volunteering, 40,000 students and nearby residents learn about this cultural landscape and their heritage. They can volunteer on the roof and learn how to plant and harvest. They have access to workshops on agriculture, nutrition, and permaculture, which are embedded into the university’s sustainability curricula.
The rooftop landscape also helps solve the problem of fossil fuel use to generate power. Photovoltaic panels installed at the top of the roof generates 500,000 watts of electricity per hour.
This energy powers water pumps that pull water up from the retaining ponds to irrigate the crops during the dry season. The renewable energy is complemented by passive strategies that reduce energy use overall. The green roof further insulates the building, reducing its cooling energy needs. And air that passes over the retaining ponds is cooled before it reaches the building, creating natural air conditioning.
All of these layers of solutions are united in the building’s H-shaped form, which represents the university’s long-standing commitment to egalitarianism and democracy.
Landprocess explains: “Divided into four equally-accessible sections, each chamber represents a core element of democracy—people, liberty, equality, and fraternity.”
To realize that spirit of egalitarianism, there are 12 social spaces set within the farming terraces that function as outdoor classrooms.
At the very top, there is a large amphitheater space that offers 360-degree panoramic views.
And back on the ground, at the entrance, there is another accessible, terraced amphitheater for events, with life-sized sculptures of the two founders of the university.
To learn more about Voraakhom, watch a recent short film produced by Mercedes-Benz:
Is the Thammasat University Rooftop Farm wheelchair accessible top to bottom? From photos in the article the ‘ramps’ next to the stairs look steep and narrow and don’t seem to have handrails or other ways to prevent falls over the outside edge. I hope I’m wrong.