The idea was elegant in its efficiency: take two 40-foot shipping containers destined for the scrap heap and convert them into outdoor classroom space for an urban charter school.
Once transformed, the containers would blossom as central features of a 1.2-acre organic farm carved from an overgrown field next to the Project School on 22nd Street in Indianapolis.
First, though, the battered gunmetal gray containers would need some clever design touches—not to mention a lot of work.
Enter the students of Arch 402, a design class for seniors taught by Timothy Gray, an architecture professor at Ball State.
To them went the challenge: come up with a plan for transforming the castoff containers into a welcoming space for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Then, go build it.
“These kinds of design-build experiences are invaluable for a number of different reasons,” Gray says one mid-April afternoon, his voice raised to pierce the whine of a nearby saw.
“One of the main ones is the collaborative process—you have to work with a number of partners in order to build something and get it done.
“You also have to manage a budget and a schedule. We have a budget of about $5,500, so we need to stay within that. And we have to get it done by the end of the semester, so there’s a deadline.”
Creating Classrooms From Chaos
Indeed, the whirl of activity around him at the project’s Heath Farm work site this day speaks to the time crunch. In front of him, a student is rubbing paint away from a metal door frame in preparation for welding; to his left, a group of students is assembling a cork board destined for a container wall; and somewhere out of sight, the rhythmic thud of hammers reverberates.
A peek inside one container reveals the usual chaos of construction: bits of wood littering the floor, window frames leaning against walls, tools piled atop tables.
But it also offers a glimpse of the outdoor classroom it would soon become: wood flooring underfoot, sturdy overhead shelving along the length of one bright yellow wall, a large wooden cubby unit set into the container’s far end. Tables and chairs, custom built by the students, are scattered throughout.
Brooke Longcore, ’12, an architecture major from Constantine, Michigan, says she and her classmates had to learn most of their construction skills on the fly.
“I had done a few things in woodshop before this. But cutting steel and stuff like that? No,” she says. “That was all new.”
So, too, was the experience of having to translate a design into a finished, physical product.
“I definitely feel like this will make me pay attention to detail a little bit more and make sure I’ve spelled out what I actually want so no one’s guessing on the other end,” Longcore says. “It will make me a better architect.”
Nearby, Meredith Nash takes a break from fashioning an aluminum frame for a corkboard to second that notion.
“In class, you want to make all these really cool design gestures, but then you get out here and say, ‘Oh, that’s going to be harder than I thought,’” says Nash, ’12, an architecture major from Kansas City, Missouri. “Now, we’re thinking, ‘OK. How can we make this look cool, but in a simple way?’”
And a sturdy way.
Part of Gray’s attention on this afternoon is focused on how to button up the containers for transportation to their permanent new home.
“We’re going to have the doors bolted shut, we’ll flip the tables and screw everything to the floor so nothing can move in there,” he says. “They’ll get jostled around pretty good on the way to the site.”
Making the Trip to Indy
Fast forward five days: the attention to detail pays off. Two large trucks rumble up the Heath Farm driveway, attach winches to the containers, and haul them aboard for their trip down I-69 to Indianapolis.
Once there, the process reverses, and the containers are eased onto their new sites next to the Project School, located in a 100-year-old building that once housed the National Motor Vehicle Company. Everything survived the trip, Gray says.
Almost immediately, then, a new phase of work begins. Over the next several days, the students labor to build a large wooden deck to connect the two containers; set up interiors; and prep their creation for a new life.
And a new identity: Urbarn.
“The architecture students came up with the name,” says Tarrey Banks, who founded the Project School in 2008 and now serves as its leader. “We were talking about how we wanted this to be a pretty literal nod to a traditional farm: the barn, the farm table, that whole concept—but with a modern twist.”
So, Urbarn it became. Now, Banks says, the containers will form the hub of an urban farm that will teach his 320 pupils about agriculture and provide lettuce, tomatoes, and other food for the school cafeteria, students’ families, and the neighborhood.
“The kids will be using it full time, and we hope to be doing things with the community in there, as well,” Banks said. “Urban gardening classes, sustainability classes, doing workshops. The idea is that this will be the gathering space for anybody who comes to the farm. This is just the start.”
All in all, not a bad fate for a couple of battered old shipping containers: an ongoing lesson in the value of hands-on learning, sustainable design, and urban agriculture.
Not to mention a pretty cool place to hang out.