MMAS’ pro bono start and commitment enabled St James’ Community Farm in Belfast to grow into a flourishing cross-sectarian neighbourhood asset
There are two extraordinary, unexpected consequences of MMAS’ project St James’ Community Farm in Belfast. The first is that even though its long-awaited transformational new building only completed in 2021, an 11m-long wall mural has already been painted of it – surely one of the clearest pieces of evidence that it has become a feature of life in that part of the city. Cows, hens, pigs and sheep are shown in front of the new, red timber mono-pitched building, which is pretty accurately represented.
The other surprise is that even though the farm sits well within the red brick streets and terraced houses of West Belfast, on a piece of land leftover from the construction of the M1 motorway, the scheme has become something of a bridge. The M1 severed Donegall Road and the area in two – nationalists to the west, unionists to the south. The farm has become a positive, cross-community interface between them, especially valuable as the traditional divides of the city are, explains MMAS director Fearghal Murray, ‘really stubborn in coming down, and aren’t coming down at the expected rate’. For the first time the farm has a full-time volunteer from the other side of Donegall Road too.
Both outcomes have happened naturally. They weren’t planned, yet add to the way the farm and its new building have benefited the immediate St James’ community – for a phenomenally small £210,000 budget, as this year’s MacEwen Award judges found. The site has become a public space, as well as a local green space, and a focal point for the neighbourhood. It is open most days and hosts events for all ages. Turn up and you’ll find there are always kids and teenagers in St James’ Community Farm hoodies mucking in, cultivating plants, repairing fences and feeding the many types of animals that include a llama, two peacocks, a donkey, rabbits and ducks. Most are donated. ‘A cohort of people tends to it,’ says Murray. ‘It is remarkable in an inner-city neighbourhood like St James’. It is one of the most deprived wards in Belfast.'
The project demonstrates a practice going above and beyond a brief, seeking out opportunity for the betterment of the community. The farm started in 2015 as a takeover of 978m² of redundant land by three local men who commandeered it for themselves and local children, and still run it now.
MMAS met them with a selection of their animals in 2016 in the courtyard of the practice’s office building in the city centre. The farm had just acquired funding from Belfast City Council to buy and adapt three shipping containers to use as animal keeps and indoor warm space. At the time, Murray and co-director Garreth McMahon were still only a couple of years into practice and in the zone of small residential extensions. They were on the lookout for more public-minded, community work.
There are always kids and teenagers in St James’ Community Farm hoodies mucking in
As two country lads, they questioned the appropriateness of shipping containers and their value for money once insulated, clad and converted. Initially, they offered their services pro bono to prepare a concept, plan and strategy document that client St James’ Forum could take to gain interest from additional funders. That raised enough to appoint the practice, and the planning application was submitted by the end of the year.
In the design of the building, the motorway is again an intrinsic presence. MMAS wanted to create a degree of protection from its noise and pollution. The building is therefore a single, mono-pitched roof that slopes down towards the M1, forming the perimeter around the original boundary of the site (Ulster Wildlife has since given the farm some land behind that is being used for animal pens). On the other side, the roof soars upwards, opening as a generous colonnade facing the residential streets, hills and sunsets. Although Murray describes it as a ‘simple, humble building’, the gesture of the colonnade with its V-shaped columns particularly impressed this year’s judges. ‘I really like that moment of overhang,’ said last year’s winner Alex Scott-Whitby, ‘with the diagonal, Y-shaped structure forming the space outside.’ The colonnade presents as a cloister next to the lawn and garden, and helps elevate the building to more than just an agricultural shed, which was always MMAS’ ambition.
Nevertheless, the beauty of the building is that it is also just a portal frame – albeit somewhat bespoke, made by steel fabricators nearby. MMAS has implemented a balance of refinement versus cost in the way the beams of the overhang taper to the edge, in the joint detail of the frame with the diagonal columns, and the way the internal bracing picks up on the colonnade feature. Internally, the galvanised steel structure is deliberately combined with a timber secondary structure to soften the design, bring in natural elements and give clarity to its expression. Purlins double as shelves.
In plan, the project culminates in one long building with a multi-functional indoor warm space at one end and animal stalls at the other, built with fair-faced breeze blocks for flexibility. In between is a covered open yard for events. A sliding screen entrance towards the motorway forms a gateway that welcomes passersby and commuters from a path connecting the nature reserve Bog Meadows to the south with the city centre. Originally there had been a third component for a men’s shed club. This was lost because the site was once part of a match factory, and decontaminating the ground ate up a significant portion of the budget.
As well as the animals there are herb and vegetable gardens and cherry trees
All these parameters, as well as the transfer of the land to the council which took a couple of years, meant progress was inevitably slow. The project was due to go on site when the pandemic hit and got delayed to November 2020. ‘We came to be seen as the responsible party for making stuff happen – particularly as when we met the group they had something ready on a plate,’ says Murray.
However, the farm is now in full swing. This is the only urban farm in inner Belfast. There are a couple on the outskirts that are more commercial, but what the volunteers and design team have created at St James’ is unique. As well as animals there are herb and vegetable gardens and cherry trees, and the community is growing into the space and its new-found interests. The building itself has enabled the organisation and instigated meaningful change. What could be more deserving of a MacEwen Award highly commended?
Total gia 153m²
Contract cost £210,000
Cost per m² £1387
Client Belfast City Council and St James’ Forum
Structural engineer Design ID
Services engineer Stephen Clarke Consulting
Quantity surveyor Project QS
Main contractor Earney Contracts