Ferme du Rail – Grand Huit

In the foreground Ferme du Rail’s permaculture garden, and at the back its restaurant and greenhouse building
– All photos Myr Muratet/Grand Huit unless otherwise stated

Le passage à niveau restaurant, Ferme du Rail – Photo Le passage à niveau

Paris’ Railway Farm of Zero 

In a downtown district of the French capital a remarkable social, ecological and materials experiment, Grand Huit’s Ferme du Rail marries permacultural urban farming principles with timber and straw construction to create an integrated healthy and healing environment in the heart of the city.

Among France’s new wave of bio-based straw and timber projects in recent years, one of the most compelling can be found on a small stretch of land to the north-east of central Paris. Opened in 2019, Ferme du Rail, or the Railway Farm, received glowing write ups across the French architectural media, even if outside the country the project is not so well known. This year the radical social, ecological and natural building materials urban farm project was also a finalist in this year’s EUMies Awards. Grand Huit, a woman’s co-operative studio, were picked as part of the first round of Paris mayor, Anne Hildago’s Réinventer Paris (Reinventing Paris) design competition for their urban farm concept. At first blush, Ferme du Rail, sitting next to an old, disused raised rail route, might come across as a hip eco venue next to a morphed Parisian High Line.

Whether that’s the case or not, it is really so much else.

If, physically and materially, Ferme du Rail resembles other timber and bio-based projects, it doesn’t take long to realise that the construction and design sensibility is part of a broader organic whole-systems design approach that integrates the circular, while encompassing and twining together the social, economic and agricultural.

It’s also underwritten by a poetic yet practical idealism in how the ideas it draws on connect to create a unifying whole. Intensely social in its aims, the €3.5 million project is organised around the urban market garden, with a small patch of cultivated land fronting two supporting buildings. Somewhat hidden, for those visiting for the first time, Ferme du Rail, after walking through a small underpass, is nothing if not a surprise. There, all of a sudden, right in front of you is an inner-city productive market garden. Beyond the garden is the first four-storey timber block – housing for the garden’s urban farmers – with the façade decked out in vertical chestnut poles. To its left are further stepped terraces, sitting between this and the second of the buildings. Beginning with ground floor garage and garden maintenance machinery storage, the second building serves several functions. A path leads up the left-hand side of the garden to the second-floor, where the Le passage à niveau restaurant sits above the storage space, all open glazed windows, balcony deck and outdoor tables. It’s here the Ferme du Rail name becomes apparent. Adjacent to the restaurant is the raised, northern section of an old Parisian Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture, or ‘Little Railway,’ which circled the city, and the reason for the underpass. Long closed, the track has been turned into the French capital’s very own High Line. Cyclists and walkers can make their way around a sizeable stretch of the city at comfortable pedestrian and pedal-powered paces, while down below the craziness of the French streets continues.

Above the restaurant is a second floor, a wedge-shaped roof garden, covered yet visible through transparent glazing. Here, another tranche of plants is grown and cultivated by the urban farmers. Access is either with a lift on the block’s righthand edge, or via an external staircase. The roof garden grows further produce, which, once ripe and ready, is used by the restaurant below. It would be a greenhouse in the sky, but all around much taller buildings reach for the heavens.

When I visited the Ferme du Rail in February 2022, turning the corner and coming upon the farm felt inspirational, though actually is only a part of a more involved story. What soon became apparent during a lunch at the restaurant with Clara Simay, one of Grand Huit’s founding members, was the extent to which Rue de Ferme’s activist social sphere animated the architect and was so thoroughly woven into project. The studio, an all-women co-operative, was founded in 2014 by Simay and Julia Turpin (soon joined by Marine Kerboua early in its existence) – though the pair go way back to childhood friendship. Ferme du Rail began life as a social project, applying participatory, community co-design, and Grand Huit describe their specific approach as ‘polyculture and integration’. While hardly new news, that participatory co-design has become popular across a tranche of the architectural world, the team here were doing so with one of the most voiceless of communities: the homeless, those living on the local streets in and around the immediate 19th arrondissement neighbourhood, close to the Canal d’Lourcq, north-east of central Paris. Though hardly deprived compared to the capital’s suburban banlieue’s, its arty, bohemian population live side by side with pockets of much poorer communities, including a disproportionate number of immigrants. At the restaurant, those eating lunch looked well fed and well clothed, and the immediate impression was of a restaurant as popular eating post for locals. All the way through, Simay noted, using co-design processes, the neighbourhood had been directly involved. But yes, she acknowledged, there were some groups within the local community who didn’t use the restaurant, adding they were trying to find ways to draw the wider local population into the farm’s daily life. “The people who live here are included, eating in the evening, and are part of the restaurant’s social events.”

There have been many other professionals involved. These include the landscape architect Mélanie Drevet, a close colleague of the architects; the social employment enterprise Travail & Vie; Atoll 75, a social work agency; and the housing association Bail pour Tous. Tasked with creating jobs and supporting inclusion, the social agency partners introduced and supported the homeless people involved, both before and once they had eventually moved into the hostel housing block. Paris Municipality was also closely involved, particularly regarding the site, as were three academic departments: the Ecole du Breuil, a horticulture, gardening and landscape college; the École des Ingénieurs de la Ville de Paris (EIVP), the capital’s engineering centre; and the National School of Architecture.

The project came together over three years of intensive co-design sessions. There are fifteen flats for the ex-homeless residents and a further five for students, primarily from the horticultural college. Simay emphasises just how much the workshop sessions integrated the vulnerable, homeless members of the team, running workshops where furniture maquettes, for example, were co-created together. All twenty of the blocks’ bathrooms also feature found, and apparently individual, tiles. Four pods of furniture were sourced from Paris fashion week, as well as other reused materials. Living accommodation is compact yet light. The timber building fits the urban farm context well, with Simay underlining during our meeting how the design draws natural light into the block. Doors include windows, and the large, shared balconies provide additional gardening space, even if this didn’t appear to have been taken up the February day I visited.

Once involved, those moving in are inducted into gardening, urban agriculture and using equipment. Horticulture is only one element, even if the therapeutic benefits of gardens and gardening on mind and body are increasingly recognised. There is also maintaining the farm equipment and a small fleet of bicycles, used to collect food waste from around thirty neighbourhood restaurants, as well as from many individual locals. Once back at the farm, the waste is mixed into the compost. For the more vulnerable ex-homeless members of Ferme du Rail, gradual long-term reintegration is the objective, supported by Atoll 75, an agency helping vulnerable groups navigate the challenges of finding ways back into permanent work.

Sitting in the busy Le Passage à Tier restaurant, Simay acknowledges that it is a certain slice of the neighbourhood who’d come to eat and use the restaurant, while other communities and pockets of people across the district had been harder, if not impossible, to reach. All through there has been community involvement, from direct active involvement to school and kindergarten visits. Drawing in those uninvolved was only one challenge, identifiable and unresolved in the time since the urban farm opened in 2019. Each step, according to Simay, faced big problems. These kicked in soon after the project won funding in the first, 2016, round of the city council’s competition.

One technical challenge emerged early into the engineering: the discovery that the housing block would need to stabilise its immediate neighbouring building. The forces were such that Simay and Grand Huit decided that the basement required a concrete slab, as well as lining the walls in the fibre. Together, these provided the stability necessary for the neighbouring structure. As it was, a combination of proximity to the Ceinture Petit rail line and city regulations had saved the site from mainstream development, but not from serious pollution. Formerly a lorry park, the highly degraded, toxin-soaked soil was too polluted for market garden plants. Simoy and the team levelled the surface, isolating the ground toxins underneath, over which substrates of compost were laid, mixed with healthier imported soil for the cultivated garden beds.

Smaller people’s community visit

Before and after – the dry-stone wall under construction (photo LP/J.D) and, right, once finished – Photo Jean-Claude Figenwald

Rendering of the straw and timber detailing

With all the grown produce going to the restaurant, the choice of vegetables grown are everyday types, including beans, lettuces, carrots, radishes, cabbage and onions. These are complemented by fruit bushes and various herbs, poking out of the pathway’s embankment, and edged by a gently rising dry-stone wall, built from reused stone from nearby pavements and city cemeteries. On the other far side of the garden, the terraces between the two blocks are planted with further stock market garden produce: shallots, beets, celery and peppers. The farming principles are primarily permacultural, integrating agroforestry, aquaponics and sack culture, over a total 1700 m2 of cultivated land. Given the presence of city pollution, the farm doesn’t claim the food is completely organic, though no chemical additives are used. A small number of apple trees have been planted, and a filtration basin has been installed for storing rainwater runoff from the two buildings, until needed for the garden. Sitting high above, yet fully integrated into, the garden is the first-floor greenhouse, while a mushroom cave and the compost sediment area are housed close to the entrance tunnel. Together, the produce contributes about a third of ingredients needed for the restaurant.

While nature is inherently and seasonally circular, the human-produced material palette seeks to be as radical, both ecologically, and in reflecting Ferme du Rail’s social intent. Following through on the farm’s circular sustainability wasn’t easy. The studio, for instance, had wanted to use skinned chestnut round poles but couldn’t find anyone who grew or supplied the chestnut. “There was nobody to do the chestnut cutting and preparation.” But then they found a small-scale artisanal and traditional chestnut set up, Chataing Bois, near to Rennes in eastern Brittany and run by forest woodsman, Hubert Brossault, who provided the stripped chestnut. “He was amazing, the chestnut woodsman we met.”

More conventional engineered timber, including structural glulam for the frame, was sourced from France’s heavily forested Vosgos eastern edge. Locally sourced straw is used as insulation, as are ecological plasters and circular waste materials, including recycled clothing, sourced from the Paris Emmaus charity’s network. But then there is the concrete slab, unavoidably required to ensure stability, and a concrete core used to hold the lift shaft. In the main though, the two buildings hue close to the radical bio-based agenda the architects set out with.

The result is that in Ferme du Rail, Grand Huit, have realised a project which is greater than the sum of its parts, a point not lost on the French architectural media. The urban farm has received oodles of French media attention and was one of this year’s six finalists for the EUMies Award, the EU’s foremost architectural prize. There’s a strong feelgood factor to the project’s story, surely part of its appeal. Having the project on the list didn’t do the award’s sustainability credentials any harm, though whether the judging committee were thinking about promoting post-carbon straw architecture remains moot.

Photo – Clara Simay/Grand Huit

Photo Grand Huit

Up until Ferme du Rail, Grand Huit were primarily involved in, what Simay calls, “more modest actions.” Almost all of these were nursery schools, kindergartens and related children’s buildings and infrastructure, around twenty in all – the exception being La Maison des Canaux, renewing a sizeable nineteenth century ‘Canal House’ through their circular reuse and bio-based approach. Working with parent’s associations, Grand Huit applied their co-design principles to these projects – exercises in collaborative imagining – while also embracing the shift towards bio- and land-based sustainability taking off across France in the last decade. Simay points to how they sought to ensure that they worked at the right scales for small children and integrated alternative pedagogies, which she and Turpin are interested in, Simay mentioning Montessori education. “Some of these were speculative.”

All through, the studio had been working with bio-based materials, not least straw for insulation and exposed wood for interiors. They have also worked with doctors and medical researchers, fusing this research with personal experience regarding health issues and building materials. In part, she says, these relate to childhood issues reflecting inadequate health resources in the region the architect is from, eastern France.

While their workload wasn’t exactly repetitive, Simay felt that before Ferme du Rail, the studio “needed to do something else.” That something, or at least part of it, included renovation, though also led to stepping into the larger competitive ring of Réinventer Paris. Whether they realised what could flow from their Reinventing Paris application or not, is herstory. It’s happened. Though small, the new wave which Grand Huit exemplify and which the Ferme du Rail embodies, provides a window into a far more radical application of timber and natural materials in the built environment than the forest industry is used to, and possibly is currently able to envisage. Shortly before we leave the restaurant, I invite Simay that she come and talk about the Railway Farm for a natural materials series of talks I’d been organising. “Well, with the Mies Award, I need to improve my English,” she responds, smiling. It is difficult not to imagine that the invitations to tell their inspiring urban farm story aren’t arriving thick and fast. It is a multifaceted model, and crucially, one with compassion and care threaded through its heart in these dark days. Intelligent, individual, and organic, it is a whole system building story that needs telling. And to be acted upon – again and again.

The external entrance of Grand Huit’s La Maison des Canaux circular makeover – Photo Grand Huit

Petite Enfance interior