Verdant City


Verdant City


Elizabeth Yarina
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Andrew Scott
Massachusetts Institute of Technology



This simple, elegant proposal for an ecological designed trailer park creates micro-climates in the form of a greenhouse. It leverages the existing and embodied energy in the trailers – a good example of how sustainable design doesn’t need to be complicated. It also exhibits a strong social component as it addresses the food cycle in addition to social equity (not explicitly part of the competition challenge, but highly commendable). There is a nice ad hoc quality to the part-greenhouse, part-trailer scheme. This site is a place where there is a bifurcation of migrant farm workers and artist colony, and the design addresses this social disparity and creates an oasis in the middle of town.


Marfa is a split community, housing wealthy artists and art tourists on one hand, and low-income hispanic migrants and border patrol agents on the other. The small town suffers from a lack of industry beyond tourism, and a lack of affordable housing stock. (Vacant homes and lots are quickly snatched up as vacation properties, driving home prices in this small desert town to the level of high-density urban dwellings). In response to these issues, this project proposes a new model of collective housing that combines the productive logic of the greenhouse with a shared climate controlled structure that allows the space of the vernacular mobile home to be expanded with plants as the medium of spacemaking.

For visiting interns, the adult children of local residents, and those performing low-wage service labor this will allow for an affordable, flexible and expandable strategy for living and working in Marfa. As a model development made out of low-cost prefabricated materials, the logic of this project can be expanded to adjacent vacant lots to accommodate the 75+ households in Marfa currently residing in trailers and RVs.

Measure 1: Design & Innovation

This project explores how the low-cost, lightweight structure of a greenhouse can be used to improve living conditions and create a new industry for Marfa’s lowest-income residents. Home values in Marfa have skyrocketed with its recent identity as a world-class arts destination, and this has priced many locals and service workers out of the market. Relegated to trailer homes and RVs on the outskirts of the city, these units have terrible thermal performance in the desert heat. This project reconciles the vernacular of the mobile home as integrated with a greenhouse structure in order to modulate environment and create new potentials for income with the addition of a simple, expandable, and re-useable model.

Measure 2: Regional/Community Design

Marfa is a low-density desert town of 2,000 people. The project integrates many contextual aspects, including the rethinking of the mobile home, providing each unit with semi-private yards and porches, and using low-water, local plantings as for-sale produce and space making devices. The project also expands living areas by rethinking social housing as a collective system, where shared programs such as kitchen, dining, living, bathing, and sleeping are defined by the greenhouse’s planting in order to expand upon the small living space of the trailer units. At the site’s more urban southern edge, erosion of the planting beds opens up to the street and welcomes passerby, accommodating a temporal farmers market, cafe, and food trucks.

Measure 3: Land Use & Site Ecology

This project uses low-water, native food and decorative plants as a way to insert a secondary economy into this residential project, providing an alternative industry to servicing art tourism. By producing local food, it decreases food transport costs while re-introducing such local plantings as jerusalem artichokes and prickly pear while also contribute to local wildlife habitats. The project carefully considers the bright and arid desert environment, using hanging plants as a shading device while they collect solar energy and convert it into food. The greenhouse structure is thoroughly ventilated by operable louvers which accommodate the site’s east-west wind patterns. The orientation of the building itself is also site-specific, orienting the sawtooth roof true south at an ideal angle for solar penetration. When rain does occur in Marfa, it is in bursts, which are collected by gutters for rainwater collection and stored for plant watering.

Measure 4: Bioclimatic Design

As discussed in the prior section, and illustrated in the formal development axon, the massing and orientation of the building are designated relative to concerns of ventilation, solar penetration, and rainwater collection. In the model of a domed city, the greenhouse skin efficiently regulates the environment for human and plant residents alike. Marfa experiences more heating than cooling days, so high solar gains benefit the Verdant City’s residents. In addition to passive ventilation and plant-based shading strategies, the trailer homes can also move in or out of the greenhouse structure through massive garage doors in accordance with the inhabitants thermal preferences. Exterior spaces are also shaded from the harsh desert sun with edible plantings as shading devices.

Measure 5: Light & Air

The project’s steel framing is clad in a translucent and lightweight plastic skin, giving all inhabitants views of the stunning desert sky and providing daylighting throughout the day for the entire structure. All units view either the outdoors or the interior plantings, providing a verdant ambiance. Ventilation and fresh air is provided simply and inexpensively via operable openings on the skin of the structure as well as large fans. Within the smaller trailer unit, residents can tweak the already regulated environment via electric heating or cooling, or by relocating their trailer from indoors to outdoors.

Measure 6: Water Cycle

Marfa gets about 15” of stormwater per year through intermittent downpours. Rainwater is collected via gutters along the bottom ridge of bay in the design. Greywater from showers and laundry is similarly collected and stored within the planting bay structure. This water is stored in tanks to be used for watering plants, and does not require filtration for this form of reuse. Water is conserved through low-water and drought tolerant plantings, particularly outside the greenhouse where the evaporation rate is higher.

Measure 7: Energy Flows & Energy Future

As a low-cost housing model, this project seeks to maximize passive strategies such as solar heating, daylighting and natural ventilation. The project also integrates transparent PVs (commonly used in greenhouses in Europe) over plants which do not require constant full sun, which helps to alleviate some of the existing energy costs such as domestic lighting and electricity, and occasional heating and cooling.

Measure 8: Materials & Construction

The main considerations for material selection were greenhouse performance, ease of construction and deconstruction, and affordability. Verdant City’s simple rigid steel frame and translucent plastic cladding make it simple to assemble in this semi-rural environment, and also make it easy to prefabricate, expand, relocate, or disassemble for reuse. The repurposed trailers used for housing on the interior provide similar flexibility. Beyond these practical concerns, the building system provides an airy, light-filled environment that expands on the limited living space and environmental controls of Marfa’s vernacular mobile homes.

Measure 9: Long Life, Loose Fit

Flexibility is key to the design of Verdant City, in accordance with the project’s goal of accommodating the needs of Marfa’s low-income residents, and is manifested at multiple levels. The project is designed for an optimal density of 6 units, but can accommodate up to 18 by removing planting beds, or as few as 0 by adding beds. Thus, the project seeks a balance of food production versus housing as these needs vary over time. The structure itself, as designed, is a lightweight and prefabricated construction that can also expand, contract, or relocate over time.

Verdant City is sited in a vacant lot at Marfa’s Northern perimeter, and adjacent vacant lots near the city’s edge provide additional room for accommodating an expanded greenhouse structure, with more trailer housing units and more planting beds. If all of these adjacent lots were filled with this system, all of the mobile home residents of Marfa could become a part of this new productive system.

Measure 10: Collective Wisdom & Feedback Loops

This project evolved with the needs of Marfa’s local residents in mind, particularly following a site visit to the town. Through speaking to residents of Marfa, I learned that the brief didn’t tell the whole story- that Marfa didn’t need more accommodating for art tourists, but rather for locals who could no longer afford to buy a home. With these interests in mind, I would be concerned with learning how successful it is at providing a low-cost housing alternative and industry alternative through greenhouse production. In the future, I hope to carry through concepts of learning from local collaboration, exploring architecture as a social and economic device, and re-thinking the brief with a social perspective.