Situated on a former equestrian facility in New Canaan, Connecticut, Grace Farms is a publicly available space that was established with the idea that “space communicates” and can inspire people to collaborate for good.
To realize this vision, Grace Farms Foundation set out to create a porous, multipurpose building that would encourage people to engage with its five initiatives – nature, arts, justice, community, and faith – and serve as a permanent home for the non-denominational Grace Community Church.
These initiatives were guiding principles for the property’s development and remain central to the Foundation’s work.
In its architectural brief, the Foundation asked for a “venue of cultural interest” that would be in harmony with nature and serve as a generative platform for advancing its philanthropic mission.
The architectural firm was selected in early 2010 and following an extensive iterative process, the River building emerged as the physical embodiment of the Foundation’s aspirational goals and utilitarian needs.
Beginning on a knoll, the River meanders downhill (a change in grade of 43 feet – 9 inches) in a series of switchbacks and has a single anodized-aluminum roof with customized rain screen and Douglas fir underside.
Under the sinuous roof are five glass-enclosed volumes that include: an amphitheater-style Sanctuary; a Library; a Commons dining room with tables made from wood felled onsite; a tea Pavilion; and a partially submerged, recreational Court.
The curvilinear canopies connecting each volume serve as covered walkways and create outdoor gathering spaces for all to enjoy.
The building’s enclosures are made of continuous sheets of glass, created from 203 individually curved panels, which the architects implemented to curate panoramic viewsheds while simultaneously creating a sense of community through visibly transparent activity.
The design, therefore, called for a specially engineered, ultra-clear glazing system that took over two years to develop.
Utilizing self-supporting insulated glass units, the system is designed without mullions to be as thin as possible and to withstand the region’s extreme fluctuations in temperature.
The result is an expansive 360°-degree view of the landscape from within each of the River’s five volumes.
The structure itself is a ribbon of roof over steel columns measuring 5 to 6 ⅝ inches in diameter inside and outside the volumes.
Column-less internal spaces, particularly the larger Sanctuary and Court, test the limits of engineering by utilizing ring beams and support posts between outer walls.
At its maximum, the River is 150 feet wide and varies in height from 10 to 15 feet. Due to the land’s elevation changes, the River is 700 feet long from top to bottom, but measures 1,400 feet in length altogether.
The total built area at Grace Farms covers 83,000 square feet. Committed to sustainability, the Foundation constructed 55 500-foot deep geothermal wells to heat and cool the property; reused trees felled on site to make furniture; and diverted 90.2% of its construction waste from landfill. LEED credits are also being sought for water conservation; high-efficiency mechanical, electrical, and lighting systems; and air quality control. In addition to the River, the Foundation repurposed an existing barn onsite to create two parallel buildings that house offices and classrooms for the Foundation’s 50 not-for-profit partners.
Approximately 77 of Grace Farms’ 80 acres were also retained in perpetuity as open meadows, woods, wetlands, and ponds, and seventy percent of mowed areas have been returned to natural meadows.
With a symbiotic relationship between architecture and nature, Grace Farms has subsequently emerged as both a restorative place and an active community that enables people to address the core issues facing society today.