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July 2020

Community kitchen plan wins iconic design award

A student’s plan to turn a former armoury into a home for an innovative community food and ecology project has won one of the UK’s premier awards

A single mother who returned to university 12 years after quitting her studies to have a family has won one of the UK’s top design awards. Almas Meghani won the Legal & General-sponsored Cultivating Community prize in the prestigious Royal Society of Arts Student Design Awards for reimagining how a former armoury building on Northampton racecourse could be used to bring the community together.

Almas, whose children are 9, 11 and 18-months, was forced to spend nights working on her submission until 3am when lockdown left her without childcare. But her concept for a community kitchen and ecology centre that borrows some of its design elements from butterfly wings, earned her a top prize in a competition that has also been won by some of the UK’s most celebrated designers. They include Sir Jony Ive, Apple’s former Chief Design Officer, Kate Dundas, Director of City Strategy for the City of Melbourne, and Richard Clarke, former Head of Innovation at Nike.

Almas Meghani, winner of
the Cultivating Community award

She says: “The RSA awards are something that I have dreamt of. I’m a single mum with three kids and my baby is only 18-months, so it has been quite a challenge going back to university. My career has been put on hold for so many years, so to achieve this within such a short time of re-entering university, it has just been so incredible. I just didn’t think I could do something like this. Lockdown happened when I was preparing for my interview presentation for the award, so I had no childcare. I was literally working until three or four in the morning while the kids were sleeping. But I was determined because I want to do what’s best for me and my children.”

Reimagining spaces

The Cultivating Community award asked students to reimagine common spaces to build diverse communities through food. Other winners included Megana Mikuciauskaite and collaborators Atlana Puntigam, Alec Strobel and Bryan Branco from University of the Arts London, for their Co-Food Initiative that aims to help prison inmates rebuild relationships through cooking and gardening. And Sarah Boot from the University of Plymouth was also among the winners for her Unmissable Food Organisation, consisting of a fleet of food trailers to tackle ‘holiday hunger’ among children.

Almas’s Transform concept sets out to tackle issues including a lack of access to nutritious food, intergenerational bonding, loneliness and isolation. Local organisations including Northampton Borough Council acted as her ‘clients’ as she developed her vision of a rejuvenated armoury building that includes a kitchen with food-related initiatives for different income levels. Almas envisages community activities like The Big Lunch that would see deprived families enjoy healthy meals. Her design includes an allotment where the community could come together to enjoy gardening, with some of the produce used in the kitchen. As well as healthy food and the opportunity to socialise, her design also features a sensory garden to improve wellbeing.

The former armoury building at Northampton racecourse would be transformed by Almas's plan
The Transform café with its wooden
beams mimicking a butterfly cocoon

Almas drew on techniques that she has learnt in her Interior Architecture and Spatial Design course, such as biophilic design, which involved incorporating nature into the plans. Her designs provide opportunities for people spend time in the garden and get their hands dirty, which can be good for mental health. She also drew inspiration from the local butterflies, with wooden beams over the café mimicking a cocoon and the lightweight canopy mimicking a butterfly’s wings.

Johnny Grey, one of the judges and one of Britain’s foremost kitchen designers, says: “I wrote the brief with experts at the RSA and each year we try to pick a topic that is contemporary. This year we decided that loneliness was a big issue because of a recent report which said that loneliness is worse for you than smoking 50 cigarettes a day. Almas seemed to have a real grip on things that people could do together. She engaged effectively with the community in a way that other students didn’t.”

Flying saucers

Another winner, Plymouth University 3D Design graduate Sarah Boot, designed a ‘flying saucer’ to help tackle food poverty among UK children. Her free food and education trailer tackles issues around ‘holiday hunger’, which affects 500,000 UK children and led footballer Marcus Rashford to call for government action to help them earlier this year.

Her Unmissable Food Organisation (UFO) consists of a circular trailer with a central grill, and workspaces and sinks around the edge so that children can learn about food and cook themselves a free meal. She hopes that cooking events for children would be a focal point for communities to come together.

A scale model of the Unmissable Food Organisation trailer

Sarah undertook the project as part of her coursework and the university introduced her to Jabo Butera, CEO of Plymouth’s Diversity Business Incubator who acted as her ‘client’. Jabo, a Plymouth businessman with a strong sense of social purpose, is behind plans for a new food court in the city that will offer dishes from a variety of cultures as well as providing food education for children and free food for the homeless and those facing real hardship.

Sarah explains: “The idea is that these trailers would offer free meals and the children would get to cook those meals, so they would be learning recipes and taking those recipes back to their families. The trailers would also be parked in outdoor spaces to get people outside and doing activities together. That would be the charitable side but there would also be a business side. Local food businesses would maintain the trailers and in return would be able to use them for their businesses when they were not needed to feed local children.”

Sarah Boot's design, featuring a central grill, sinks and tables for children

Sarah carried out a lot of research before beginning her design and one of the key themes that she discovered was that families were often embarrassed to talk about their difficulties providing food and that some were being forced to choose between food and electricity. By using the UFOs to make free food a community event she hopes to remove the stigma and embarrassment of poverty.

The wining ideas remain simply designs but judge Johnny Grey urged the winners to go back to their clients to see if funding can be found to make them a reality. Following her success Almas hopes to enter the Tata Varsity Pitch competition, which includes an online ‘people’s vote’ and offers the chance to win £15,000 towards launching her own business.

Legal & General’s sponsorship of the Cultivating Community award reflects our commitment to improve and invest in UK cities. Our Future Cities strategy focuses not only on our investment in infrastructure, clean energy and the innovative small business that our towns and cities need to thrive but also on building a sense of community and an inclusive society that values everybody.

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