Green Cheese

Project Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Factory, Prince Edward County, Ontario

Architect Lapointe Architects

Text Leslie Jen

Photos Ben Rahn unless otherwise noted

In recent years, Ontario’s Prince Edward County has become the undisputed destination of choice for urbanites fed up with the frantic pace of city life. Fertile soil and the obvious appeal of the idyllic pastoral landscape has made it a foodie paradise and one of the province’s fastest-growing agritourism regions. Wineries, fine restaurants, and bed-and-breakfasts have sprouted across the county like mushrooms after a heavy rain.

And as so many others have done, Petra Cooper decided to switch streams and abandon a busy executive career in Toronto, seeking the autonomy and satisfaction derived from being a small-business owner. Cooper and her husband Shawn acquired property in Prince Edward County, and in 2003, commissioned Francis Lapointe to design not only a house on that land for themselves and their young daughter, but also an artisanal cheese factory. The business was eventually named Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Company, referencing the historic name of that particular region of the county, as it was the fifth town to be settled in the newly formed Upper Canada.

An easy two-hour drive from Toronto, the factory lies on a 20-acre site on the southeastern shores of the county, overlooking a small creek and pond. Orthogonal volumes are rendered in a Modernist vocabulary of corrugated steel, concrete block and wood, and contain zones dedicated to production and delivery, aging, retail and administration, and other ancillary functions. Interior finishes are simple and complementary: rough concrete-block walls contrast pleasingly with the exposed timber roof and courtyard pergola, while the production area possesses a suitably austere hygienically driven ambiance of crisp white walls and stainless steel. Designed for future expansion, the structure integrates well with its agrarian landscape, part of a strategy that emphasizes a harmonious relationship with the environment in both the traditional cheesemaking process and in the building itself.

Following the model of a winery, the facility and grounds are open to the public not only for retail sales and tasting, but for educational purposes as well. The beauty of Fifth Town is that it effectively educates the public on how artisanal cheese is made, but equally, it teaches people about sustainable architecture and what it entails. The factory is thus a didactic building, and tours given by Lapointe himself are popular, drawing 12 tour groups of about 30 people each at Fifth Town’s opening weekend in the summer of 2008.

Making cheese is highly meticulous business, and demands strict standards. As such, an unrelentingly linear production process is conventionally employed to avoid the contamination of pasteurized milk by raw milk. But to fulfill the educational mandate of ensuring that all aspects of cheesemaking are visible to the public, significant alterations to the traditionally linear process (and thus plan) were made by “folding over” many stages in the production process into one contained area, separated from the retail/tasting room only by a large, transparent triple-glazed wall. Consequently, the manufacturing process enjoys a high degree of visibility by the public at all times while eliminating the risk of contamination by a non-hygienically attired public. And to assuage the fears of skeptical governmental authorities concerned that such a bold departure would result in health and safety standards being compromised, Lapointe created an extremely detailed colour-coded “people-and-product-flow diagram” to graphically illustrate that no cross-contamination would occur and that the strictest standards of food safety would be maintained.

A critical part of the cheesemaking process is the aging of the precious wheels in a climate-and humidity-controlled environment. The sight of the carefully stacked pungent rounds in the two underground aging caves is perhaps one of the most compelling sights at Fifth Town. Recognizing the importance of communicating this stage of the production process to visitors, Lapointe designed a window looking into one of the caves, accessible through a tunnel leading from the exterior of the building. Using only fresh, locally produced goat and sheep milk, the factory currently makes 12 different cheeses, and the aging period ranges from 24 hours to 90 days for the hardest cheeses.

Lapointe eagerly accepted Cooper’s challenge of designing a fully sustainable building in keeping with her ethos of making eco-friendly cheese from locally produced milk–from which their term “wholly green cheese” arises. Since cheese production is a rather energy-intensive enterprise, Lapointe spent countless hours researching the ways in which sustainable materials and technologies could be employed to reduce both energy use and operating costs, and to safely treat waste on site.

Perhaps the most significant element is the extensive geothermal network in which big black slinky coils are laid five feet underground in a massive geothermal field. Ground-source geothermal heat pumps both heat and cool the structure; radiant in-floor heating and cooling is redistributed around the building according to demand. Producing cheese requires a great deal of refrigeration, and the geothermal system successfully mitigates the amount of energy consumed in this regard. One fine example is seen in the aging caves which are “buried underground” in a hill to guarantee consistent temperature and humidity levels, which, along with cooling obtained from the chilled water running through the pipes via the geothermal heat pump, elimin- ates the need for expensive and energy-intensive refrigeration equipment.

Cooper’s adherence to the concepts of reduce, reuse and recycle meant that Lapointe had to find further means of incorporating sustainable elements into the building. One such element was the employment of Durisol as the principal construction material for both load-bearing and non-load-bearing walls above and below grade. Durisol is essentially a type of concrete block, a stay-in-place wall-forming system manufactured from post-industrial waste wood chips mixed with cement slurry. Though the cost of using Durisol is more expensive than traditional wood-frame or concrete-block construction, its benefits are obvious. The blocks are hydroscopic and are resistant to mold and mildew, a critical factor in the humid environment of a cheese factory. They are lightweight and porous with a high R value, and when filled with a 50% slag concrete mixture, become an excellent durable and energy-efficient wall system.

Further renewable energy measures include the collection of rainwater, which is stored in an underground cistern to be used for low-flow and dual-flush toilets. An on-site wind turbine and photovoltaic panels produce 10% of the building’s electrical needs; Bullfrog Power, a producer of “green” power, supplies the rest. Consequently, Fifth Town has reduced its annual CO2 emissions by an estimated 29 tons. In fact, the building uses 67% less energy than a similarly sized facility, saving nearly $10,000 per year in energy costs.

One critical element in the cheesemaking process is what to do with the liquid waste whey byproduct. After a significant amount of research into sustainable solutions to this very issue, Lapointe developed a constructed wetland into which excess whey, sanitary waste and production wash water are disposed. Biochemically, each waste stream’s nutrients work to break down the other to form a neutral end product that is not harmful to the environment. The waste products are thus effectively treated directly on site, and save Cooper nearly $5,000 per year in disposal fees.

In fulfilling the project’s educational mandate, one additional feature will offer valuable informa
tion to visitors and staff alike. Currently, interactive digital screens are being programmed and installed in the facility to provide information about the cheesemaking process and about the environmental features of the building itself. As such, constant updates on Fifth Town’s functions and energy consumption/production will be available in real time, sourced from 120 separate controls located at different points throughout the factory.

The project has earned a sufficient number of points to achieve LEED Gold status, but both client and architect are currently awaiting word on whether or not it meets the standard for LEED Platinum certification. There is a good chance that it will. Certainly, the highest possible standards of sustainability have been applied to the Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Factory, and these efforts have been rewarded with positive reception from the public as well as the design and construction industry. In the past few months, the building has received three awards: the Wood-WORKS! Green Building Wood Design Award, the Design Exchange Staff Choice Award, and the Ontario Concrete Architectural Merit Award.

This is not to say that the product is overshadowed by the building. In fact, four of Fifth Town’s cheeses won awards at the recent Royal Agricultural Winter Fair Cheese Competition in Toronto–three first-prize ribbons and one Grand Champion title. The facility has established partnerships with regional wineries and restaurants, and welcome approximately 1,000 visitors per week. Clearly, the enterprise is wildly successful and sales are strong, to the point that Fifth Town can’t supply all the regional restaurants that desire their product. The present focus is on their own retail operation and on supplying an array of cheeses to specialty gourmet shops in Toronto and surrounding area.

Luckily, the building was designed with expansion in mind, and the generous site permits the extension of the factory in all directions to include more production areas, aging caves and retail space. Currently, more retail space is the most pressing issue because of the high demand for not only cheese but accessory gourmet items that are also sold in the shop, such as cookbooks and cutting boards. Cooper’s ambitions include the eventual provision of cheesemaking courses, and even extend so far as to incorporating larger spaces in the facility for weddings, banquets and other functions.

Ultimately, this project represents a labour of love, a partnership between client and architect predicated on a shared vision, commitment and dedication to the ideals of environmental and social responsibility, the promotion of traditional artisanal methods and regional practices, and the enlightenment of the public. The fruits of their labours are unequivocally satisfying. ca


1 Lobby

2 Sales

3 Courtyard

4 Public washroom

5 Stair

6 Gallery

7 Laundry

8 Production

9 Aging Cave 1

10 Aging Cave 2

11 Drying cave

12 Cave viewing

13 Wrap room

14 Walk-in refrigerator

15 Dry storage

16 Shipping & receiving

17 Janitor

18 Utility

19 Bulk milk storage

20 Tank trailer wash bay

21 Concrete parking pad

22 Refuse enclosure


Client Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co.

Architect Team Francis Lapointe, Paul Dolick, Kathy Kurtz, Michael Del Puerto

Structural Blackwell Bowick Partnership Ltd.

Mechanical/Electrical Enermodal Engineering

Landscape Roger Todhunter Associates

Interiors Lapointe Architects

Constructed Wetland Aqua Treatment Technologies Inc.

Contractor K. Knudsen Construction Ltd.

Ground Floor Area 430 m2

Budget $2 m

comPletion JuLy 2008