The Ecology Center: Cultivating Community

November 1, 2021

Cadiz XPLR , Summer 2021  |  Feature Project
The Ecology Center, San Juan Capistrano, CA,
by John Hill, Robinson Architecture, Inc.

One of the most rewarding aspects of our field and focus is creating meaningful work that has a positive effect on our environment and community. Reflecting on past projects, The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano is truly a gift that keeps on giving. As Consulting Architect, we contributed to escorting the project from entitlement review through to completed built structures. RHA is gratified to have assisted in not only the design and permitting of the individual buildings, but also the coordination of the Entitlement approvals and utility infrastructure for this unique educational center for environmental awareness and sustainable living.

Rich With History

The 28 acre farm site is anchored by the 140 year old Congdon House, the first wooden structure ever raised in San Juan Capistrano. Over the decades, the house was inhabited by various farming families and purchased and renovated by the city in 1990. But the story of The Ecology Center itself begins with Executive Director Evan Marks. As a world traveler, organic farmer, and ecological design consultant, Marks was eventually called back home to help educate and evolve his local Orange County community.

When Marks saw the Congdon House and neighboring organic farm in 2008, he realized the potential of the under-utilized site. His vision for creating a privately operated, multi-focused organic varietal farm and community center let to his leasing the land from the city and developing a robust cultural attraction that continues to evolve.

With Mark’s vision in mind, it was RHA’s pleasure to use our knowledge of Entitlements and Site Due Diligence to contribute instrumental insight during the early development and repositioning of the site. By understanding the “why” behind the effort and the goals in mind, we are better equipped to help increase the property’s potential in the most cost effective way. Whether assessing existing buildings or vacant property, our Due Diligence Services helped to offer a nuanced understanding of existing assets and potential liabilities.

The non-profit organization has beautifully realized and expanded their vision with a site including a farm stand, gardens, kitchens, studios, and dynamic exhibits, with the Congdon House serving as offices for the center’s operations. The Center combines organic farming with fresh farm-to-table culinary training; educating the local community on how modern-day farming can be restored to its original concept of local supply for local consumption. This concept embraces cultural access, use, and education, as well as entertainment and social accommodations.

From Field To Table

The Ecology Center is able to produce a robust seasonal variety of certified organic vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. One of the ways they achieve this is by growing multiple complimentary crops and utilizing crop rotation methods across growing seasons. Much of the harvest can be purchased daily at their onsite Farm Stand, in addition to artisan bread, tortillas, bulk pantry items, house care products, organic seedlings, and tools for kids to practice gardening. The open air structure of the stand was intended to allow for air flow and natural light to enter, augmented by the addition of ceiling fans to help cool the produce and lighting to enable varying hours of operation.

They center also has a Farm Share program, with subscriptions available for weekly boxes full of fruits, vegetables, and herbs from their own farm and their farm partners. Pantry items are even available directly from their website. Their renowned Chef’s Kitchen offers curated experiential dining experiences from resident chefs that help illuminate the bioregion’s particular history and agriculture and the “farm to table” philosophy.

Working And Growing

When it comes to educating, The Ecology Center carefully curates experiences to help shift our culture towards creative and enjoyable solutions to help heal and improve our planet’s ecology. Onsite cooking classes help instruct participants in using local, organic foods in innovative ways. And by teaching children about farming through workshops, co-ops and field trips, they encourage the next generation to live healthier and more sustainable lives. With mentorship as their central tenet, their apprenticeships for vocational training serve to continue their mission in the community and at large. Fostering connections is important to the center, building a stronger, more mindful community and expanding the organization’s reach. Through facilities, gardens, and exhibits built with experiential design, hands-on learning cultivates more meaningful and longlasting understanding of the world around us. RHA helped to create facilities and structures that are mindful of the environment and accommodating to the large amount of visitors the center sees each year.

Giving Back

With their Nourishing Neighbors program launched during the pandemic, the center and its monthly sponsors began providing boxes of produce and pantry items to families with food insecurity. While they already were committed to donating 20% of Farm Share produce boxes locally, this initiative responded to changing needs by including more food variety in the boxes to be distributed through community organizations. By creating volunteer opportunities they provide ways for locals to help support the staff, their mission, and their substantial programming efforts. Fundraising events like their annual Green Feast help to gather people together to explore the center’s newest developments and enjoy a unique culinary experience with entertainment, an auction, and keynote speakers. It was important for RHA in the planning of the site to help ensure adequate space and services for larger scale events like these.

Keeping It Interesting

There is never a dull moment with the center, with their full calendar of events and programs ranging from farmers market pop-ups in various neighborhood location to free films where the public can enjoy a picnic while learning about sustainable food culture. Staff-led Community Farm Tours are a great introduction to the center and its practices and are open to the public at no cost. The Eco-Literacy Book Club meets every other month to discuss ecological books in a collaborative learning atmosphere. In all that they offer, The Ecology Center has a clear focus on nourishing families, preserving resources, and respecting the land we live on and creating lasting changes in our attitudes towards it.

Designing Connections

As architects, it’s about more for us at RHA than simply creating structures and buildings. Having the opportunity to work on projects like The Ecology Center illuminates that fact by allowing us to help design and witness tangible human experiences. In this case, these experiences lead to community building and profound connections that contribute to our collective well-being and help create a more positive future.


Project Team:
Architect: Andrew Seiger,
AIA Consulting Architect: Robinson Hill Architecture, Inc.
Landscape Architecture: Chris Brown
Civil Engineer: Pasco Laret Suiter and Associates