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Community Gathering Place

New co-op combines eclectic urban architecture while celebrating area’s rich agricultural history

City Market1
Photo: Ryan Bent Photography,

Based in Burlington, Vt., City Market, Onion River Co-op is one of the country’s largest and most successful community-owned food cooperatives. After having experienced explosive growth over the last 10 years, including long lines and difficult parking at its downtown location, the co-op decided to seek out a site for a second store.

Built on a 4.6-acre industrial brownfield site, the new 32,800-square-foot City Market South End is located in the city’s thriving South End Arts District. The area is known for an eclectic mix of new-economy creative enterprises, old-school industrial uses and vibrant residential neighborhoods.

Designed by Burlington-based architectural firm Freeman French Freeman, Jesse Beck, AIA, NCARB, president, says a key component of the proposal was a concept of a visually exciting graphical treatment of the store exterior.

“The design goal was to pay homage to the site’s industrial past, while also strengthening the co-op’s brand as a national leader in providing healthy, organic and locally produced food to the people of Burlington,” Beck explains. The site’s industrial past goes back to at least the 1880s, and has been home to a steel foundry, metal fabrication shop, fuel storage site and automotive repair shop.

Photo: Ryan Bent Photography,

Custom Metal Panels

A core component of the project was architectural expression of the history and future of the site. “The gridded rhythm of metal panels echo the industrial past and neighboring structures while providing a fresh expression for the co-op,” Beck says.

As Beck explains, the design team took scenes from three Vermont farms that supply the co-op with much of its produce. The images were then digitally manipulated into abstract art and printed on the store’s exterior walls. The images were reduced to the bare essentials and colored in rich brown hues to match the rest of the building’s varied surfaces. “The intention was to have the imagery create both a background texture when observed casually, with a surprising revelation to the original scenes when seen at just the right angle, light or moment from afar,” he says.

The design team partnered with Burlington-based envelope LLC, a local façade consulting and supply firm, and its manufacturing partner, Pure+FreeForm, St. Paul, Minn., to produce full-sized mock ups. Once the final images were approved, they were passed on to a team of skilled artists in the Hashimoto Prefecture outside of Tokyo, Japan, for final production.

To match the co-op’s abstract images, the team hand mixed paints and pearlescent inks, which were applied to diamond-engraved cylinders for printing. In an effort to minimize the ecological impact, and help protect the health and safety of workers, all waste inks were integrated back into the printing process.

After printing, the plates were shipped to a state-of-the-art fabrication facility in Rogers, Minn., where they were sheared to size and pre-drilled for installation. Williston, Vt.-based DEW Construction installed the panels on the South End store.

Pure+FreeForm supplied three custom patterns of flat wall panels, for a total of approximately 8,000 square feet. The first design covers approximately 3,750 square feet, the second design just under 3,400 square feet, and the third, about 850 square feet. “All three patterns used a shared set of background lithography to simulate a weathering steel base, with the custom pattern being a single, unique print pass on the top layer,” Beck says.

Due to the newness of the custom lithographic printing process that was used, Beck says there were a variety of options and impacts that had to be discussed. “The individual panels for the building were to be cut to standard imperial unit sizes so that they could be easily installed on site, but were printed in Japan on longer sheets using a metric measurement custom lithographic roller,” he says. “This dictated a design approach recognizing the image shift that would occur. It also required careful marking, packing and handling of the individual panels so that runs of panels could be installed together in sequence. The remainder of the building was very carefully dimensioned and detailed so that windows and other building features aligned neatly to the panel joint spacing.”

In addition to the metal panels, CENTRIA, Moon Township, Pa., supplied vertical metal wall panels to complement the more active custom panel areas. Cedar cladding is used at the entries and the large bowed wall on the south end of the building. Similar to the co-op’s downtown location, murals are a big part of the design; large areas of the façade are clad in signboard exterior-grade plywood for the three hand-painted murals. “All of these cladding approaches are placed over a uniform system of building air and water barrier membrane, 4 inches of mineral fiber insulation held in place with fiberglass z-girts and hat channels to support the cladding,” explains Beck.

Photo: Ryan Bent Photography,

A Model for Sustainability

Completed in November 2017, the $11.5 million City Market South End store is committed to the local community, economy and environment. The store features a second-floor community room, a commercial kitchen for cooking classes, and a children’s discovery garden that offers a place to play and learn about plants and food networks.

It is also a model for sustainability, with a tight building envelope, ultra-high efficiency refrigeration and food service equipment, which result in 20 percent lower energy use than Vermont code.

A third-party commissioning agent, Cx Associates, Burlington, fully commissioned the building. In recent months, City Market South End has won a variety of awards, including the Environmental Merit Award from the EPA New England Regional Office; EPA GreenChill Award for having the lowest refrigerant emissions of any independent grocer in the U.S., and the Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence from the State of Vermont.