There are so many ideas and innovations packed into the 87 square metres of Joost Bakker's latest Greenhouse project, it's surprising it doesn't topple under the weight of ambition. But the three-storey, two-bedroom, self-sustaining home and urban farm on the banks of the Yarra at Federation Square – part of his Future Food System vision – is securely anchored, not only by a team that includes former Oakridge chefs Jo Barrett and Matt Stone, but literally and metaphorically by its insanely productive gardens.
"The whole project is about the food," says Bakker. "The way we grow, harvest, transport, sell and eat our food is the most destructive human activity on the planet and so I wanted to create the biggest little ecosystem in the world in a domestic space. Our buildings must become part of food production and, because food production starts with the soil, I used that idea to reverse engineer the house."In a conventional house, a lot of money and energy goes into the foundations so the house doesn't blow away. Here the house doesn't penetrate the ground. It arrived in three sections on the back of one truck and was anchored by 30 tonnes of soil in the garden beds on the upper floors. The stability and the viability of the house is all due to the garden."
This is not Bakker's first Greenhouse rodeo, but it is his most ambitious. Since 2008, previous incarnations of Greenhouse in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney have seen it operate as both a permanent and pop-up restaurant, introducing concepts of zero waste and closed loop food systems. But, after subsequent sustainable restaurant experiments in Melbourne (Silo, Brothl) failed to fire, Bakker found himself at a crossroads.
"2015 and 16 were really bad years for me," says Bakker. "I was thinking, we've done all this really great work but there was only a really small number of people looking at tackling the problem. The wider world did not seem interested at all. Now there's a shift and I see so many solutions in the way we grow food and the way we live. The potential of what we can do if we all get involved in our food system energises me. That's what this project is all about: upcycling our waste and turning it into food."
The number of looping, inter-connected systems in this version of Greenhouse is both inspiring and mind-boggling. There are solar panels, a recyclable battery system, rain water tanks, a biodigester that turns toilet and organic waste into both methane (to power the stoves in the kitchen) and compost, panels made of barley straw (a waste material that's ordinarily burned), a mushroom growing wall that is assisted by steam trapped from the shower, recyclable polypropylene pipes to carry water, low energy tiles and wood panelling and furniture made from a single cyprus tree. There's a worm farm, an aquaponic system that supports barramundi, yabbies and freshwater mussels and a couple of chickens to supply eggs.
All this produce not only feeds Barrett and Stone as they live in the house for six months, but the 12 to 16 guests who come to the house four nights a week to eat a five or six-course dinner in the kitchen with the chefs and Bakker and hear more about the project and its future potential.
"At first I was worried about having enough food to feed all our guests," says Barrett. "But the soil we have that's made out of a whole range of waste products like pine bark and crunched up plaster board is so full of nutrients that the plants have been jumping out of the beds. We had so much food that we had to start cooking and preserving before we even moved into the house."
Their years of cooking from the garden at Oakridge has given them confidence to create menus based on what's in the garden.
"We're only using produce that we grow here or that can be grown in an urban farm like ours," says Stone. "That seemed impossible at first because there is no meat, no milk or butter but when you change your mindset, you come up with new solutions and create new and exciting ways of doing things. But what I'm most excited about is showing people how delicious food can be when you eat it straight from the garden, cut just a minute or two before you eat it. You can't replicate that.
"It's the most exciting food we're ever going to cook because it's a whole new thing. It has taken all our experience to this point to have the skills to do it."