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Greenhouse by Joost

Step inside one of Joost Bakker’s most ambitious zero-waste projects yet: a fully sustainable, recyclable home in Melbourne’s Federation Square that grows all of its own food.
By Sarah Ward
November 10, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
November 10, 2022
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When Joost Bakker helped pile 3000 kilograms of clothing waste in Melbourne's Federation Square in April 2022, all to draw attention to fast fashion, he viewed the project with his usual optimism. "Even if it's just one person who walks through that structure and gets inspired and comes up with a solution — that's what's so exciting," the renowned zero-waste campaigner noted. Those exact words could've been uttered about the venture at the centre of Greenhouse by Joost, too. A three-storey home made entirely out of recyclable materials that don't generate waste, and designed to operate as a closed food system with everything catered for onsite and not a scrap spared, it predates his spotlight on the textile industry. Clearly, it boasts the same sustainability focus. In fact, Bakker could've said the same thing about past pop-ups in the same spot over more than a decade, including fellow waste-free eateries also called Greenhouse since 2008. Scratch that — it isn't merely likely that the Dutch-born floral designer and activist could've expressed the same sentiments; it's certain he must've.

Eliminating waste is Bakker's passion. Not wasting any time trying to put that aim into action is just as much of an obsession. His work doesn't merely talk the talk but walks the walk, and attempts to help the world see how crucial it is to reduce humanity's impact upon the earth. The habitable Greenhouse is quite the undertaking, though, given its purpose: building an abode that two people can get shelter, food, water and energy from, all in one cosy and clever self-sustaining ecosystem. Chefs Jo Barrett and Matt Stone (ex-Oakridge Wines) agreed to do the residing, and to put Bakker's Future Food System to the test. They were named among the world's 50 best next-generation hospitality leaders in 2021 for their efforts, for what's a vital, pioneering and fascinating enterprise. It's no wonder that filmmakers Rhian Skirving (Matilda & Me) and Bruce Permezel (The Obesity Myth) — both directing, the former writing and the latter lensing — were driven to document it. 

Shot since the conception and building stage, then chronicling the COVID-19 setbacks, the logistical and setup woes, and the daily reality of living in the structure, it's also no wonder that the resulting Melbourne International Film Festival Audience Award-winner makes such compelling viewing. Greenhouse by Joost is both a record and an aspirational tool: it shows what can and has been done and, as Bakker always hopes, it wants to get everyone watching following in his, Barrett and Stone's footsteps. Of course, for most, money will be a very real and practical obstacle. There's no doubting that Greenhouse stems from considerable resources, both in finances and time. But that's the thing with ambitions: they have us shooting for the stars, breaking our goals down into everyday pieces and finding ways to make even small parts of them happen. Evoking that exact response when it comes to making life's basics sustainable — what we eat and drink, where we stay and sleep, and how we power it all — is Bakker's aim, too.

With Bakker as the film's on-screen guide, Greenhouse by Joost does just that itself as well, stepping through the idea and the execution like it's laying out a roadmap for its audience to chart. Viewers won't walk out of the doco ready to move into their own such dwelling, but learning plenty about the ingenious design, the bits and pieces that go into it, and the work required — to get it up, ready and operating smoothly, and also to have it function as a small-scale restaurant — comes with simply watching. Although the cooking, serving, welcoming in eager diners and sharing the titular building comes later in the movie, obviously, it's a crucial piece of the project overall and of Skirving and Permezel's feature. How much more doable does just living in the Greenhouse and taking care of yourself seem compared to running it as a mini eatery? Oh-so-much. How much easier does putting some of its principles to use in your own home seem, too? The answer remains the same.

For anyone who isn't as immersed the ins and outs of sustainable possibilities, practices and technologies as Greenhouse by Joost's namesake — aka almost everyone except the film's namesake — the details behind the abode are illuminating as well as inspiring. During the construction phase, for instance, the documentary gets informative about different building materials, including panels made from compacted hay that help put farming offcuts to use. Moving beyond concrete slabs as a base, and therefore avoiding the emissions spat out by cement production methods, involves weighing down the Greenhouse from the roof rather than anchoring it from below. The solution? Soil and plants atop the home, which is also where the bulk of the food comes in. Planters blossom with fruit, vegetables and herbs. A beehive provides honey. Fish and yabbies live in an aquaponics system. With each component, the film offers pivotal data — again, not exactly a how-to, but enough to firmly pique interest.

Skirving and Permezel, plus Bakker as their chief talking head, complement the behind-the-scenes insights with a front-loaded array of facts and figures, instantly placing the need for an innovative solution like Greenhouse into context. While none of it should be new news given how widely the message about humanity's destruction of the planet is known — as it needs to be — it still leaves an imprint. (One such tidbit: that 27,000 trees a day are cut down just to make toilet paper.) In the process, there's little that's creative about the movie's structure, crisp imagery and overall approach, letting the project at its centre draw the audience in on its merits (well, with assistance from the over-emphasised score). Still, pairing such sobering data with ways to make a difference — and, in the case of the Greenhouse itself, a game-changing dream solution — is a smart and powerful move.

Online during its 18-month stint in Fed Square, Bakker's creation attracted ample attention, unsurprisingly. Although Skirving and Permezel include a glimpse at the reaction on social media, Greenhouse by Joost is far more potent when it's showing what people are responding to — when it's doing rather than basking. Again, there's no mystery why that's the case. From the first Greenhouses through to zero-waste cafe Silo by Joost, later soup bar Brothl, this Greenhouse and those aforementioned clothes, that's always been Bakker's modus operandi. He's a natural showman and spokesman, but he knows that making his zero-waste crusade tangible is his most important task — and his best tool for inspiring even just one person.

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