The designs are intended to stimulate discussion about sustainable approaches to life at home, proposing innovative and eco-friendly solutions in regard to the use of energy, waste, lighting, preservation of food, cleaning, grooming and human-waste management.

These functional concepts are integrated – each function’s output is another’s input. The Microbial Home approach views the home as a biological machine that can filter, process and recycle conventional waste – sewage, garbage and water.

The project suggests that people should move closer to nature and proposes strategies for developing a balanced microbial ecosystem in the home.

“Designers have an obligation to explore solutions which are, by nature, less energy-consuming and non-polluting,” says Clive van Heerden, senior director of Design-led Innovation at Philips Design.

“We need to push ourselves to rethink domestic appliances entirely, how homes consume energy and how entire communities can pool resources.”

Of the seven concepts in the Microbial Home project, five were shown to the public for the first and last time during Dutch Design Week late last year.

The Bio-Digester kitchen island is the central hub in the Microbial Home system. With a methane digester, it converts vegetable trimmings and bathroom waste solids into methane gas, which can be used to power a variety of functions in the home.

The Larder, another kitchen concept, is made up of an evaporative cooler and storage system for vegetables – all built into a dining table – and its function is to keep ‘living food’ fresh by using natural processes (unlike food in the fridge, which is dead).

The Urban Beehive was one of the most popular concepts, enabling beekeeping at home. Cleverly designed, the beehive allows people to look into the busy lives of bees as they make their honey, which, of course, can be harvested.

The hive is made up of two parts – an entry passage and a flower pot outside, and a glass container housing an assortment of honeycomb frames. The frames have a honeycomb texture for the bees to construct their wax cells on.

A glass shell allows lights to be filtered through the orange wavelength, which bees use for sight. In keeping with convention, smoke can be released into the hive to placate the bees before the hive is opened.

With clear educational qualities, especially for kids, the Urban Beehive is an environmentally friendly concept that benefits both the city, in terms of pollination, as well as the humans who get to enjoy the sweet yield.

And as the global population of bees drops, the home hives assist in the preservation of the species. In addition, bees produce wax and propolis, a resin-like mixture that is believed to inhibit harmful pathogens in the hive, and is also sold as an alternative medicine – an exciting supplementary feature of bee farming that could one day see the Urban Beehive also playing a role in home health.

Bio-Light, another of the Microbial Home concepts, is a lighting design that creates ambient light effects by using different biological technologies.

Bioluminescent bacteria is created, fed with methane and composted material (taken from the methane digester in the Microbial Home system).

The cellular light array can also be filled with fluorescent proteins that produce light of different frequencies.

The Paternoster plastic waste up-cycler is a plastics recycling system, which would be an indispensible appliance in every modern home. It takes disposable plastic packaging and decomposes it with the powerful enzymes and decomposing power of fungus.

Plastics are ground down to small chips and combined with fungal starter culture in a glass container, which is moved along a circuit within a dark cavity via a hand-cranked conveyor belt.

Over the weeks, it uses mycelium to break down waste from plastic packaging and, provided that there were no heavy toxins in the inks used in the packaging, this mycelium could in theory generate edible mushrooms.

Made of plywood and copper, and off-the-shelf bottles and containment canisters, the Paternoster can be self-assembled and, with visible inner workings, it is also an excellent apparatus with which to help children understand the process of decomposition, raising awareness about waste management and natural regeneration.

The two additional concepts not shown during Dutch Design Week are the Apothecary: a home-centred health monitoring and diagnosis concept that detects early warning signs and helps to prevent disease; and the Filtering Squatting Toilet: a lavatory that separates waste, filtering effluent while directing excreta to a methane digester in the Microbial Home system.

Curve editor, Belinda Stening, asked Clive van Heerden to explain some of the aspects of the Microbial Home project.

The visual style of the concept systems and products has a nostalgic feel. Why has this aesthetic been used?

Our creative influences are extremely varied and changing; a generic influence is in understanding nature, people, the planet and how we all interrelate. Most of the concepts are designed to communicate their biological function in a very systemic way.

The Paternoster and Beehive concepts were specifically designed to teach children about harvesting living food from nature and using natural processes to compost waste.

The Paternoster waste up-cycler drew inspiration from 16th century pocket watches, which emerged at a pivotal juncture in the development of mechanical technology. Symbols were engraved on the cogs and gears of early watches to chase away evil spirits.

We were inspired by the stories of the ‘ghost in the machine’ and saw a parallel with the current stage of technological development where electro-mechanical technologies start giving way to biological processes.

We worked with artists and engraved the cogs and gears of Paternoster with graphics depicting the struggle of nature against industrial pollution.

In the case of the bio-light, we were influenced by the materials and tools of the bio-engineering laboratory of our academic collaborator. The cellular glass structure of the bio-light seemed appropriate for a ‘living’ device that needs to be fed and nurtured to maintain its function.

Generally, the Microbial Home system was designed to use artisanal processes like glass blowing, ceramic moulding and working with cast iron. As a future concept, the materials – cast iron, copper, terra cotta, etc – were selected to achieve a timeless, non-contemporary feel so that they would not be confused with real contemporary products.

What have been the reactions to the concepts so far?

Overall, the reactions are very positive and have helped us to gather insights into changing attitudes about waste and energy.

What has been the most popular concept?

The Urban Beehive is very popular. There seems to be widespread concern about declining global bee colonies and their importance in maintaining the natural environment.

The concept seems to have touched a nerve, possibly because it is designed to teach kids about the importance of preserving nature and showing that honey is made in a hive, not a bottle.

How could entire communities benefit from a Microbial Home concept?

As designers we see it as our obligation to push ourselves to rethink utility systems and ways in which our homes and offices can minimise the negative effects of disconnected processes. Looking at multiple systems as an integrated network rather than as isolated processes helps reduce waste and increase efficiency.

These ideas are abstract design concepts that can help us to have a conversation with consumers about the underlying issues, which will better equip us in the design process in years to come.  

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