PSFK chats with Britta Riley of Windowfarms, on the next big trends in urban home farming.
In PSFK’s new Future of Home Living report, the team at PSFK Labs looks at the trend of Home Gardening and how compact gardening solutions are being developed to accommodate the time, space and resource restrictions of modern urban living. As part of their research, the consultants reached out to experts including Britta Riley, who makes crowdsourced R&D solutions for environmental issues. Riley’s company Windowfarms makes vertical hydroponic platforms for growing food in city windows. Read our chat with the artist and technologist below to hear more about how home farming is a growing trend in urban areas.
With regards to home living and design, what are the sustainable design innovations that you find most exciting?
An emerging thread of design erodes the artificial barriers between our human bodies and the living ecosystems. This new trend supports healthy diverse colonies of life around and, in fact, IN us. I am thrilled that the term “human biome” is starting to trend in the public dialog. Neuroscientists are researching the role gut & skin surface bacteria, “outside of us,” play in human brain function. Designers are beginning to appreciate a role for the billions of other invisible species with which we share our built environment and our supposedly “sanitized” homes. I look forward to the rapid downfall of germophobia and a healthy respect for microbes as designers create personal care products, eco-friendly household cleaning supplies, food products with beneficial bacteria, permeable and non-toxic building materials, and consumer products that have a more symbiotic relationship with nature. I can’t wait for our species to embrace a more nuanced relationship with other species, learn about invisible ecosystems, and develop a widespread design craft for keeping them in balance.
We’re seeing a number of products and interior systems aimed at transforming apartment dwellers into ‘mini-farmers.’ What are the key design and usability considerations to take into account?
Designing for indoor urban agriculture requires patience. At its root, it is a customization challenge that unfolds over many “crop cycles” and resolves only in a delicate negotiation between three tensions:
1) the needs of food plants, both general plant health, and the specific needs of each of the thousands of edible varieties
2) the desires of their human roommates, and
3) the opportunities of the particular indoor microclimate.
A green thumb is not an innate blessing, it comes from killing plants, watching why they die, and changing approaches to avoid past mistakes. Similarly, designing a growing system, comes from embracing failure and carefully watching what inhibits a crop and its grower’s success together. I have made a lot of mistakes. At times, I’ve taken an approach that caters exclusively to plants’ needs and focuses on maximizing production of the highest value crops, which led to monstrous systems approximating the grow rooms of a Humbolt County weed grower. These loud, hot, smelly, sweaty systems end up getting kicked out of the kitchen to live (and then die) in the garage or storage unit. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve wasted just as much time and money trying to put “cute planters in unexpected places.” Enchanted by the eye-catching work of many a magazine stylist, I’ve been equally guilty of completely skipping over any rational thought of what a plant needs to survive, in the pursuit of short lived natural beauty that, in the end, is not really palatable. I’ve got plenty of boxes of now dingy glass, ceramic, or wool plant nicknacks in storage too. The first successes came for me when I learned to observe plants and to look at the existing architecture I inhabit from a plant’s point of view. I learned that a pot indoors creates stagnant root conditions, particularly for food plants. When you look at the root ball all of a spindly tasteless basil plant curled up at the bottom of a pot, you can almost see it saying, “Ack! Get me out of here! Maybe if I keep burrowing I’ll find some fresh air, water, and soil.” You can see that the poor thing expended nearly all of its energy making a big ball of roots at the bottom of the pot instead of creating that lovely fragrance and flavor we all want on just about anything from lasagna to salads. I learned to read my plants and to focus on delivering the appropriate cycles of light, water, oxygen, nutrients, and microbes they end up telling me they need. It took time, and patience, but I learned to match the “indoor terroir” with a suitable food plant variety and to supplement light and air flow as necessary without breaking the bank or filling another storage unit with the detritus of unrealistic expectations.
What role do technologies like mobile apps and sensor play in these compact growing solutions?
As a tech nerd and hardware designer who started her career making 3D printers and laser scanners, I’ve thought long and hard about this as I’ve spent a barrel of time and money on all things Arduino and planty. I totally understand the appeal of knowing what’s going on deep down in the system. Finally, for me, the apps, sensors, and robotic injection systems, though, are largely a distraction that can slowly sucks the real pleasure out of the ancient art and science of gardening. Growing food is about discovering nature and learning to operate natural “circuits.” Plants themselves are sensors with very readily visible displays. If a plant needs water, it looks, “wilty.” If it needs nutrients, it develops particular kinds of discolorations around the edges of its leaves. If it needs more light, it gets “leggy.” An LED display showing me an sad plant emoticon would only remind me that I did not understand my plant. I dont want any more robots to grow my food for me. All I need is a community of fellow growers who can help me troubleshoot what the yellow dots on my leaf mean. That’s how farmers have always done it. They stand around their plants with their friends and compare their experience. Only the two oldest generations who are still alive with us on the planet now are the only ones who remember how to read plants. I’d rather learn from them. People connect over gardening in meaningful ways. That’s why, when we decided to manufacture Windowfarms, we decided not to make them into a “smart gadget” that grows food for you, but into a platform for you to grow food. The “smart” part is our online community and the observations that thousands of Windowfarmers are making as they grow different kinds of food plants from all around the world.
In general, what are the benefits these products and systems bring to owners and their homes?
1) A uniquely deep and fulfilling experience that comes with growing your own food
2) Smarts- I have never met anyone who did not have some kind of “lightbulb go off”while they were food gardening
3) Better tasting ingredients for your cooking
4) A deeper understanding of health and nutrition
5) Natural beauty unfolding before your eyes, every day, year-round
6) Less trips to the store for the food that would go bad quickly in the fridge
7) Fresher air
What do you see as the next big trend urban living and why is this important?
We are seeing the slow rise of what I call Sentient Ecosystems. Humans will gradually become practiced stewards of healthy, balanced indoor ecosystems and personal micro-environments. Human health will be the frontier of the next several centuries and biophilia will continue to drive purchasing decisions in an increasingly urban population. With digital technology already largely democratized and well on its way to commodification, the biosciences will follow suit. Aging populations and their caregivers will plough earnings into health and bioscience questions in which they hold a close stake. They will seek information relating to their health and choose solutions that match their values. Consumers will increasingly favor products that are marketed as “non-toxic” and “natural”, giving rise to a new class of concepts along the lines of “organic” and “sustainable” but better scrutinized by a more curious and engaged public. The next generations born will inherit a better foundational education in the complex natural world, will be more conscious of its role in their health, and will be more comfortable building into the very fabric of their everyday lives.
What are three things you’d put in your perfect home or apartment?
1) Transparent photovoltaic glazing
2) Thermal batteries
3) Functional aquaria
PSFK has announced the latest in a series of trend reports. Following studies into retail, social media, gaming, work and mobile, the PSFK Labs consulting team have generated the Future of Home Living report. That report manifests as a free summary presentation, an in-depth downloadable PDF and an exhibition in New York City that runs to August 16.
RSVP below to take a tour of the exhibition at 101W15th.