The Weekly Review visits MFWF Greenhouse by Joost

By By Joost Team On March 19, 2012


Image: Robert Banks

Peter Wilmoth from the Weekly Review writes:

In preparation for talking to Joost Bakker (it’s pronounced “Yoast”), I have done something unsustainable and I feel like a goose.

In Queensbridge Square, on the river at Southbank, I have dashed into a café to visit their bathroom (sorry, didn’t buy a coffee or even a Happy Meal, but I was a semi-regular customer 15 years ago) and then, moments later, arriving at Bakker’s Greenhouse café, discovered that, had I waited, I could have joined hundreds of others in contributing to a sustainable future.

You see, the urine collected at Bakker’s Greenhouse “pop-up” (temporary) restaurant, built as a base for the 20th Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, will be collected by farmers to fertilise their crops.

“Urine is incredibly rich in potassium and nitrogen and phosphorus, so you only need urine from about 25 people to fertilise a hectare of crop,” says Bakker.

“So when you consider how many people there are on the planet, that’s a lot of hectares of fertiliser available to us that’s just going down the drain at the moment. We throw it away and we shouldn’t; it’s valuable.”

Just in case I wasn’t feeling guilty enough for my wasteful ways, Bakker then tells me that urine harvesting is virtually government policy in enlightened countries such as Sweden. “I’ve got Swedish urine-diverting toilets here because in Sweden they’ve decided to stop letting this happen and they want to start urine harvesting. The government initiates people to put in big tanks underneath their house and because it’s sterile you can store it for years. It gets collected by tankers and then gets pumped onto farms.

“Bill and Melinda Gates are offering vast sums of money to anybody who can come up with a solution for it. My philosophy is there shouldn’t be any waste. There’s no reason to have waste. If we rethink everything we do we could easily have a waste-free world.”

Joost Bakker – remember the name. As an installation artist, builder, florist, furniture designer and articulate spruiker for reducing waste, Bakker is the highly photogenic new face of environmental sustainability (he worked as a model for a while).

Born in the Netherlands to fourth-generation tulip farmers, his family emigrated to Australia when Bakker was nine, settling on a farm in Monbulk, in the Dandenong Ranges: “My great-grandfather started growing tulips in Holland and my brother still grows tulips in Monbulk.”

He finds it interesting that his Dutch relatives no longer grow tulips, but the tradition continues here.

Bakker says his mother was creative – she painted, sculpted, did pottery. “Dad grew up on a farm, always wanted to be farmer, owned a pub for 25 years.” In 1982, he decided to start a farm in Melbourne.

There was no lightbulb moment about sustainability for Bakker. Even as a kid he was into recycling. “I’ve always dragged rubbish home,” he says. “I often walk past stuff that people are throwing out and think, ‘What a waste’.”

Now, at 39, Bakker scrambles anyone’s attempt to define his work. He started out as a florist who by 2000 was servicing 150 bars, cafés and restaurants with a mix of floral arrangement, sculpture and art installation.

Hip restaurateurs Shannon Bennett (Vue de Monde) and John Van Haandel (Circa, The Prince) were early fans, commissioning him to create innovative floral installations, often using reclaimed objects.

In public spaces Bakker would use concrete-reinforcd steel to support the floral arrangements. Architect Nonda Katsalidis commissioned an exhibition of his installations on the top floor of the Eureka Tower.

“I’m always in recycling yards and being asked to do little projects,” he says. “My work is varied and exciting.”

Alighting on the idea of a pop-up café, bar and restaurant, in 2008 Bakker developed a Greenhouse – a temporary venue that is completely sustainable, from the food to the chairs to the walls and floors – in Federation Square, complemented by food by Bennett and Fenix’s Ray Capaldi.

It was such a success Bakker built a permanent Greenhouse in Perth, followed by a pop-up Greenhouse in Sydney’s Circular Quay last year, made from disused shipping containers.

The Greenhouse at Queensbridge Square will almost certainly be the last pop-up. He has been approached to build them around the world, including in London’s East End and Milan, and says he now wants to build only permanent ones. Partnering with friend and Melbourne businessman Greg Hargrave, who is a former chief executive of Skilled Group, he sets up these projects under the name “By Joost”.

But amid his work on the Greenhouses, there are always several other projects on the go. He is working on houses for Mitch Watson, the owner of Hepburn Springs mineral water, outside Daylesford, and for Bennett near Lorne.

Part of Bakker’s 100-hour weeks involves spreading his message of sustainability to schoolchildren. Today he has spoken to a school group at Queensbridge Square about the Greenhouse project and its philosophies.

“Those 100 kids – that’s the best part of my day. Watching them chew on unrolled oats and taking turns rolling oats. You could see it was so exciting for them. And the wheat getting turned into flour. To me these are such simple ideas. The toilets they got super-excited about. The beehive on the roof, opening it up and getting them to smell them.”

Bakker asked the kids what they thought was in the tank adjoining the Greenhouse. “Somebody guessed it was wee because they knew from the homework they got that I had special toilets in here. They all went ‘Eeeuuw’. But by the end they’re going, ‘We need to do this at home’, which is fantastic.

“When you think that a third of the world’s gas today is used for fertiliser, it’s just crazy. People don’t make the link between agriculture and oil or gas prices. They think, ‘It must mean it costs more to drive the tractor around the farm’. It’s got nothing to do with that. It’s the fertiliser that gets put down that is the highest cost to most farmers around the world.”

I ask him about the urine from the Greenhouse’s customers. “That’s going to get injected into a crop of mustard seed. We crush the mustard seed for oil, which will generate power. The building is running on oil – olive oil, sunflower oil, any oil rather than diesel or bio-diesel. Upstairs we have a toilet with two bowls. The front is for the urine and the back is for the solid. Next Greenhouse I want to work on is solid waste.”

At the Queensbridge Greenhouse they have collected 1000 litres in four days. “That will be enough for 20 hectares. We’ll get 40,000 litres of oil for the 20 hectares. (The urine) goes to the farm. The farmer has a machine that sprays it onto the soil before he plants the crop.”

All of Bakker’s varying projects are carried out under the same philosophical umbrella of promoting a sustainable way of living. “That’s one of my big points – it’s holistic. Everything you do affects something else. I think people are so focused on one thing.”

The Greenhouses are a physical manifestation of these ideas. “The food philosophy can come across in the food, the way it’s served, the way it’s grown, the building’s materials, creating buildings that add biodiversity rather than take biodiversity away.

“I’m actually quite an optimist. Solutions are not that hard.”

“To me it’s my artistic installation. I’m so passionate about growing and I’ve combined the two: using old vessels to grow stuff in, making soil from byproducts and waste, trying to highlight that it’s not all doom and gloom. I’m actually quite an optimist. Solutions are not that hard. We all think that it’s all too hard, but it’s not, it’s actually quite easy.”

What is his message? “Think holistically. You can go out and spend a fortune on organic food or clothes. But if you’re not worried by the paints that you use … you’ve got to think about where things come from and the consequences when you buy certain things. It’s usually about less. I say to people it’s about reducing the shit in our lives. We’ve got too much stuff going on.”

I asked who has inspired him. “My dad. And I get quite inspired by farmers. They work so bloody hard. They’ll never talk themselves up and they never complain. People always say ‘whingeing farmers’ but I think farmers are a pretty amazing bunch of people.

“Recyclers. And guys like Nonda Katsalidis. He gets a lot of attention for the way his buildings look but what he doesn’t get a lot of credit for is that he builds in a smart way that uses less materials.”

Bakker was recently invited to speak at an event in the Netherlands called The Picnic Festival. “Some pretty powerful guys are behind it, like Brad Pitt; (it’s) about sustainable ideas,” Bakker says. “There’s a €500,000 prize, and first prize was won by a guy from Melbourne who invented a shower that recycled its water. I’d never heard of or read about him in Australia.”

From his home at Monbulk, Bakker comes into the city most days. It’s a busy life, supported by his wife Jennie. “Married for 10 years, been with Jen for 20.”

They met at the Mount Dandenong pub. “She didn’t want a bar of me for the first three months. It took me a long time to convince her to go out on a date. Twenty years later we’re still going. She’s been amazing. I couldn’t have done any of this without her.”

Their remarkable house in Monbulk – which has starred as a spread in Vogue Living – features a façade of thousands of terracotta pots in steel reinforcement. It’s a wonderland for their three daughters, Ruby, Charlie and Remy, aged eight, six and three. “These projects take me away from them a bit too much but you can’t expect to build a restaurant and do a 100-hour week …” he says.

He finds solace from all the work at home. “Spend time with the kids, work in the veggie patch. I was in the veggie patch for the first time in two weeks and bloody tomatoes everywhere, corn overgrown, so the chooks are having a field day at the moment because I’ve thrown half the corn to them. This time of year, if you’re not around, there’s an abundance of food. Cucumbers coming out everywhere.”

As we sit in the Greenhouse, Bakker is approached by a man wanting to discuss some pipes, by a photographer and by various assistants. The room is crowded with customers and the kitchen has several tattooed chefs in singlets making the food. Bakker is the genial, charming figurehead, ice-cool, as though nothing will be a problem, and this is the way we should all be living.

How’s he handing all the media attention? “It’s all good. I’m more worried about, ‘Are the plants getting watered? Are the generators running properly’?”

Greenhouse By Joost is in conjunction with the Melbourne Food and Wine festival, which ends on March 21.

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Greenhouse by Joost Sydney - "Joost designed and made the chairs from aluminium irrigation pipes and the seats are made from leather off-cuts from a Victorian tannery. They are remarkably comfortable."

Indira Naidoo