Workplace directives to "think outside of the box" have become as commonplace as telecommuting and space sharing, but true innovation remains rare. What if your company's mandate was to reinvent the wheel? Terreform ONE is a Brooklyn-based design studio that uses design-thinking, biological engineering and a mixed bag of uncategorizable disciplines to do just that.
"A lot of what we're doing is in the realm of science and also in the realm of policy regulation," says co-founder Mitchell Joachim from his Brooklyn Navy Yard workshop, where projects resembling grass-sprouting lunar modules wait beside seats shaped like dinosaur vertebrae for their runs on the world's production lines. They're baffling at first glance but, once explained, they make enough design sense to have a decent shot at market attention in the next decade.
"We produce dozens of ideas that almost lead nowhere," says Joachim, a dreadlocked Ph.D. with degrees from Harvard, MIT and pretty much every elite design institution in the U.S. He runs Terreform ONE (Open Network Ecology) as a nonprofit in collaboration with four partners and a board that takes an interdisciplinary approach to addressing the unprecedented challenges posed by changing climate conditions, growing urban populations and other looming megatrends. They employ 15-40 seasonal and part-time staff from the fields of architecture and design, biology, sociology, anthropology and the humanities. "We make a ton of mistakes but eventually we somehow gestate something that really is successful."
The Fab Tree Hab Living Tree House — a home completely made out of plants — is such a thing.
"We design scaffolding in a computer that fits the geometry that we would like to triangulate vines or different types of woody matter, after they're grown hydroponically, into a structure that's super-robust," says Joachim, a technical guru with an inclination toward plain speaking. "It's a home that'll live for a hundred or so years and it just takes a modicum of time to grow it. Ten to 12 years and you can grow an entire village for thousands of families that fits inside the earth's metabolism. It is 100 percent alive and part of the ecosystem. It is a novel way of thinking about structure."
The Fab Tree Hab's success has more to do with intense media interest than widespread adoption. As a design think tank, Joachim and his team do less to produce and market ideas than to bioengineer the seeds of future solutions to urban challenges like flooding and sustainable food production. The three to four major projects they work on annually are commissioned by museums, galleries and corporate sponsors, including BASF, Autodesk and MakerBot. Most fall into traditional shelter, transportation and urban planning categories but are executed with a hundred-year view and reliance on advanced computer modeling, hydrology and biodesign techniques.
"Biodesign is a heterodox," says Joachim of the fusion of synthetic biology and bioengineering with architecture and design. "It's not bioformalism, which is something through a computer made to look like biology, such as that movie Avatar by James Cameron or the works of Greg Lynn, who's a phenomenal architect. Instead, we're actually trying to look at living materials and different biological sequences and adjust them to make buildings."
Several years ago, Joachim and Harvard roommate Oliver Medvedik established a small research laboratory with the goal of merging practices in regenerative medicine with architecture and industrial design.
"We started looking at printing cells in a modified inkjet printer into specific shapes," says Joachim. "These cells happened to be extracellular matrix from pigs, mammalian cells, that would be printed out and could fold up. It's used commonly as a technique to replace bladders in patients that have been suffering from cancer. But instead of making bladders to be put into human bodies, we thought of making bladders into shapes for handbags or for different types of shoes or for eventually making them into belts and wristwatches. Essentially, this wasn't just a bladder, it was articulated swine leather made from an immortal cell line where no sentient creature was harmed in it's production. We weren't killing an animal to make leather, we were growing leather in a lab from the cell up."
Bladder wallets are not for the fainthearted, and even the most devoted horror fan would have to think twice before plunking down five or six figures for a meat house, but marketed as cruelty-free, lab-grown hide, these products could forseeably transcend their grisly associations. Pleather and other leather-like materials have been used in manufacturing for decades, and what is a traditional Native American teepee but a cured hide dwelling? Much of the time it takes Joachim and his team to productize their designs has to do with waiting for shifts in public sensibility.
The exploding DIY movement has had a big influence on many Terreform ONE designs and the proliferation of citizen scientists across America and around the world has figured into the company's decision to advance production of The Urban Farm Pod, a personal food-growing sphere that doubles as a piece of indoor/outdoor furniture and triples as an air-purifier.
"Vertical gardening takes a lot of maintenance and it's not always for indoors or outdoors. You have to be one or the other. We looked at combining these things into a piece of architectural furniture that you can inhabit — but it's not a wall, it's a sphere," says Joachim, who was part of a team that tested the unit by growing the blue-green algae spirulina last summer. "Spirulina being a superfood, we thought if you can handle that you can pretty much handle most other foods."
The Urban Farm Pod proved to be an effective growing surface and Terreform ONE is currently vetting manufacturers capable of producing and shipping the collapsible plant-growing pods, which he envisions serving as air purifiers when they are indoors and as leisure nooks when they're located outdoors.
"We definitely want to sell them. This is like $38,000," says Joachim gesturing toward the satellite-sized prototype in his workshop. "But when you manufacture them at a higher rate, that will go down. We're thinking our price point is about $10,000."
As a Brooklyn-based organization, Terreform ONE has a practical stake in effectively redesigning outdated urban infrastructures. The company's Navy Yard neighbors suffered an estimated $50 million in losses in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. In addition to other landscape-scale projects they're involved in, Joachim and his team have been working on Super Docking, a flood mitigation plan for the Navy Yard waterfront complex.
"We're looking at sharing space between water and the city, which is something we don't do today," says Joachim from Terreform ONE's 8th floor workshop which sits above Civil War-era piers and drydocks that jut into the East River. "Today we treat that with these very hard, coffer-like dams that create these lines of armistice between the city and nature, and that's just not true. We need softer barriers between the two. We need to accept that both are going to bleed or seep in or ooze into one another, so we've been working on research projects that communicate that and think about that technologically."