April 2021

The Nation Reviewed

Green house effect

By Anthony Ham
Joost Bakker’s vision for sustainable housing is taking root

When he was nine, Joost Bakker and his family moved to Australia. They did so because the world in which they lived was falling apart.

“We migrated to Australia because Holland was fucked: dead fish floating in the river, acid rain, forests were defoliating, and the smog in Europe was out of control. If you fell in the canals as a kid, you’d be straight to the doctor or the hospital. That’s how toxic it was.”

Ever since, Bakker has wanted to save the world.

In Holland, his father was a farmer who also owned a pub that was a hub of community life and drew farmers from miles around. His mother was an artist. The family moved to Monbulk, on Melbourne’s outskirts in the Dandenong Ranges, and set up a flower farm. When he was 12, Bakker first began to imagine what a sustainable home might look like.

All of the ingredients for what would come later – his passion for transforming the way we grow things, the power of the hospitality industry for bringing people together, and the deep understanding of aesthetics passed on by his mother – were in place. In 1993, he started his own business exporting flowers he grew organically in Monbulk to the Philippines, Hong Kong and New Caledonia. He shared a warehouse space in South Melbourne with a mushroom importer, whose business attracted a steady stream of famous chefs. Bakker left quite an impression on them.

It was a time of great change and excitement in Melbourne’s hospitality scene, as liquor licensing laws were relaxed and money flowed through the industry like never before. In no time at all, Bakker became something of an artistic director for restaurants and cocktail bars, supplying flowers and sometimes transforming spaces into art installations that combined botany with recycled materials.

On a visit to the races in the early 2000s, Bakker was stunned by the conspicuous consumption, the waste and the pavilions built for just four days of bacchanalian pleasure. It reconnected him with his childhood dream: he decided it was time to build the house of the future.

The idea was to develop a prototype “green house”, a sustainable building that grows its own food. The first version, sponsored by Macquarie Bank, was a rustic affair, with a floor made from recycled tyres. While he played around with the form such a house would take, he quickly realised that food was central to everything that he was trying to achieve.

“The most destructive things on Earth are our food systems – transport, chemical use, landclearing, the deforestation, desertification,” says Bakker. “That system worked when there were a billion people on Earth. It’s not going to work for eight billion.”

Despite having no experience as a restaurateur, Bakker established the sustainable dining project Greenhouse, armed with an address book filled with celebrated chefs and no little sense of confidence. It took on many guises – a pop-up version in Melbourne’s Federation Square in 2008, a multi-award-winning version in Perth, a Sydney Harbour pop-up, and then a return to Bakker’s home city for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. He tinkered with each venue’s specifics, adding rooftop vegetable gardens, waste composting and vertical walls on which food was grown.

To reassure people that sustainability doesn’t have to mean sacrificing culinary excellence, Bakker hired some of Australia’s best chefs, among them Matt Stone, Douglas McMaster and Jo Barrett. But Bakker quickly realised that his restaurants had done too good a job: everyone was focusing on the food, rather than on the urban food systems he was developing.

“I’d spent half the time talking with journalists about how we have to make our urban areas more productive and sustainable,” he says, “but they didn’t write anything about it. ‘Imagine a house that grows its own food’ – that was the motto. Then it became all about restaurants.”

The awards and the media focus on the end product meant little to Bakker.

“I came to the conclusion that the idea was too crazy, that there was too much going on. People walked in and there were rooftop gardens, a compost bin right next to where people waited for a table, there was art – it was sustainability on steroids. So I just thought, Fuck that. I’m going to open a restaurant without a rubbish bin.

In 2012, Bakker unveiled Silo in Melbourne’s Hardware Lane. It looked like any other cool, inner-city Melbourne cafe. But Silo was the world’s first zero-waste restaurant. And just as Bakker had hoped, Silo launched a worldwide movement.

Yet he remained restless. Changing the way restaurants function was one thing. Changing how we live and grow our food was another altogether.

When Silo, later revamped as Brothl, closed in a dispute with the city council over the cafe’s compost bin in 2015, Bakker began planning an entirely self-sustaining house in the heart of the city. Five years in the planning, six months in the building, the latest version of Greenhouse has overlooked the Yarra River from the south side of Melbourne’s Federation Square since late 2020. It is an occupied residence but open for tours, and hosting boutique dining events using only self-grown produce.

Everything about Greenhouse is sustainable and a monument to low-impact living, from the ethically sourced building materials to the natural glues that hold the dining table together, the onsite gardens that will supply nearly 300 different foods and the renewable power sources. There’s a self-sustaining, naturally functioning ecosystem in the stairwell, a devilishly clever closed-loop system that both recycles waste to produce the methane used for cooking and relies on aquaponics and aquaculture to deploy nutrients for growing food. The house has even been constructed so that it doesn’t penetrate the earth but is instead weighted down by the soil in the gardens.

Exploring the house with Bakker is to wander into a madly exciting vision of our future. It can be difficult to keep up.

When speaking about the mid 20th-century Green Revolution that saved the world from hunger, Bakker points out that the use of synthetic fertilisers stripped essential nutrients from the soil. “Our food is empty,” he says. “We’re overfed, but undernourished.” Then he puts it another way: “The past hundred years were about oil. The next hundred are about soil.”

He cites studies that link the use of chemicals in agricultural systems with growing crises in public health. He rails against the monoculture plantations used for so-called sustainable timber certification. And he despairs at how we’re wiping out the world’s tuna, and how 70 per cent of the fish that Australians eat is imported.

For all that, Bakker is determined to remain positive. “You can’t beat the system, so let’s be the system. This is the start of a 10-year plan and I’m hoping that by 2030, urban food production is a mainstream idea.”

For every look into the future, Bakker takes one look back. “They say that 60 per cent of the world will be living in cities by 2030. That makes sense to me. When my dad lived on a farm, there were 30 people living on 6 acres. All I heard my dad talk about was how socially it was so awesome. There were lots of people doing lots of work – and it was hard work – but it was all about social interaction and seasonality. It was the singing, people working together. It’s like the old shearing stories in Australia. Now you’ve got one guy driving a tractor on 2000 acres, on his own. No wonder kids don’t want to go back on the land. We’re social beings, which is what makes urban food systems so important.”

Bakker doesn’t think he’s asking for too much. “I’m big on encouraging people to retrofit,” he says, against the backdrop of a no-rubbish-bin flag made from a recycled Damascus tablecloth. “I don’t want to pull down everything that’s there. It’s about modifying it. I just want people to know that there is a solution, and it’s a simple solution. It’s about making food that can be grown in an urban environment desirable and showing that we can transition.”

Bakker sees Greenhouse as a prototype for a world where, by 2030, there will be no supermarkets, people will grow their own food and essential items will be delivered by drone. He is also convinced that before long our city skyscrapers will be transformed. “I did a proposal in 2008 to put a single-glazed second skin on the outside of Melbourne’s Rialto building. Some 450,000 litres of water, grey water, leaves that building every day, so I was proposing to upcycle and treat it. We could grow enough tomatoes for the whole of Melbourne. And then that building will become the coolest building in Melbourne. Most of their energy consumption is because they’re trying to keep that building cool. By adding a skin on, you’re capturing that heat to grow things, so there’s a huge energy reduction as well.”

Bakker pauses for a moment and his gaze returns to the house he has created.

“We all live in a house. We all have the opportunity to do this. It’s just that I’ve still got the naivety of a child. Otherwise, this place wouldn’t be here.”

Anthony Ham

Anthony Ham writes about wildlife, conservation and current affairs for magazines and newspapers around the world.

Cover of The Monthly, April 2021
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