‘You can smell if something’s going wrong’: life in an eco-friendly goldfish bowl

‘You can smell if something’s going wrong’: life in an eco-friendly goldfish bowl

We’re accustomed to living our lives publicly, but chefs Jo Barrett and Matt Stone have gone all in. They are living centre stage, in full public view, in Greenhouse by Joost, an 87sqm, zero-waste “future home” in Melbourne’s Federation Square. Goldfish Bowl by Joost could be more apt.

Every time you walk out of the building, there’s people that want to have a chat,” Stone says. “Some are cool, but others get really grumpy when you tell them they can’t just walk through.”

Chef Matt Stone, artist Joost Bakker and chef Jo Barrett

Managing public expectations about what they can and cannot access has been challenging, he says of their first months of a six-month stint living and working in the house. Greenhouse is part private dwelling, part restaurant, part eco display home. While they live there, the pair operate Saturday tours for 50 people, dinners Thursday to Saturday and a Sunday lunch, all for 14 diners a time.

Greenhouse has had five guises over more than 10 years as a concept home and full-scale restaurant in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. This iteration is closest to the zero-waste advocate and artist Joost Bakker’s ideal of the project: a closed-loop house that grows food using techniques common to urban growers. It leans on aquaponics, cultivates edible crickets and includes a mushroom wall within a humidity-controlled cabinet. It uses green technology, solar panels, biodigesters and smart waste systems.

“Once the systems in the house, like the aquaponics and everything, were set up, they’re really easy to run,” Barrett says.

The kitchen and dining area

“We just keep an eye on everything, and you can actually smell in the house if something’s going wrong; the aquaponics is out of balance or things like the mushroom wall is too hot. Instantly you know what you’ve got to look at.”

Creating dishes daily, using what they grow on the house, is proving a creative boon for the pair.

“The cricket balls are pretty cool,” Stone says. “It’s a falafel-style fried ball but we have about 20% cricket through it.”

The insects are for nutritional, not shock, value. “We’re growing them downstairs and feeding them off our veggie scraps,” he says. “We process them with some sprouted chickpeas, herbs, veggies and spices, fry them, and they make beautiful, delicious little cricket balls.”

Five years in gestation, this fifth Greenhouse was originally planned to be built in the Dandenong Ranges. The move to Federation Square presented a different opportunity for the project. “We thought, it’s a public space, we want to build community around this project and invite as many people as we can through,” says Barrett.

She thinks there has been a greater desire, especially in the past year, for changes in housing and the way we live; with people becoming more health conscious, wanting to know where their food is coming from and wanting to live in a healthy environment. “So I think although we’ve been working on it for five years you couldn’t have actually picked a better time,” she says.

Bakker has made the plans for Greenhouse open-source, available for anyone to view and use in their own buildings, part of attempts to build a legacy for the project. Once its stint in Federation Square is over, the house will be relocated and become a home for Bakker’s mother.

A bee in the vegetable garden

“We really do want to show that this is not an elite thing,” Barrett says. “It’s actually for people to try and make a difference and to empower people to make a change at a time when, you know, people feel pretty helpless.”

Giving up positions as co-executive chefs at Oakridge Wines in the Yarra Valley to live in a glass box in a public square was a risk. At Oakridge, Barrett and Stone had built a reputation and a community. Melbourne’s five-day lockdown in February was a challenge but, says Barrett, they started fermenting, working more on the garden and producing more content. “I guess the beauty is you just do something different.”

Other than lockdown, Barrett says: “We’ve had some very stressful times, lots of tears. But you just have to step back and realise what the main aim is and bring it back. It’s just a small fraction of time out of your life.”

For all the culinary and environmental impact its inhabitants hope Greenhouse could generate, Barrett loves the social effect of the experience. There’s a dinner party vibe at the micro-restaurant, she says, with Stone pouring wine as well as cooking. Barrett has watched guests, strangers to each other at the night’s beginning, hugging as they depart.

“The conversations that are had and the experience as a whole, you’re like, ‘Oh my God this is incredible.’ I think it’s those moments which are hard to recreate in a restaurant.”

The hardest thing, Barrett says, is getting people to leave.

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