CES 2021: Can our houses become homes for nature?
The design of truly sustainable homes and cities has to enable inhabitants to take an active part in their environmental stewardship.
Just over a year ago, at Frame Awards 2020, we hosted a panel on rewilding the interior. The discussion revolved around the challenge of moving beyond biophilia, a design movement that has thus far offered only a siloed and sanitized set of principles for integrating nature into our lived environments. There was a consensus for thinking harder about what it really means to bring the wilderness inside, and how that wilderness would have to, by necessity, be a contiguous part of the wider urban ecology. Spool forward just a few months and the pandemic, with its cycle of lockdowns, had started to reframe the importance of access to nature to a generation of city dwellers trapped within their own homes.
Our coverage over that period looked at how some designers and urbanists had been opening up the interior of buildings and the cities that organized them, orientating these spaces as habitats not just for humans, but also plants, animals and insects. Projects like Utrecht’s forthcoming biodiversity-focused Merwede neighbourhood, designed under the motto ‘green, unless’, and the nature corridor being built across Montreal’s over-developed Saint-Laurent district, set a useful precedent. ‘The corridor will enable the transition from a mostly asphalted, fragmented territory to a diversified urban landscape, connected to all living beings,’ explained Fannie Duguay-Lefebvre, a spokesperson for urban design firm Civiliti, one of the partners on the Montreal project.
A key element here is the role insects, especially pollinators, play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Without them, any attempt to reintegrate nature into the city will fail. Designers have been looking at this issue in a variety of one-off projects for several years: in 2018 Matilde Boelhouwer proposed artificial flowers that turned rain into sugar water to feed exhausted insects lost in a concrete landscape; Marlène Huissoud’s 'insect hotels', part of London Design Festival 2019, appeared in the squares around the V&A as hybrid chair-come-sculptural entities; and last year Ikea’s think tank for future living, Space10, launched a platform that let anyone create their own modernist bee homes, as long as they had access to a CNC machine.
These small-scale interventions bridge the need to act now with the larger, but slower-moving, challenge of rethinking how we design our cities for more than just ourselves. If only they could be productized in such a way that took them from design-world thought starter to something that the public might actually bring into their own homes. One of CES’s more unlikely standouts this year looks to make that jump. Beeing’s home beekeeping units are designed to act as a new piece of patio furniture, essentially, with the target location seemingly users’ balconies or any accessible rooftop. The B-Box itself requires just one sq-m, so if you have any outdoor space, it should be manageable.
And manageability is clearly the point. This isn’t your faddish urban beekeeping setup; white gauze suits, smoke guns and month-long certificated beekeeping retreats are not a prerequisite. In fact, Beeing is designed so that you never really have to come in contact with bees directly. They enter through an elevated spout, keeping them away from anyone standing near the hive. Honey is accessed via a mechanism that makes sure all bees leave the collection chamber before it’s gathered, and even then owners can only take a limited amount, leaving most to sustain the hive. This being CES, there’s a tech element too, with the internal BeeSecure system wirelessly monitoring temperature, humidity, and movement.
Ultimately, the point of this smart Perspex-and-wood box is about establishing a symbiotic relationship between insect and homeowner, rather than pure agriculture. This isn’t a shill for Beeing per se – a standalone consumer product isn’t going to resolve our badly damaged biosphere – but it is for their intentions. Systems that can facilitate this type of household engagement in the health of city ecosystems should, arguably, be part of any urban development that claims to be sustainable.