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The Microbial Home

It was hard to miss Philips’ Microbial Home when it was announced in 2011. It was everywhere. Like me, you probably appreciated the idea of domestic ecosystem, thought it looked a bit over-designed, and turned your attention elsewhere.

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Fortunately, the Philips website has full descriptions of the Microbial Home project as well as some generously high-res images so I’d like to take a longer look at the concepts involved. I’ll first paraphrase some things from the website and then let’s talk about them.

The Microbial Home

The Microbial Home takes a systemic approach to many of the domestic processes we take for granted and questions how we deal with resources. It’s a proposal for an integrated cyclical ecosystem where the output of each function is the input to another. The home is seen as a biological machine to filter, process and recycle what we conventionally think of as waste – sewage, effluent, garbage, waste water. It proposes strategies for developing a balanced microbial ecosystem in the home.

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The Biodigester Island

The Biodigester Island is a repositionable kitchen island having a chopping surface with a vegetable waste grinder, gas cooking range, a glass tank showing energy reserves and glass indicators showing pressure, and the volume and readiness of compost sludge.

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‘Bio-gas’ is produced by a culture of suitable bacteria living on organic waste material from the home. The gas they generate is collected and burnt. This arrangement is called a methane digester and has been used in various configurations for centuries.

The gas from the methane digester is fed to the cooking range and gas lights. Water pipes are preheated by the digester and channeled to other components in the Microbial Home system. The digester needs a constant supply of waste material and water. The dehydrated sludge from the digester can be removed and used as compost.

The Larder

The larder is a space whose environmental factors are manipulated and controlled to extend food shelf life by natural processes. The larder consists of an evaporative cooler and vegetable storage system built into a dining table.

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In its centre is a twin-walled terracotta evaporative cooler with compartments and chambers having varying wall thicknesses and volumes to keep different types of food at different optimal temperatures.

The outer surface of the cooler is warmed by pipes carrying hot water pre-heated by the methane digester. Above the table is a ceramic garden and larder where vegetable groups are grown and stored on the basis of their symbiotic chemistry. 

I won’t mention the Urban Beehive, the Apothecary home medical diagnosis system, Bio-light and the Paternoster Plastic Waste Upcycler as they’re external to the food and waste cycle. The Filtering Squatting Toilet is not.

Filtering Squatting Toilet

The concept of the filtering squatting toilet incorporates a handrail to support a person (and improve comfort) in the squatting position. The filter array, comprised of charcoal, sand and ceramic filters, supports a range of plants to clean effluent. The flush mechanism is based on the 1 litre flush toilet technique developed by the Sulabh Foundation in India.

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I think we’ve seen enough. It’s difficult to see past the looks. The Microbial Home  is designed to be attractive and to raise awareness of useful stuff. The website is quite clear on that.

Microbial Home is a far-future design concept. It is not intended as a production prototype nor will it be sold as a Philips product. Like past Design Concepts that have stimulated discussion around a range of issues, this concept is testing a possible future – not prescribing one.

I’m generally not keen on ‘awareness raising’ for too often it’s an excuse to avoid specifics such as quantities and net energy balance. It draws attention away from the development of practical things that really work. The Microbial Home suffers from this. Everything it contains is a good Idea.

  • The bio-digester is a good idea but I want to know quantities. How much organic waste is it going to need to generate the methane to cook with, heat water and generate light? How many people’s worth of inputs and outputs are we talking about?
  • With the Larder Table, Philips rightly admits that what works in one part of the world will not necessarily work in another but the evaporative storage principles seem both sound and achievable. The mention of symbiotic chemistry led me to to this site. I didn’t know apples emit ethylene gas that has the effect of speeding up the ripening process of fruits and vegetables kept with them. If placed with potatoes however, apples prevent them from sprouting. I like it when useful things we once knew but forgot, are rediscovered.
  • The image of the Larder Table is cheekily lit like a Vermeer but I’m not so sure about the growing stuff above the table. Plants need light at 500nm or 700nm wavelengths and I don’t think a methane lamp is going to cut it. 500nm is green light. (Plants are green because the green isn’t absorbed, it’s reflected.) 700 nm is bordering on infra-red. That aside, there’s more to food than basil, thyme and wheatgrass.
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  • I’ve no problem with squatting toilets and know of their ergonomic and health benefits. I’m just not convinced by the water cycle. Sure the plants make a nice representation of grey water purification but again I have this problem with quantities. I understand how the grey water is collected below the basin and used for flushing and I expect fresh water comes out of the copper pipe and hand-washing level even though it’s the same copper pipe as the grey water input. It’s a design thing, I know. I’d be interested to know how the shit gets uphill to the bio-digester. The arrow on the schematic is silent on that.

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These niggles aside, I do very much like the attempt to develop a contained system for energy, food and waste at the domestic level. Most of us have energy supplied at the national level, waste dealt with at the municipal level, and food sourced at the neighbourhood level from supermarkets highly likely to be the end of a larger and possibly global, supply chain. I know I do.

It’s a slow process, but we’re trying to become more autonomous. More of us are making more of our own energy. We haven’t seen much domestic responsibility being taken for waste disposal or sewage treatment but on the other hand more more people who have the space to grow vegetables do so. I think Philips is right when it says that

The home of the future will need to accommodate a likely food supply chain that will include a much greater proportion of local and home-grown food. 

All the devices in Philips’ Microbial Home are consciously designed objects but, to their credit, have a pleasing low-tech feel about them. This is refreshing. If it makes those images of a shiny white and silver future look not only dated but totally divorced from reality and fair extrapolations of it, then that can only be a good thing.

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I said I wasn’t going to talk about the Paternoster Plastic Waste Upcycler but it’s interesting in a steampunk kind of way.

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The paternoster waste up-cycler concept utilizes the properties of fungi that have powerful enzymes and decomposing power. Plastic waste is ground into small chips and mixed with a fungal starter culture in a glass canister, which is slotted into a compartment of the ‘paternoster’ system. A hand-cranked conveyor moves the canisters along a circuit inside a dark cavity where ground-up plastic is mixed with the fungi and decomposed and metabolized over several weeks. 

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Further reading:

Anaerobic digestion & methane digestion

How to Make a Home Methane Digester

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