The African Futurist Greenhouse

NSF_fundedThe MBAD African Bead Museum has been described as “a true jewel in the city of Detroit”. Simultaneously outsider art, African interpretive cosmology and urban renovation, the walk-though sculpture garden and small bead shop draw hundreds of tourists every year. But there is no local RE&ODsource for the beads; “make your own beading” kits and workshops use plastic. This project combines the African traditions of generative economy with contemporary technology design to create the African Futurist Greenhouse.

The greenhouse structure applies the circular scaling patterns of African traditional architecture with a hoop-house style enclosure. Scaling or “fractal” patterns are common in African design, and include not only architecture but also adornment such as necklaces, so the bead connection worked nicely. The interior grows biomaterials from the African diaspora: job’s tears for bead creation, indigo for dye, sweetgrass for baskets.  Diaspora food plants are also included: Ethiopian mustard greens; sukuma wiki (collard greens); peppermint (traditional North African tea). Inspired by the rain catchment systems in the Casamance area of Senegal, we will use the curved greenhouse roof for rain roof

Photovoltaic panels supply the greenhouse heating/cooling when needed, and are used to reduce the bead gallery energy bills at other times. The museum and greenhouse are essentially using an African tradition of mutual aid, applied to energy engineering. Called “ubuntu” in the south, it also appears in the iconography of western Africa: for example the twin crocodiles that share a single stomach, “funtunfunefu” in Ghana.  Below you can see the sources of inspiration in African scaling design, and the transition from virtual, to 3D model, to life-size.

We began with a workshop at Kumasi Hive makerspace in Ghana, where students explored simulations for traditional African architecture, and physically rendered them using paper printouts on wood to guide hole drilling. From there we settled on this version as the greenhouse structure. Back in Detroit we presented that to Dabls, with lots of options for more curves vs less curved. He said this one reminded him of the elbow beads in his shop (you can see the comparison on the laptop screen below).


20211008_104623 (1)

greenhouse construction

afg construction

dabls and ronBy monitoring all of the above with environmental sensors and AI-controlled automation, we aim to create a small scale model for what could become a broader set of self-sufficient, sustainable urban practices that restore the links between living, making and growing so important to Indigenous traditions.

Community ownership and engagement is key. For that reason we have included some on-the-spot tutoring so that the labor for construction can come locally, even from those with no construction background, at fair pay (double minimum wage). 3D printing played a crucial role in helping to “translate” from the computational model to understanding in the heads, hands and heart of constructors the ground.  Students from K-12 to community college to UM have also been involved: Detroit high school teacher Calvin Nellum kindly created a podcast about it here.20220430_112227On weekends we have hosted local high school students as interns. Here you can see them learning about the concept of homeostasis (both the analogous Indigenous concepts  as well as the contributions to adaptation science from anti-racists) and applying it to temperature-controlled servos that regulate the vents.

Our pilot studies for growing beads is based on a Zulu tradition of using Job’ Tears (Coix lacryma-jobi). These beautiful pseudocarps grow with a hole through the center, making them ready-made for stringing. UM design student Keesa Johnson (below) started our first crop, growing these from seeds, tracking water use, light needs and other factors. grow box

The high school interns took the next step. Here you see them in the greenhouse with Olayami Dabls, the founder and curator of the MBAD African Bead Museum:

And we celebrated our first harvest of the seed beads with professor Bennett and her two sisters doing the stringing.

Below you can see our fiber artist partners Judy Sledge, Geneva Phillips and Mandisa Smith, harvesting indigo and experimenting with different dye techniques using fresh leaves.

Finally we should note the work from the terrific teams of UM students in our Stamps class “Design for Generative Justice“, who created some of the grow boxes in the background above, and those in Engineering 450, who carried out a thermal and mechanical stress analysis in this report, examining how to keep our plants warm and safe in Michigan winters.