Bee Home: Behind the Project
Photo — Niklas Adrian Vindelev
Without bees, our lives would be very different. As pollinators, bees have maintained biodiversity and kept planet Earth healthy for millions of years. But as humans have built cities and expanded industrial farming, we’ve jeopardised their natural habitat. With Bee Home, we want to make it easy for anyone anywhere to design a beautiful home for solitary bees.
Our open-source design is free to use and allows for flexibility in materials, sizing and placement. This calls for local production — and most importantly — enables people across the planet to help restore the relationship between humans and nature.
We knew that creating a good-looking, long-lasting design that’s easy to customise and assemble was easier said than done. Therefore we invited our highly talented friends, industrial and product designer Tanita Klein and technology-driven design studio Bakken & Bæck, to help out with the design.
To share our design process — from the first sketch to the last turnaround — we called up Tanita Klein, Noé Bhandari (our in-house fabrication specialist), Myles Palmer (Project Lead, Bakken & Bæck) and Anita Silva (Art Director, Bakken & Bæck) to talk about the project, challenges, epiphanies and the importance of play.
We summarised this all in a video at the end of the article, so be sure to check it out!
How do you design a home for bees?
Noé: Whether you’re designing a home for humans or bees, the point of departure is the same: what are the needs? After thorough research and long conversations with bee experts, we naturally came to a point where we felt confident about what solitary bees require. To give an example, we quickly discovered that solitary bees like to nest in wooden cavities, so it was clear that the material for the Bee Home had to be hardwood.
Tanita: After defining the functional needs, we looked into other factors that could affect our design process. From the start, we knew that we had to create an open-source design system to make the project affordable and approachable for everyone. For that reason, we decided to create a design that could be fabricated on a CNC milling machine, which allows you to repeatedly create high-quality assembly parts and can be found in most makerspaces in the world.
What’s the core thinking behind the design?
Tanita: I wanted people to design a dream home for bees that provided the perfect environment for their offspring, and at the same time was easy to design, assemble and place. It was important that the design was aesthetically pleasing so it felt like you’ve added a sculpture to your garden or your balcony. In short, our design should do good for bees, our environment and people.
I had an idea about making a small ‘human home’ for the bees, that would be a small-scale multi-storey architectural structure to humans, but a huge mansion to bees. To me, this was a way to create a closer connection between humans and bees.
What were the biggest challenges in the design process?
Tanita: We spent a lot of time figuring out how to create the actual holes for the bee nests. As a CNC machine has restrictions in relation to the thickness of the materials, we had to think in layers. To our luck, this actually made really good sense in terms of creating a modular open-source design that is easy to customise.
Noé: While Tanita focused on the shape and visual appearance of the Bee Home, I looked into the structure and how we could create the best possible assembly — one that didn’t require glue, screws or nails and was simple, easy and robust. We needed a functional key element that could lock the structure together, without compromising our aesthetic ambitions.
Was there a specific point in the process where it all came together?
Noé: Eventually we had this little epiphany where both of our approaches merged together.
Tanita: ‘The spine moment’, as we like to call it. We finally came up with the idea of having a spine that goes through all the storeys of the Bee Home.
Noé: By using an old method, developed thousands of years ago, we designed a wedge that could tightly secure all our elements to the spine. This allowed us to lock and unlock the whole structure with a tap of a hammer.
Tanita: By merging an architectural approach with traditional craftsmanship, we created a symbiosis between the perfect mansion and joinery. I must say, it was a big moment when the function gets aesthetic because it makes sense.
How did you turn a physical design into a digital tool that anyone could use?
Noé: When people interact with our design, we didn’t want to overwhelm them with choices. We wanted to give them a few concrete options that could still translate into many different designs. Another important translation we needed to consider was how we could turn these design files into ones that can be manufactured in makerspaces. The most important tool that we used within this process was ShapeDiver, which enables any design on our digital interface to be converted into a manufacturing file that a CNC machine can actually use.
Myles: Making design tools that are simple enough for anyone to pick up and play, but complex enough to offer a variety of well-working solutions, is quite difficult. After a lot of hands-on experiments, we decided on three parameters: the height, the number of storeys and the position of the Bee Home — whether it’s mounted on a wall, standing on a rooftop or grounded in your garden. With an extensive set of rules in our back-end, we ensured that the Bee Home always looked beautiful.
The visual expression of the Bee Home project is quite playful. Why was this prioritised in the design?
Myles: We learn through play. We experiment through play. We problem-solve when playing with things. So for the Bee Home project, one of the core values had to be that it was fun and engaging to use. Bees vanishing is a very serious matter — so, to give people a deeper understanding of the problem in a light-hearted way, co-creation was key.
Anita: When designing the visual identity, we applied a playful approach, too. We looked at how bees see colours, how they move and what their nests look like. We even arranged a drawing assignment with kids to uncover various organic shapes. All this informed different parts of the identity. We designed a logomark with variable characters, we did a custom typeface influenced by the nesting tunnels and the rounded holes of the Bee Home, we generated lines corresponding to the movement of bees, and we defined a subtle colour palette with hints of purple that relates to the UV spectrum in which bees see colours.
An essential part of this project is to inspire people to join a global community. How is this reflected on the website?
Myles: The Bee Home website acts a little bit like an operating system with three core applications: Design, Learn and Explore. Each of these applications opens as a ‘window’ that is focused on one task at a time, making sure people don’t get overwhelmed with all of the possibilities and ways in which they can engage with the Bee Home project.
To make it easy for people to find someone who could help them build their Bee Home, we used data from The Fab Network to map every fab lab or makerspace in the world. We made sure to exclude any makerspaces that didn’t have a CNC milling machine and gave independent makerspaces the option to add their space to our map as well.
Creating connections between the physical object of the Bee Home and the digital experience was key — so once you have designed your Bee Home, you can fabricate it, upload it to our community map and add photos of your Bee Home. In that way, we can close the loop between the physical and digital worlds — and at the same time inspire even more people to make a home for bees.
What was the most fun part of the project?
Noé: To me, it was our hands-on approach. From the first day that Tanita and I got together, we already had three prototypes by the end of the day, and throughout the next two months, we constantly created prototypes and tested and iterated our design. This hands-on approach is something that really resonates with me, and I hope it can inspire other people to get away from their desks to test out their ideas.
Moving forward, what are the key learnings from this project?
Tanita: This project reinforced my belief that collaboration is key. Working together with a fabrication specialist, who knows everything about materials, and a technology-driven design studio, who are experts in parametric design and digital design tools, made the process really efficient. By having clear roles, it was never a competition — rather we had a shared vision to combine our broad knowledge to create a really strong output.