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Ready for lift-off: Bristol’s Martian House

Preparations for sending the first humans to Mars are happening as we speak, with scientists and engineers all over the world practicing for life on the Red Planet. Now, a house designed for just that has planning permission in Bristol

The outcome of an ongoing public art project, ‘Building a Martian House’ has been conceived and led by local artists Ella Good and Nicki Kent, who – for several years now – have been exploring how we live today and stimulating visions for new ways of living here on Earth and on Mars with the help of fellow creatives, scientists, architects and engineers.

Ella and Nicki have worked with world experts in extreme architecture to produce the concept design based on the public’s ideas, and the full-scale house will be presented in partnership with Bristol’s M Shed, funded by The Edward Marshall Trust. Once installed – beside M Shed, in 2022 – the construct will be accompanied by a five-month public programme of workshops, events and research that will influence the interiors of the house. It will also coincide with Think Global: Act Bristol, an M Shed project aiming to foster positive action to address the climate and ecological crises.

Views towards Bristol’s Princes Wharf will stand in for the Martian landscape. Inside, a hydroponic living room will surround occupants with plants

So what’s planned so far? The house comprises two storeys with an external staircase and platform lift to take visitors to both levels. The upper level, designed to sit on the Martian landscape, is formed using a pressurised inflatable gold-coated foil, making it lightweight enough to be transported to Mars. Once there, the foil would be inflated and filled with Martian regolith (soil) to provide protection from galactic and solar radiation. The house also has a glazed elevation, with views towards Bristol’s Princes Wharf, standing in for the Martian landscape. Inside, a hydroponic living room has been designed to surround occupants with plants to aid relaxation. This could feed into the circular waste water system; these systems, such as waste treatment, water recycling and energy production, are currently being developed with input from the multidisciplinary engineers at Bristol’s Hydrock consultancy.

The lower level is designed to be built below the ground, and so the prototype in Bristol will be surrounded by a scaffold hoarding, printed with information about the project and illustrations from artist Andy Council, who documented the workshop process. Inside, the storey is designed for flexible, private living spaces that can be used as bedrooms, virtual reality rooms or opened into a dining room; along with a WC and kitchenette, and services to support the hydroponic grow room and provide air filtration. The interior will be further developed with the public and filled once the exhibit opens, as part of the events re-thinking life on Earth through exploring the challenges of life on Mars.

“Ella and Nicki have developed an alluring egalitarian concept,” says Hugh Broughton, director at Hugh Broughton Architects which assisted with the design. “The envelope and life support systems are being designed by specialists in the fields of space exploration, extreme environments and sustainability with the interiors being designed by the public through an extensive engagement process. The outcomes will be varied, exciting and provide an alternative approach to space design which represents the interests of everyone, not just governments and the super-rich.”

Companies working as part of the design team and generously providing their services in kind include engineering consultancy Buro Happold and renowned innovators in inflatable design, Inflate. University of Bristol staff have also contributed their expertise and time to the project, including Professor Lucy Berthoud, Dr Bob Myhill and Dr James Norman.

Artists Ella and Nicki told us a little more about how their exciting project came into being.

TBM: What inspired you two to do this?

Ella & Nicki: About five years ago we did some research and found that preparations for sending the first humans to Mars were happening here on Earth, right now. Scientists and engineers all over the world are building houses and practicing for life on Mars – Mars Desert Research Station, Biosphere 2, Hi-SEAS to name a few; there are loads more. Traditionally space travel and its research is thought of as something for the experts, but we thought that because this research was so varied and new, that there was room to have a go and to build our own version.

We have been working together as artists for about 10 years. Our work is varied with lots of different outcomes; the thing that connects it all is that it is about bringing people together to create something that would otherwise be impossible. In 2014 we decided to make a 10-year series of artworks called A Decade With Mars, about Mars, Earth, space and the future. Building A Martian House is part of that.

Concept sketch & visualisation © Hugh Broughton Architects/Pearce+

Tell us about your visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah

Run by the Mars Society, it was built more than 20 years ago and is visited by researchers from all over the world. The purpose of the research station (which they call the HAB, short for habitat) is to provide a facility for researchers to simulate living conditions on Mars. Teams of up to seven people visit and normally spend two weeks in simulation but some missions can run up to 80 days. During simulation, crews spend their entire time living as close to what it would be like to live on Mars as is possible. They suit up in replica spacesuits every time they leave the HAB, they navigate the Mars-like terrain outside on dirt buggies, they cook meals using powdered milk and insect flour, they have no direct contact with the outside world for the duration of their mission and they simulate a 20-minute delay in real-time communications with Earth.

We visited for a week in 2016 with funding from Arts Council/British Council. We stayed in the research station, sleeping in the tiny windowless bedrooms, and even met some of the people that originally built it. It’s based in the high desert in Utah, it feels remote. You’d expect it to be hot in the desert but actually because it is the high desert, even in April it was cool, with strong winds. The landscape outside really did look like Mars; looking out of the port holes in the HAB, we really could believe we were there.

What was the biggest takeaway?

The different versions of this research happening ­– some are really high tech and others are about simulating life on Mars, and all are valid in different ways. The MDRS is really looking at the simulation. The technology for supporting life on Mars can be engineered but no-one knows how humans will react being that far from Earth for the first time. The only way to begin to think about this is to start practicing here on Earth; see what we can learn about people’s behaviour and how they function in small groups.

The upper level is formed using a pressurised gold-coated foil, making it lightweight enough to be transported to Mars. The foil would be inflated and filled with Martian regolith (soil) to provide protection from galactic radiation

Where did you start when it came to designing the project?

It’s been quite a long process already. We began by thinking that we’d build something in our back garden but it soon became obvious that we’d need a bit more input to really build something. We ran workshops across 2018 and spoke to loads of different types of people from schoolchildren and families to retirees, academics and university design students. We asked the same questions about wellbeing and how design can support wellbeing.

Back in 2018 the thought of not being able to walk outside or see family was really alien, highlighting the importance of good design for wellbeing. We thought about the need for personalisation, private space and community space, spaces that offer sensory input, the opposite of ‘institutionalised’ spaces, the need to celebrate and appreciate where you are. We also did some fun things to get conversations started; we built a mock-up of a bedroom on the International Space Station as part of an exhibition at We The Curious to show what an astronaut’s bedroom looks like now (it’s very small).

As for the science and technology needed to live on Mars, we invited engineers and scientists from University of Bristol into our workshops to talk about ideas and how we can connect the practical aspects of the design with the ones for living well. We started working to bring all of the public’s ideas together with Hugh Broughton Architects, bringing in their experience of designing for the Antarctic (which presents a lot of similar challenges to Mars in terms of isolation, communications, lack of familiar sensory input, life in a small community).

Why is Bristol a good place for this project to be stationed?

We live in Bristol, which is a big reason for building here; we wanted to make something that could happen here. It feels good to make local connections where possible and in keeping with the project vision it’s about doing what you can here and now, looking at what is possible with what’s around you. Bristol also has a great spirit of collaboration, and lots of makers live here, from artists to engineers.

No-one knows how humans will react being that far from Earth for the first time. The only way to begin to think about this is to start practicing here on Earth

What can we expect from the five-month programme of workshops?

The programme will invite people to help build the house and imagine future living, with a focus on sustainability, reuse and repair and reimagining community. We aren’t presenting a finished version of a Martian house but a place for people to continue contributing to a vision of the future in the same way that the designs have come together so far. In April 2022 we will have the outer shell built and across the five months we will fill the house through making in these workshops. Mars is a context where the impact on your environment and community is more immediately visible than on Earth, so it really forces you to re-imagine every aspect of daily life – from what happens when your clothes wear out to how you generate power. It’ll be like a kind of ‘living lab’ exploring how the scenario of Mars might inform our ideas about living and working together in the future, with researchers, artists, community groups and the public collaborating.

Why is it important to involve the public in rethinking how we live?

We are often presented with apocalyptic visions of the future that are too big for us to control on an individual level, and that are the responsibility of other people to solve (experts behind closed doors). We wanted to create a hopeful, optimistic work; a space to imagine a future that we want to live in. We’ve involved a lot of people – you could say non-specialists or the general public alongside ‘experts’ – because we’re all experts in thinking about what humans need to live well, the questions are essentially about designing a future life and so they’re relevant to everyone.

‘Building a Martian House’ is due to open in April 2022; read more about Ella and Nicki’s trip to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah at ellaandnicki.wordpress.com