Terraform, a wheelchair-accessible planter box currently used in about a hundred retirement homes, rehab centers and public gardens in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland, was a long time in the making. Actually, it nearly did not make it. About 10 years ago, several contemporary artists were invited to exhibit pieces in community gardens in the French western city of Nantes. One of the gardeners’ wife uses a wheelchair and challenged some of the artists to create a device to help her garden more comfortably. Samia Oussadit, Pascal Leroux and Boris Cochy, a trio of artists and architects, took up the challenge without any prior knowledge of gardening, occupational therapy or the needs of those in wheelchairs. They quickly learned by talking to experts in all three areas, particularly potential users.
With the help of some public subsidies, they managed to come up with a prototype they called TERRAform which they like to describe as « a garden adapted to people with reduced mobility ». It is a box about 5 feet large by 4 feet deep with a special shell where the gardener and his or her wheelchair can fit comfortably. The planter box has a capacity of about 28 cubic feet. « There are tables used in vegetable production under which a wheelchair can fit, but you can’t grow plants with deep roots like strawberries or radishes », Samia Oussadit told me. « But if you garden in a raised bed with a wheelchair, you have to work sideways. It is uncomfortable and not ergonomic at all. We wanted to find a compromise allowing for both deep roots and comfort. »
Lacking experience to take their idea to market, the three friends then abandoned the project and moved on to other projects. But Oussadit mentioned it at a symposium in Brittany and got some interest from the director of a retirement home. Indeed, the TERRAform has become popular in retirement homes because it allows residents to garden while seated. Others called them “selfish” for not pursuing the idea. So the three friends got back to the drawing board, mostly looking for sponsors. The funds they raised, mostly from insurance companies, allowed them to build 50 units that were ready by early 2010. Their idea was ready to take off even though the trio certainly did not consider themselves business-savvy and needed some guidance in that area.
A quick market study polling 70 retirement homes, 70 rehab centers and 70 city governments convinced them there was an interest and that the price they were thinking of asking to make the project feasible – the equivalent of $1,300 – was considered acceptable. After selling close to a hundred units in France and other French-speaking countries in Europe, they are now thinking about exporting. « Last year, we got about 20 requests from Australia, the US and Canada in a short time. So we started looking into the possibility of having the TERRAform built in Canada », Oussadit said. For the European market, the planter box is manufactured partly by a company based in Brittany that makes the 100% recycled and recyclable plastic shell while the wooden frame is done in a workshop employing people facing social challenges and engaged in a back-to-work program. The three artists-turned-entrepreneurs turned down the offer of a manufacturer who was proposing to build their product in China on a larger scale because it just did not fit their idea of social responsibility and sustainability.
The three creators are hoping to someday take a tour de France to film gardeners using their device. It would be wonderful to see how people in wheelchairs in various settings have appropriated this planter box to fit their needs.