This Maker Hopes You Build Her Fake, Plant-Growing Window in Your Basement
Collin McCrae Leix teaches you how to make your own stand-in for sunlight. Naturally, the design is open-source.
If you’ve ever visited the r/DIY subreddit, you’ve scrolled through pages and pages of unfathomable contraptions built by skilled DIY makers. A lot of these items are fantastically weird, the results of turning an ordinary object — like a computer or a Game Boy — into something totally different, like an aquarium or a working phone. The spirit of innovation and creativity is alive and well on r/DIY, but utility is often lacking. “What could I even use this for?” you may find yourself asking as you look at pictures of a Bluetooth speaker turned hairbrush. When I came across Collin McRae Leix’s post about her fake DIY window, however, I knew I had found something of real use.
As a successful freelance animator and motion designer, Leix’s designs usually live on screens rather than walls. Her schooling background is in painting and classical violin, a combination that eventually led her to become interested in making time-based visual art pieces. So when she decided to make a fake window, she knew she was in for some hands-on construction curveballs. “I’m not a super careful maker,” she admits, but she relied on her extensive artistic background to guide her through the creation of a “window” to brighten up her husband’s basement workspace.
Living or working in a space devoid of natural sunlight is one of those insidious conditions you don’t realize is affecting you until you’re huddled in a dark corner, your cloak reeking of B.O., reciting incantations by candlelight. My first New York apartment was a basement, and within a few months I began to notice I was deteriorating. I was lazier, less cleanly, chronically tired. Humans need sunlight, or at least the illusion of it. Leix realized this about her husband’s workspace — since they live in often-dreary Michigan. She took me through the steps required to make the fake window, which I’m happy to report, you are also totally capable of making.
Leix knew she would need to get ahold of full-spectrum lights, which cover the expanse of the electromagnetic spectrum, thereby mimicking sunlight. At Home Depot, she found grow lights, which plants can use for photosynthesis, and decided that they were flat enough to build her window over. “This project brought in a lot of comments like ‘Enjoy your visit from the DEA,’” she says, laughing. (Yes, a lot of people use grow lights to cultivate ganja.) Due to the extreme brightness of the grow lights, the rest of the project revolved around constructing an apparatus to diffuse the glare.
She found a piece of 30”x36” acrylic that would function as the base of the light diffuser. She wanted to use only her power drill and forego any use of a saw, so she had the employee in the lumber department cut planks of wood into the exact dimensions she needed to fit the piece of acrylic on top, which ended up being 30”x33”. She found 3” nails that were long enough to drill through the wood and the acrylic and then purchased a drill bit for her power drill. Drilling straight into the acrylic without a drill bit will cause the material to crack.
Still, though, the light needed to be diffused more. Remembering an old theater trick she had learned years ago, Leix bought some cheap muslin sheet and soaked it in a mixture of cornstarch and water (she warns that paint-brushing the mixture onto the surface of the sheet won’t work; it must be submerged). She flattened the sheet on top of the acrylic and allowed it to dry, smoothing out any bubbles in the fabric with the edge of her health insurance card. There’s a fringe benefit to the project: fun with household chemistry. “Anyone making this,” she jokes, “must complete the prerequisite of playing around with the water-cornstarch solution for 10 minutes.”
To give her creation the appearance of a window, she purchased some styrofoam-like material in the moulding section at Home Depot to construct the frame and muntins for the window (muntins are the rigid supporting strip between adjacent panes of glass, aka, the cross that you see in the classic window model). She glued the styrofoam-like material onto the muslin cloth (which by this point had dried on top of the acrylic) with Gorilla Glue, which she says “will glue anything to anything.” Finally, she hung a curtain rod and let the curtains fall over the window. Success! “I’d give myself an eight out of 10,” she says.
She realized after completing the window that it would also sustain plants in addition to husbands. She adorned the desk in front of the window with an orchid, some hanging plants, and a Buddha statue. “I’m not trying to trick anyone that this is a 100 percent stand-in for a window,” she says. “Obviously nothing can perfectly mimic the sun.” In teaching animation, she describes to her students the perils of the uncanny valley: the sense of repulsion experienced when animation or computer-generated images look nearly but not quite real. She said some people thought a fake window would evoke that same feeling of unease, but “it doesn’t feel creepy,” she maintains. “It’s a 1,000 percent improvement down there.”
You would think someone with an idea this brilliant would want to copyright it and start building a business, but that’s not the case with Leix. She already has two other businesses, so she doesn’t exactly “have the energy to start a business to make fake windows that can grow plants.” She really believes in the idea, though, and would love it if people living in dark spaces had the option to purchase this affordable and effective alternative for a window. “Anyone reading this,” she says, “this idea is not copyrighted. Please make it.” There you have it, an ingenious invention and the possibility to get rich from it. For those of you living in the dark, step into the light.