Fabrication

Online shoppong, trips to home depot and Canal plastics, and few days in the shop; and here’s the outcome: a greenhouse box.

First I made a drawing by taking into account all the dimensions, storage volumes, material quantity etc. I planned to make a compartment on left to house all the nutrients, electronic circuit, pumps etc.

I placed an order with estoconnecotrs and received aluminum members and connectors for the frame. These people were super helpful and they also cut to order.

The connectors and members were really easy to assemble with a mallet, without using any screws or bolts.

I first made the base frame, replicated the same for top face, and then constructed the whole box by joining together top and bottom faces with vertical members.

I tested this frame with the plants and light to make sure everything looks good.

Next, I cut a piece of ply for the base. This makes the box much heavier than what it was before.

I attached 8 rubber stoppers to the base. This prevents box from sliding, and will also allow me to vacuum-clean the space.

Then I mounted studs to join together the ply and frame:

Next step was cutting and mounting the wall panels. I used acrylic sheets, translucent white for computation and storage, and turquoise for the plants volume. Turquoise acrylic reduces the harsh purple light to soothing, slightly blue light.

Storage volume is divided into two compartments to utilize the available space.

Quick and dirty thesis show

We presented our in-progress thesis projects at ITP’s quick and dirty thesis show which was open to public. It was a great opportunity in terms of working on presentation skills, understanding user perspectives from the ones whom I’d never described my project before, and also validating my design process from an external standpoint.

Most people who visited my project were incoming fall 2017 ITP students, students & teachers from other NYU programs, and acquaintances of my teachers & classmates at ITP. As mentioned in earlier blog posts, I’d identified three different user groups and wanted to see the overlap between these groups at Q&D show: 1. People who love gardening &/or farming, 2. People who follow a precise diet by carefully avoiding certain foods (GMOs, frozen foods, meat, chemically processed foods etc.) or those who carefully consume certain foods (organic, fresh, vegan foods etc.), and 3. People who identify themselves as makers, DIY enthusiasts, nerds, explorers.

Almost all visitors (around 15) belonged to group #3 of makers and DIY enthusiasts. This was somewhat expected because of the setting of the exhibition- most visitors were aware of the nature of projects. To me the most interesting observation was that most of them either had a previous or ongoing experience with gardening, or were extremely careful about food they buy from markets. There was hardly anyone who belonged exclusively to group #3. This was the most important takeaway from the show. I got a chance to listen from people who buy only from farmers’ markets (5 persons in 15), who eat vegan only (2 in 15- it is a big number!), and who have plants around their apartment/ workplace (9 in 15). I met at least 6 people who belonged to all 3 groups (indoor gardeners or farmers, loyal customers of farmers’ markets, and makers/DIY enthusiasts). In my understanding, this number presents a good evidence that people in urban settings are interested in indoor farming that is experimental in nature, and that promises fresh food with great quality. Many said curious & inspiring things about the platform, such as

“I’d like to have this in my apartment”

“Will it grow plants like tomatoes, eggplant, strawberries?”

“I like its bright purple appearance!”

“Can I make it into a smaller version to grow just one plant?”

“Can I make a bigger model to grow a full farm in my apartment?”

“What are the energy figures?”

“What’s the cost of building this? Can I buy it from you once it is in production stage?”

“It can also support fish or other life forms in the water container.”

“I’ll love to club this with my little garden.”

“Automate it! I often forget to water my plants!”

“Please please don’t make a smartphone-operated IoT product. I’m sick of cellphone notifications from my door knob, microwave, PS4, and bike.”

“Please make a smartphone-operated IoT product! I’ll love to take care of my plants via my cellphone.”

“I once went on a road trip and tasted bananas grown organically by some random farmer. That day I noticed how significantly different it feels to eat something fresh without any pesticides and chemicals, and I decided to buy only and only from farmers’ market.”

“Indoor farms are like pets. Some prefer smaller, some want huge ones.”

“I tried building a hydroponic system once, but it failed.”

“I once harvested from hydroponic system, but the once-fascinating purple light was so irritating that I dismantled everything after the first yield.”

“I tried it once but without any sensors- would love to see where you take it from here!”

“My boyfriend loves gardening, I don’t. But it’s my job to regularly remind him to water the plants. I notify, he acts. The plants would die if just one of us tries to takes care of them!”

Apart from these interesting thoughts, I came across some knowledgeable insights from people who had tried basic hydroponics before:

  • Using BSF (Black Soldier Flies) bugs as complementary actors in the ecosystem. These bugs eat all the byproducts from plants, and provide organic waste in exchange. The bugs are extremely great source of protein and you can consume them. (Personally, this idea of eating bugs for proteins is gross to me.)
  • New contacts with experiments happening around NYC: Eagle street farms, GrowingChefs, BlueApron, Taylor at LaGuardia studio with a huge experience in indoor farming
  • Similar systems for growing plants without soil: Fog-ponics, aquaponics, mist-ponics

Before quick and dirty thesis show

We had a quick and dirty show of all thesis projects at ITP on 28th March. I made a poster describing my thesis project. I chose to use simple illustrations and a very few words to keep it simple. Prototype of the hydroponic system has a bright visual appearance to it because of the LEDs, so I made the poster without any colors and photographs: I made a few quick iterations for how user interaction might look like, and used these printouts to see how one would make meaning out of what they see on the interface.

Looking at why I’m interested in this project, I divided users in tree categories and made corresponding questionnaires:

  1. Users interested in gardening/ farming

Do you like gardening?

Tell me about your prior experience in farming / gardening! Do you have plants in your apartment or workplace?

Tell me how do you take care of those plants. How do you manage to water your plants in your daily schedule?

What do you think of this box (hydroponic system I have)? (Responses I’ve heard so far: It looks attractive, inviting, interesting, quirky-purple, nerdy, scientific)

Why do you think it looks (attractive, inviting, interesting, quirky-purple, nerdy, scientific)? Might need to rephrase it with a better question. Objective is to understand what key aspects they find exciting about it.

Would you like to have this box for yourself? Like, if I offer it to you right now with spinach and lettuce growing in it, would you like to keep it as a gift? (On top of their answer:) I give it to you, and I control it remotely so that you won’t have to worry about readings and gardening routines… But you get to eat the veggies!

2. Users aware of organics/ GMOs/ pesticides/ chemicals

How often do you buy groceries?

How much of leafy greens do you buy? (quantity, quality, frequency)

Where do you buy from- grocery stores? supermarkets? farmers’ markets? (If farmers’ market) why so? (real question: are you concerned about freshness, pesticides, chemicals, time it took for veggies to travel from farms to markets etc?)

Ever considered harvesting veggies yourself?

what were your thoughts/ ideas/ experiences?

3. Makers/ DIY enthusiasts/ kids

Would you call yourself a maker? Do you take interest in DIY projects? Ever clubbed those interests with food? Questions about above two classes

Midterm Feedback

Midterm presentation was a great experience as it brought fresh perspectives from outside ITP and made me work on how to describe my project in just a few minutes.

I received good reviews for slides, visuals, narrowing down the topic to something more specific, measurable and doable, and project planning. This assured that I’m on right track, and motivated me to plan further things.

Criticism/ questions/ suggestions I received were around following areas:

  1. It doesn’t have to be a tech project- there’s a risk of building something non-tech and sprinkling interactivity over it.
  2. Audience: How does it change/ expand with further progress of the project? What would make people use this in their apartments? Will there be different layers for different users? What are you adding to the dialogue of current IoT solutions?
  3. Scale: How much food would you need to produce in it for it to be your primary source of food? Are systems like this actually feasible on large scale?
  4. In a range of problems from tiny ones to critical future challenges, what all does it solve? eg. overpopulation, depletion of resources, unstable weather systems
  5. Minor points: Slides can show a better representation of timeline and users (how user group expands with time)

BASIC HYDROPONIC SYSTEM (CONTD.)

I made further progress this week and assembled the system. First I covered the bin with two layers of duct tape to make it opaque.

Outlined the formation of airstones and airpump tubing with respect to the plants. It took a while, but spending time on initial setup would save a lot of trouble in future phases. This exercise made sure that all plants will get enough air bubbles reaching to their roots.

 

Next I added 2-1-6 NPK FloraGro to the container. I followed the application table and used 4 teaspoons (20ml) chemical for 4gal water, which is the volume of the container.

Next phase needed precision, concentration, and a lot of time. I transferred 4 lettuce, 3 spinach and 1 parsley seedlings to the system. Steps were 1. Loosen the soil, remove the seedling carefully with its roots intact, wash away the soil with lukewarm water till you see clean, white roots. 2. Cut open a rockwool cube and place the seedling in it. One face of the cube has leaves growing out of it, the opposite side of cube has roots growing below. 3. Fill a net cup to an inch with leca clay granules. Place the rockwool cube in it and fill up the cup with more granules.

I used strongest of the seedlings that I could find. The roots were mostly around an inch long, and had very few or no branches. I am curious if this is the right time to transfer a seedling to hydroponic system. If this experiment fails I’ve few more seedlings from the same batch still growing in soil pellets, and maybe after a week I’ll try transferring those once they have stronger roots developed from soil-based model.

Aftermath! The whole process created some mess, and planing it ahead saved me lot of trouble. Loose soil is a quality resource that I moved back to the seedling bin.

I accidentally damaged a couple of seedlings and couldn’t use those any further- so I ate the leaves. Delicious!

DELIVERABLE 1: BASIC HYDROPONIC SYSTEM

I have completed the basic setup for a hydroponic system. Most parts are assembled and while I’m still waiting for a few more from amazon, it is in good shape to get started with.    Following is the list of parts and their current status:

  1. Container and Lid

I used a plastic bin from Stefani’s food systems and biodesign class. It is a white translucent plastic container with 18x13x5 inch inside dimensions. Next it needs to be opaque, I’m planning to use tape/ paint. The lid is custom designed CNC-cut styrofoam sheet with 8 holes for net cups. Each is 3″ diameter. Edge of the sheet is chamfered so it snugly fits on top of the container.   2. Plant cups I ordered 3″ net cups from amazon, these are designed for medium sized hydroponics and aeroponics. With a lip on top, cup fits perfectly in 3″ hole in the styrofoam. Inside a cup there is the plant, supported by a rockwool cube, which is placed in leca granules.   3. Nutrient solution Nutrient solution has N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) nutrients dissolved in pure water, with an air pump constantly bubbling air through the solution. I have three different nutrients from General Hydroponics. Each is designed for different phase of plant growth and has unique N-P-K ratio. Following three are 2-1-6, 0-5-4, and 5-0-1 respectively: The numbers describe percentage of the component. For example 0-5-4 has 0% nitrogen(N), 5% phosphorus(P), and 4% potassium(K). Rest is a combination of secondary elements such as minerals and metals (calcium, copper, iron, cobalt, manganese, zinc etc.) dissolved in water base. I am using a couple of typical air pumps designed for fishbowls. Flow of air constantly stirs the solution preventing the nutrients from settling down in the bottom, and also provides oxygen to the roots. Black tubing provides maximum opacity. I drew some sketches to see how to place the airstones (end unit that produces bubbles) in a formation at the bottom of container. T-shaped connectors provide branching from main tubing line to the airstones. 4. Plants I’ve decided to wait for a few more days before transferring seedlings into the system. The seedlings are growing fast and I can see their progress every day, which is really assuring. For hydroponics the roots need to be further developed to be able to support seedlings without soil.  

FIRST BATCH OF PLANTS

I planted the first batch of seeds on Thursday, Feb 16th. Most of the seeds are organic veggies from Home Depot, and there are a few Johnny Seeds organics that I borrowed from Stefani Bardin. I’m exploring spinach, lettuce, parsley and microgreens for this experiment.

 

Next I used grow pellets from Home Depot. These small discs are a convenient replacement to a pile of loose soil, and are designed for indoor seedlings.

I found a bunch of containers, each for a variety of plants.

Next I opened the netting, loosened the grow medium, and planted seeds in the pellets.

Finally, I watered and labelled the containers. There are four varieties: Organic spinach, lettuce, organic parsley, and microgreens. The microgreens have a harvest cycle of 10-12 days, and I’m planning not to use those for next phase. Other plants- spinach, lettuce and parsley- have a cycle of around 40 days, and I’m planning to build a hydroponic system and transfer these seedlings to it by February end.

HYDROPONIC SYSTEM

In order for a plant to grow and reach its full genetic potential, it is necessary to provide right amount of nutrients, water, and air at the right time. This is the very basis of farming. Hydroponics allows to provide the right proportion of these supplies at the right time, to grow plants indoor without having to worry about large scale infrastructural elements such as land, soil, irrigation and pest control. Simply put, hydroponics is growing plants with gravel, liquid or other medium with added nutrients but without soil. Roots are exposed directly to the nutrients solution, therefore offering a controlled environment in terms of what one feeds to the plant. It is possible to have a precise control over what you feed to the plant, as it is going to get directly absorbed by the roots.

I found this book extremely helpful in understanding the basics of hydroponics: http://www.agriculture.uz/filesarchive/HowToHydroponicsRobert2003.pdf

In general, a hydroponic system looks like this and has following fundamental elements:

[Image source: http://www.growthtechnology.com/growtorial/what-is-hydroponic-growing/]

  1. Container: Contains plants, nutrients solution, and pretty much defines the boundary of the system. It can be as small as a half gallon flask, or as big as 50 liter tank.
  2. Nutrient solution: A water based solution of nutrients, typically NPK (nitrogen- phosphorus- potassium) variant, depending on what kind of plants are grown.
  3. Flow mechanism: This is typically a combination of air pump and excess water outlet, to maintain right amount of water + air reaching the roots.
  4. Plants: Plants grow with their leaves/ stem outside of the container, and their roots growing down inside. Roots are partially immersed into the solution with air bubbling through it, supplying oxygen. Soils is not used at all. Instead the plants are supported by net cups tucked into the lid of the container. Net cup is filled with gravel of perlite or leca, with a water-holding porous element such as rockwool.

There are plenty of variants of this model. All variations require that no outside light reaches inside the container, as it is the best way to prevent growth of algae. Many variations use additional artificial lighting systems that need to be controlled manually, to simulate natural daylight cycle. Typically the plants are grown in cycles of 2 to 3 weeks.

My goal is to construct a basic hydroponic system first, and then make an interactive version of it.