With the growth of cities, there is little to no land left for cultivation. In a futuristic scenario, this could become a major problem.  Many leading countries like Japan, the United States of America, South Africa, Australia, the United Kingdom, India and also Space are looking forward to reaping the benefits of the modern method of farming called Hydroponics. Simply put, hydroponics is the practice of growing plants using only water, nutrients, and a growing medium. The word hydroponics comes from the roots “hydro”, meaning water, and “ponos”, meaning labor, this method of farming does not use soil.

Growing plants using hydroponics has been around for centuries, and this unique method is still very much in use in modern agriculture. The earliest examples of hydroponics date back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Floating Gardens of China. Humans used these techniques thousands of years ago. Although the general theory behind hydroponics remains the same, modern technology has enabled us to grow plants faster, stronger, and healthier.

The earliest modern reference to hydroponics (last 100 years) was by a man named William Frederick Gericke. While working at the University of California, Berkeley, he created a sensation by growing tomato vines twenty-five feet (7.6 meters) high in his back yard in mineral nutrient solutions rather than soil. He introduced the term hydroponics, water culture, in 1937.

One of the biggest advantages that hydroponics has over soil growing is water conservation and climate control. When growing plants in soil, a grower has to be very experienced to know how much water to give his plants. Too much and the plant’s roots are not able to get enough oxygen. Too little and the plant can dry out and die. Also, different seasons affect productivity.

Hydroponics solves this problem in three different ways.

i. Oxygenated Nutrient Reservoir

The water reservoir can be constantly oxygenated, making sure that the plant’s roots obtain the optimum level of oxygen. Additionally, the problem of watering is solved by the fact that the plant’s root system no longer has soil surrounding it, blocking oxygen uptake by the roots.

ii. Uses Less Water

Hydroponics uses much less water than soil farming because it can be recirculated. In traditional farming, water is poured over the ground and seeps into the soil. Only a small fraction of the water actually gets used by the plant. Hydroponics allows for the unused water to be recycled back into the reservoir, ready for use in the future. In dry and arid areas, this is a massive benefit.

iii. Total Growing Control

The final major benefit of hydroponics is the amount of control a grower has over the environment. Pests and diseases are much easier to deal with – your environment is oftentimes portable and raised off of the ground. This makes it hard for bugs to reach your plants. Any soil-related diseases are completely written off in hydroponics as well. Lastly, you’re able to control the number of nutrients provided to your plant precisely, saving on nutrition costs.

iv. Climate control

Like in greenhouses, hydroponic growers can have total control over the climate – temperature, humidity, light intensification, the composition of the air. In this sense, you can grow foods all year round regardless of the season. Farmers can produce foods at the appropriate time to maximize their business profits.

Hydroponics is an easy setup that requires less space. It is easily available and totally customizable hence it has been implemented in various scenarios which are listed below:

1. Retail Stores

With consumers increasingly conscious of their environmental impact, many stores have realized that going green is good for business. Big stores like Target began a series of trials in spring 2017 in which vertical, hydroponic gardens were installed in various Target locations to provide customers with the freshest possible produce. In collaboration with MIT Media Lab and Ideo, Target designed a system that is capable of growing leafy greens and herbs with minimal water usage. The company hopes to someday branch out into other crops, such as potatoes, zucchini and beets. MIT may even offer Target use of rare heirloom tomato seeds for its project. Meanwhile, IKEA has teamed up with Denmark-based SPACE10 to design high-tech hydroponics systems in-stores and in homes. It showcased Lokal, a project that aims to provide a space-saving and sustainable way for people to grow their own food.

2. Deserts

In preparation for a future dominated by climate change, in which oil becomes a lesser part of the world’s energy diet, Saudi Arabia has taken several major steps to build a more sustainable system in its challenging desert region. One such move is the rethinking of many traditional farming practices, especially focused on reducing water usage. A farm in the town of Jeddah uses neither water nor soil, rooting plants in mid-air while providing their nutrients through a mist. Designed by AeroFarms, the system is the first aeroponic farm in the Middle East and hopes to someday acquire all its water needs through capturing humidity in the air.

If a desert farm chooses to go hydroponic, there are ways to grow without draining freshwater supplies. In arid South Australia, SunDrops Farms grows 15% of the country’s tomato crop through a solar-powered hydroponic system. To eliminate the use of precious fresh water, SunDrops sources its water from the nearby saltwater gulf, which is then desalinated through the reflected heat of the sun.

In a very different kind of desert, soil-less farming helps growers from the Arctic to Antarctica make the most of a short growing season.

3. Cities

As the global population becomes more urban, cities are investing in more local food production systems that offer economic development opportunities and reduce a city’s carbon footprint. In a warehouse on the Near East Side of Indianapolis, Farm 360 is growing vegetables on a hydroponic system that is exclusively powered by renewable energy and uses 90 percent less water than traditional farming methods. The harvest is sold in local grocery stores while the farm supports dozens of living-wage jobs to residents of the neighborhood.

In even the most isolated urban areas, soil-less farming finds a home. With its ability to receive vital supplies and support a functioning economy severely restricted by the Israeli blockade, Gaza has stepped out onto the rooftops to grow its own food. Beginning in 2010, a United Nations-funded urban agriculture program equipped over 200 female-headed households with fish tanks, equipment, and supplies to build and maintain an aquaponics growing system. This initial spark has encouraged others to create their own and to teach others of this valuable skill.

4. The Underground

Farming without soil can often take place beneath the soil. In Paris, Cycloponics runs La Caverne, a unique urban farm that grows mushrooms and vegetables in an underground, formerly abandoned parking garage. The farm’s hydroponics system uses special grow lights to ensure the vegetables have what they need to survive. The mushrooms grow in a special medium and, through their respiration, provide valuable CO2 for the plants to thrive. La Caverne may have found inspiration from Growing Underground, London’s first underground farm. On 2.5 acres of unused World War II-era tunnels, Growing Underground produces pea shoots, several varieties of radish, mustard, cilantro, Red Amaranth, celery, parsley, and arugula.

5. On The Water

Some soil-less growing operations take it a step further, leaving the ground behind entirely and opting for a farm floating on water. Barcelona-based design group Forward Thinking Architecture has proposed a progressive solution to the decreasing availability of arable land by creating floating, solar-powered farms. Using modules that measure 200 meters by 350 meters, Forward Thinking’s design allows for expansion and custom configuration of farms. Each module has three levels: a desalinization and aquaculture level at the bottom, then a hydroponic farming level, topped off by a level of solar panels and rainwater collection. The company estimates that each module would produce 8,152 tons of vegetables a year and 1,703 tons of fish annually.

Greenwave takes an alternative approach to soil-less, floating farming by combining the cultivation of shellfish and seaweed, both profitable crops that also help to clean the aquatic environment and absorb greenhouse gases. The farm requires little external input, pulls carbon dioxide from the air and water, and consumes excess nitrogen that could otherwise result in algal blooms and dead zones.

6. Your Home

Because all that plants need are provided and maintained in a system, you can grow in your small apartment, or the spare bedrooms as long as you have some spaces.
Plants’ roots usually expand and spread out in search of foods, and oxygen in the soil. This is not the case in hydroponics, where the roots are sunk in a tank full of oxygenated nutrient solution and directly contact with vital minerals. This means you can grow your plants much closer, and consequently huge space savings.

With such easy and varied application of Hydroponics, it has found its way into the built environment. In cases like below, it has become an integral part of the design.

I. Pasona Urban Farm By Kono Designs

New York firm Kono Designs created the urban farm in 2010, in a nine-storey office building in Tokyo to allow employees to grow and harvest their own food at work.

The building has a double-skin green facade where flowers and orange trees are planted on small balconies. From the outside, the office block appears to be draped in green foliage.

“The design focus was not on the imposed standards of green, where energy offsets and strict efficiency rates rule,” said Kono. “But rather on an idea of a green building that can change the way people think about their daily lives and even their own personal career choice and life path.”

Inside the offices, tomato vines are suspended above conference tables, lemon and passion fruit trees are used as partitions for meeting spaces, salad leaves are grown inside seminar rooms and bean sprouts are grown under benches.

Ducts, pipes, and vertical shafts were rerouted to the perimeter of the building to allow for maximum height ceilings and a climate control system is used to monitor humidity, temperature, and airflow in the building to ensure it is safe for the employees and suitable for the farm.

II. Agro Housing By Knafo Klimor Architects

Knafo Klimor Architects’ proposal is a response to a projection that 50% of China’s one billion people will soon be living in cities.  In order to effectively manage so many people, cities need to be developed in a way that can accommodate an influx of population that requires housing, sanitation, infrastructure, jobs, food and a decent standard of living.  One major way of dealing with this is by way of this proposal.

On a small scale, the housing with greenhouse typology created by Knafo Klimor Architects gives its residents freedom to grow their own food to their tastes, manage their homes without having to rely on farmers miles away, and can potentially become a source of income. The multi-storey greenhouses provide each residential unit with ten square meters of greenhouse space.  These are soil-less systems that are equipped with drip irrigation, based on recycled “grey water” collected from apartments and rainwater collected from the rooftop.  The product can be organic and is also likelier to be healthier, fresher, free of chemicals and mass-produced fertilizers and diseases.

Renuka Shinde
Author

Renuka Shinde, an architect turned environmental strategist loves voicing her opinions regarding her perception of architecture which, considering where you are reading this is, makes perfect sense. She is an IGBC AP and currently works as a green building consultant in Mumbai. Having worked as a set designing intern, a design architect and now a writer she believes life should be lived in experiences.

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