The Internet of Plants: What These Smart Terrariums Can Tell us About Building Cities
Plant-in City is a collaborative project between architects, designers, and technologists building new ways of interacting with nature. Everything around us is a system: subways, roadways, mechanical works, the electrical power grid. They all play a key role in making the city run.
We approached this project, culminating in an exhibition at Mark Miller Gallery, currently up in New York through December 16, with that in mind and created a vertical cascading city of plants made of 65 modular cedar units. The units create a city for plants that translate their environmental data into the sound of an imaginary wilderness in the gallery.
These 21st century sculptural terrariums combine modular architecture, basic laws of physics, embedded technologies, and mobile computing to construct a “Plant City” where the aesthetic meets the pragmatic. The Plant-in City collective was started by Huy Bui and Jon Schramm of *HB* Collaborative, a four year old design/build studio, and Carlos J. Gómez de Llarena of Med44, a media architecture firm. We are all architects by formation but with different creative visions and experiences that shape our vision.
HB Collaborative has a manufacture-intensive workshop. Our goal was to balance it out with some form of nature and vegetation. We considered building a living wall for our studio/shop but knew we were challenged with keeping our plants healthy and we wanted a way to water them while we were busy or on vacation. We approached Carlos with the seed of an idea. That led to the possibility of integrating architecture, technology, and plants into one project.
We decided to transform the system into modular units with a wood frame structure and a simple rule of a common multiple. This rule allows for infinite possibilities of configurations of stack-ability and integration. With this strategy, the project can assume many different forms, be it a standalone object, a partition wall, an architectural structure or a city of plants.
We believe a city is a sum that is greater than its parts and to realize this vision we turned to crowd-sourced funding to build a city for plants inspired by New York. The exhibition is a result of a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised the money to produce this installation and introduced our idea to the public.
Here’s how it works:
- Water tanks and pumps are located at the foundation of the structure and transport water vertically to the apex. Water is then irrigated through perforated copper piping distributed throughout various zones in the “city” and permeates down from one planter to another, some damp and some receiving just a trickle of water. The cedar frame structure integrates LED strip lighting and is the conduit of the electrical power grid. The frames illuminate amber colors that highlight the plants to the foreground. Plants find homes based on these conditions and an architecture designed to keep the vegetation happy is an experiment in progress.
- The technology consists of some of the frames featuring an Arduino microcomputer equipped with wireless radios, sensors and a speaker. These electronics are placed in four different zones of the installation and allow us to detect soil moisture, light, air humidity, temperature and the remaining water in the irrigation tanks of each area they cover.