In early June, recent graduates Mike Hua, Jack Kaplan and Harrison Lin found themselves wheeling six large suitcases through Houston International Airport, hoping to get themselves and three indoor greenhouse prototypes to Sweden. It was not as easy as they thought it was going to be — not only because of the number of suitcases but because of what they contained.
“It looked sketchy,” Lin said. “There were a lot of wires and electronics, just a big jumble of things that normally we wouldn’t be traveling with. One of them wasn’t even a suitcase, just the aluminum chassis for our project, on casters, with wood panels bolted to it to seal it for transport. We wrote a long letter to the TSA, and it basically said, ‘We are a university team, nothing in this suitcase is dangerous, and we hope you don’t take any of this stuff because it would make our lives really hard. Thank you.’ It all made it. Thankfully.”
Back in March, the senior design team — mechanical engineering students Lin, Kaplan, Hua, Mary Bao and Colin Losey, and electrical engineering student Lingbo Chen — had heard about a competition called the Shared Space Challenge, put on by HSB Living Lab at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden. The purpose of the competition was to source new ideas on how shared spaces in apartment buildings can become more utilized, and more sustainable. The HSB Living Lab, a research laboratory that houses students and guest researchers in apartments within the facility, would act as a small-scale test-bed for these ideas.
The Rice group had already been working since the previous fall on building a single prototype of an automated, modular greenhouse, designed to grow food in small, indoor areas, perfect for apartments and shared spaces like the ones at HSB. They recorded a video pitch and sent it in, not expecting to hear back. Watch their pitch here.
Later that same month, the team found out their proposal had not only been accepted, but awarded first-place and a prize of 10,000 euros — and an order for two more prototypes, due in early June. Watch the award ceremony here.
“It was exciting,” Lin said, “but I thought the timeline was insane. We had spent an entire semester and a half making just one, and we weren’t even finished with that one yet. I wasn’t sure whether or not we were going to be able to pull this off.”
Ultimately, all three prototypes were completed and made it to Sweden — without being detained by the TSA.
Once at HSB, Hua, Kaplan and Lin went straight to work setting up the prototypes for the presentation and award ceremony to be held later that week.
“We worked hard the first two days to set everything up,” Kaplan said. “We forgot some screws that we needed, this and that, so we had to make trips to the hardware store and improvise a little bit. One component broke, and we had to work around that.”
The three prototypes, now complete, will be installed in early fall to be ready for the next semester of students and researchers living in the HSB.
“They’ll be scattered around the Living Lab,” Lin said. “We decided to put one in the shared space that all the residents use on the first floor, one directly inside the living room of one of the apartments there, and lastly, one in the laundry room.”
Why the laundry room?
“The first thing you see when you walk into the Living Lab is the laundry room. It’s part of an experiment,” Lin said. “They want to know how they can make laundry more social, so we are putting a greenhouse in the laundry room, which sounds funny.”
The group will continue to monitor the project to determine its success.
“We want to see how people use the greenhouses,” Kaplan said. “We have two main goals. Short term, we want to see if students take ownership of the devices, and utilize them while there. The long-term goal is we want to see how they affect the shared space. Does it increase the utilization of common spaces? Do people spend more time in the kitchen cooking because there are fresh herbs?”
Lin agreed. “At this point, HSB is free to do what they like with the devices, but we did suggest they be given custody to perhaps a master’s or Ph.D. student studying sustainable living. Someone who could test, as part of their research, whether or not these units positively affect life in the Living Lab.”
“It’s an experimental thing, to try and reduce energy and product consumption while still maintaining a high standard of living,” Kaplan said.