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Auburn professor addressing resiliency, healthy eating through research by design

Published: December 10, 2021
This article first appeared in the Fall/Winter 2021 edition of “Auburn RESEARCH” magazine.
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Rusty Lay, an associate professor of industrial design in Auburn University’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction, or CADC, has created a sponsored research-by-design studio to develop affordable approaches to family-scale aquaponics.

Industry-sponsored studios provide important connections with industry leaders and give students the opportunity to seek innovative yet practical solutions to real-world problems.

Aquaponics is a food production system in which plants and fish are grown together, simultaneously providing fruits, vegetables and a source of protein for consumption. Fish waste provides the nutrients that plants need while plants provide the water filtration for the fish. Properly designed, these systems are extremely efficient, using approximately 90% less water than traditional farming. They also pose fewer health risks to consumers because, to prevent harm to the fish, the systems do not use chemical pesticides.

Aquaponics systems can vary in size—they are used at an industrial scale and are also available in countertop size for individual use. However, Lay identified a market in a specific size range: large enough to produce a substantial portion of a family’s food supply, but small enough fit in a backyard or patio. Systems at this scale could also provide a sustainable solution to “food deserts,” communities with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and help promote healthy, hyper-local eating.

Lay believes this project is important for multiple reasons.

“Industrial design is about problem finding as well as problem solving, and this ‘Small-Scale Food Production through Aquaponics’ project allows students to find, understand and work to address a variety of problems relating to society, environment and health through mimicry of natural and efficient systems,” Lay said. “The symbiotic relationship of plants and fish is utilized, re-configured and re-designed to meet a variety of needs, desires and aesthetics. The outcomes of this project are a variety of food production systems that are efficient, beautiful and desirable.”

Lay’s goal was for each student to fully understand the seemingly complex aquaponic system to design and build a system that was simple and easily understood, efficient and attractive for the user. He encouraged the use of readily available components in combination with a limited number of custom-designed and easily digitally fabricated components (e.g., using 3D printing, laser cutting, CNC routers, etc.). Students also were encouraged to design and package their systems in a way that would facilitate promoting and selling them online.

Lay partnered with horticulture professor Daniel Wells and local entrepreneur Jason Sager in the creation of the aquaponics research-by-design studio. Wells shared his knowledge of aquaponics and provided access to Auburn’s large-scale aquaponics systems, which are used in part to provide some of the fish and vegetables consumed in campus dining facilities.

Throughout the various design stages, Lay, Wells and Sager provided feedback and selected the designs that were most viable to be prototyped at full scale. After final full-scale prototypes were manufactured by students in the industrial design workshop under Lay’s supervision, they were presented for review to Sager, faculty and students at the CADC’s Robins & Morton Construction Field Lab. Funding for the studio and prototyping was provided by Sager.

One of the projects, called Grove, used an intermediate bulk container, or IBC, tote as the fish tank, market-available NFT channels for growing leafy greens and modified trash bins for Dutch bucket-style grow-containers on the side of the IBC tote. The student also custom created some parts using a 3D printer and CNC router. The perforated multi-purpose wood panels provide structural support and shade for the container, and 3D-printed connectors were used on support tables for the NFT channels, wood panel supports and supports for vertical growing areas.

For the next phase of research, Lay will join Wells on a USDA-funded project to expand aquaponics research at Auburn.

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