Self-sustaining "farmscrapers" proposed for Shenzhen


March 8, 2013

A French architectural group recently revealed its concept for "Asian Cairns," a series of six sustainable buildings that resemble a stack of pebbles and produce their own food

A French architectural group recently revealed its concept for "Asian Cairns," a series of six sustainable buildings that resemble a stack of pebbles and produce their own food

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As one of the most densely populated cities in China, Shenzhen has been dealing with a sudden population boom for years now, leaving urban planners scrambling for innovative building designs that manage resources and space more efficiently. There have been a few unusual proposals, but the latest design from French architectural firm, Vincent Callebaut Architects, probably takes the cake. The group recently revealed its concept for "Asian Cairns," a series of six sustainable buildings that resemble a stack of pebbles and produce their own food.

VCA is no stranger to unconventional structures, having previously designed a floating city modeled after a lilypad, and the architectural group's latest project is just as unusual. Tasked with creating an urban structure that addresses the growing population of Shenzhen while producing more energy than it consumes, VCA decided to model a set of six buildings after cairns – man-made stacks of small rocks typically built by hikers to mark trails. The plans would require the buildings to be arranged over a space of 320,000 square meters (approx. 79 acres) with vegetation incorporated into almost the entire area, even the structures themselves.

Each "farmscraper," as the group calls them, would consist of a central tower with a series of pebble-like sections spiraling upwards around it and growing smaller toward the top. The plans call for the "pebbles" to be divided into multiple floors and shaped by concentric steel rings, which connect to the center tower through Vierendeel beams. The idea is that each "pebble" can be customized to suit a variety of needs, like housing, office space, shops, recreation areas, etc. The main tower would link each section and essentially transform each building into a self-sufficient community, reducing the need for much outside travel and decreasing carbon emissions in the area as a result.

The Asian Cairn designers heavily incorporated vegetation into the mix as well with various orchards and gardens scattered both inside and outside the buildings. The outer walls would be transparent to allow sunlight into each pebble, turning some spaces into functional greenhouses for growing fresh produce. Any liquid or solid organic waste produced by the tower's day-to-day operations would also be recycled into the building's agriculture. Even the tops of each pebble would include space for growing plants and trees, either for food or just decoration.

For energy, the designs feature plenty of photovoltaic and photothermal solar cells, along with axial wind turbines spread along the top of each section. According to VCA, the Cairns will actually provide more power than they consume without using fossil fuels or producing CO2 emissions.

While the Asian Cairns design is certainly eye-catching, it's hard to say whether the concept will move into the construction phase. If the towers did produce a positive amount of energy and resources, as the designers attest, they would definitely help address environmental concerns in the area – but whether or not they are a viable solution for high-density living remains to be seen. At this stage, VCA has mapped out the buildings for a private client, but has not revealed any plan to actually build them.

Source: Vincent Callebaut Architects

About the Author
Jonathan Fincher Jonathan grew up in Norway, China, and Trinidad before graduating film school and becoming an online writer covering green technology, history and design, as well as contributing to video game news sites like Filefront and 1Up. He currently resides in Texas, where his passions include video games, comics, and boring people who don't want to talk about either of those things. All articles by Jonathan Fincher

While I don't doubt that the idea is possible..why the heck would you wanna do it? I mean, ask yourself--how many people would be contend to live in a cage, even a golden one? I know I would--but who else?

Let's admit it--life for most is about beating the Jones. It's not about surviving and thriving. It's about being better than that next guy. Who the hell would work in the farm section of this building, when their neighbors are working retail shops? The tech will work--but the people will never want it.

Savin Wangtal

"but whether or not they are a viable solution for high-density living remains to be seen"

Architects design the look of the building. Function is the role of Engineers. This building is like the more.. eccentric outfits sometimes seen in fashion shows with the huge strange hats, function isn't really the goal.


Question, you really think it's a great idea to recycle waste into the agriculture? How will the trace amount of drugs be removed before being used to grow the food...

Nick Thompson

I'd want to be the company that hires window-washers for them.

But then again, maybe not... With all these curved glass surfaces to take care of, I'd have to pay huge insurances... It's gonna be a nightmare to maintain the outside part. Think rainy days (slippery), think dusty (slippery) roofs. Even with safety fences on the rims, it'd be a... demanding experience.

Then, it's the trees. Are the architects aware that trees have roots, some of them shallow, some of them deep? Have they taken that into account, assuming they WILL want some biodiversity in the "ecosystem"? Especially since the trees will be in small scattered groups (hence very little wind-breakage between them) and high up (hence potentially stronger winds), they WILL need to plant something with deeper roots, or it won't stay upright for long.

And if a tree (or anything comparably sizeable) falls over from someplace high up, will they ensure that the lower pebbles are appropriately reinforced to withstand that?

Just a couple of things that sprang to mind. Otherwise, a very beautiful and compelling design. Bravo!

Τριαντάφυλλος Καραγιάννης

These building should also be made in America, Our country is smaller and could use some serious ecologically friendly financial stimulous. They would also make awesome homes.


Need these for the US , Canada for Urban Farming Great for Chicago, Denver, Detroit, St Paul, Wash DC, Miami, Houston, DFW TX, New Orleans OK City, Santa Fe.

Stephen Russell
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