Hyperions Sustainable ecosystem project by Vincent Callebaut

Hyperions Sustainable ecosystem

Sustainable High Rise Building Design Proposal by Vincent Callebaut

Hyperions Sustainable ecosystem project: Agroecology and sustainable food systems growing up around wooden & timber towers for Jaypee greens sports city, New Delhi 2014-2020


Stop the Ecocide: Onwards to the agroecological revolution

My name is Amlankusum. I’m a 45-year old Hindu agroecologist. For the past five years, I’ve lived with my family in the heart of a plus-energy, vertical eco-neighborhood called “Hyperions” producing more energy than it consumes. In collaboration with architects, agricultural engineers, agronomists and farmers, I eco-conceived this garden towers project rooted in Jaypee Greens Sports City, with the double objective of energy decentralization and food deindustrialization. My approach is holistic, combining the best of low-tech and high-tech instead of systematically opposing them. Our aim is to reconcile urban renaturation and small-scale farming with environment protection and biodiversity.

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I believe in eradicating the crime of Ecocide, by which I mean the destruction of India’s ecosystems, my country, and the world’s fourth source of food with 17.6% of the world’s population. The density, land economics and environmental challenges are immense. I want to prove to decision-makers that strategic links can be established between climate change, sustainable agriculture and urban development.

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Jaypee is a new city located in the Delhi NCR (National Capital Region), one of the largest metropolises in the world with 50 million inhabitants. India’s National Capital Region is the designation for the metropolitan region that includes New Dehli and the surrounding areas in the neighboring states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Located on the Yamuna Expressway between New Delhi and Agra, my city is reputed for the Formula 1 Grand Prix on the Buddh International circuit, and for its world-class cricket stadium, hockey stadium and sports academy. Its population is made mostly of students, white and blue-collar workers. Jaypee is saturated with concrete and pollution, and my ambition is to transform it into a pioneering urban agroecology.

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I come from farming roots, and lived through the massive, post Green Revolution exodus of my fellow rural countrymen towards cities such as Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Since my country’s independence in 1947 and the industrial revolution of the 1960s, I’ve been campaigning relentlessly for the democratization of environmentally responsible farming, and against the out-of-control productivism focused on immediate returns, in total disregard for the long, laborious processes of farmland regeneration. The Green Revolution, which promoted the extensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, may have enabled India to substantially develop its agriculture beyond the hopes of its 650 million farmers, but this came at a great cost.

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The green illusion was short-lived, threatening food sovereignty. Washed out by pesticides, the land has become sterile; intensive farming has depleted soils of nitrates; groundwater is polluted with nitrate fertilizers; and biodiversity is heading towards extinction. The balance of the biosphere has been durably damaged, leading to today’s climate disruption. The social fabric has been sacrificed, too, driving countless Indian farmers to suicide due to the untenable pressure of global market lobbies. Life has been privatized by a few multinationals patenting seeds that also led to an epidemic of cancer, Parkinson and Alzheimer diseases.

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The boomerang effect from the Green Revolution directly affected farmers, caught between excessive debt and ruin caused by increasing GMO-related production prices, and the decrease in farming revenues caused by economic deregulation. Their sterile land has been requisitioned for the creation of industrial free zones. Hoping to find a new El Dorado, most farmers migrated en-masse to the cities. This led to the explosion of social inequalities and the worsening of health conditions, as the industry was not growing fast enough to absorb the famers’ exodus.

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With my degree in agroecology, I’ve never been able to accept that the industrialization of my country could be at the cost of its population’s sacrifice. To reinvent a new urban and human model based on environmentally and socially respectful green development: that’s my everyday challenge. In the asphyxiated Indian environment, I search for other ways of producing sustainably in order to shelter and feed the growing population.

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We’ve lived through the era of carbon, steel, oil and ore, followed by the era of chemicals. I believe that the 21st Century will be the era of life and biology, or it won’t be.

New urban farmers working for urban agroforestry and permaculture

In Jaypee, we’ve started farming the city like a biomimetic ecosystem, by taking its density into account, and hybridizing it with nature. I imagine the city — my city as territory for social innovation — by bringing together the climate, landscape, agriculture and use flows.

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With my wife and urban planner Kamalesh, we both dream of turning Jaypee into wilderness; to transcend it with life, into a “nature-city” that is organically nutritive, mixed, dense, as flexible as needed, and with strong fertile potential. To this end and together with city officials, we’re leading a new dynamic of eco-responsible urban projects, built from bio-based materials and combining leading-edge renewable energies with age-old bioclimatic techniques — all blooming in the heart of a pervasive urban agriculture based on agroforestry and permaculture, in all the streets and on all buildings’ floors. The Hyperions project in which we live is the first example, like an open-air collaborative lab. Follow me, I’ll give you a tour!

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On arable parcels all around the project, agrosystems and ecosystems merge to promote the respect of nature and the protection of the residents’ health, using a production model that requires less chemical and energy inputs but can reach an annual output of more than 20 kilos of organic fruit and vegetables per square meter (4 pounds per square foot). Through local fair trade stores, we try to progressively reconcile the economic dimension with the social and political approach of a type of agriculture that is more integrated into society.

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We’re the new urban farmers (urbanists + farmers). We now farm Jaypee in a sustainable, interdependent way, “Obeying nature to better control it,” as Olivier de Serres, one of the first French agronomists, recommended back in 1600.

The six main principles that we’re implementing in order to establish a local agricultural policy with low greenhouse gas output are as follows:

1. Fertilizing the soils with compost and green fertilizers, thus maintaining moist humus and plant-based biomass levels that sequestrate carbon and ensure durable fertility.
2. Systematic use of diversified crops, which by increasing biodiversity save using chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides and fungicides.
3. Minimal tillage such as mulch or non-plowing, thus preserving microorganisms and a permanent plant cover that structure the soil and limit erosion.
4. Researching alternative methods such as milpa or push-pull, whose complementary crops preserve the soils’ ecological balance while promoting natural and biodegradable phytosanitary treatments against parasites.
5. Growing self-reproducing, diverse endemic crops, and privileging the use of less hydrophilic ancestral seeds.
6. Collecting and optimizing rainwater resources (especially during monsoon) by putting micro-dams and small filtrating embankments in place to replenish groundwater.

Jaypee thus becomes resilient and edible. Our quickset hedges replace barbwire and fences. Groves and tree rows reinvest our fields where millet, wheat or corn crops are rotated. In addition, our cereal crops, together with legumes such as beans and squash, reduce nitrogen inputs (responsible for green gases), while maintaining healthy protein levels. Our small farming businesses thus see their output grow through biodiversity.

Diseases, weeds and insect damage become less frequent thanks to such rebalanced ecosystems. Phyto-purification ponds and lagoons merge with the garden towers, in community orchards devoted to spices such as camphor laurels, bergamot trees and other cinnamon plants. They’re dotted with urban farms and small animal farms producing eggs and dairy. Agricultural by-products (animal waste, farming residues, milking parlor water, etc.) are turned into methane that generates energy, which is then re-injected into our homes in real time.

Tropical fruit trees such as mango, banana and Bengal fig trees abound, as well as nectar-producing plants, medicinal plants and family vegetable gardens — not only in the streets, but also on façades, balconies and rooftops. Meanwhile, earthworms re-oxygenate the soil, and beetles and bees buzz again while pollinizing flowers.

Bio-sourced garden towers built with cross-laminated timber

The Hyperions project — where our family settled with our daughter Sarasvati and son Rashmika — is made of six garden towers, each 36-story high and comprised of housing and offices. The towers are built with cross-laminated timber (CLT) and are covered with orchard gardens. Their name comes from the tallest tree in the world, the Hyperion, a Sequoia Sempervirens found in Northern California, whose size can reach 115.55 meters (close to 380 feet).

All the wood required to build the garden towers comes from a Delhi forest, which is also managed sustainably, and in which we make sure to renew what we collect with respect for the appropriate cutting cycle and regenerating capacity. I like to remind people that, with its 68 million hectares of forest covering 23% of its territory, India is one of the ten most wooded countries on Earth, and the world’s second producer of fruit and vegetables. Trapped as we are in the New Delhi smog, it is our duty to preserve those carbon-sequestrating forests now more than ever. Indeed, one cubic meter (c. 35 cubic feet) of wood can stock up to 0.9 ton of CO2 while a tree grows.

That’s why I wanted our architects to celebrate this green treasure by building tall structures with wood, because it’s the material that provides the best environmental footprint during its lifecycle — from harvesting to recycling, through transportation, processing, implementation, maintenance and reuse.

Wood’s manufacturing processes require less energy and are less polluting than those of standard materials such as steel or concrete, which negatively impact the environment. By substituting these materials with wood, we can avoid the emission of up to 1.1 tons of CO2 per cubic meter (c. 35 cubic feet). Between its CO2-sequestrating capacity during its growth phase and its low-emission manufacturing processes, one cubic meter (c. 35 cubic feet) of wood therefore saves two tons of CO2.

In order to optimize the residential buildings, our engineers opted for a mixed structure, with a steel and concrete substructure for the earthquake-resistant foundations, parking areas and vertical core bases; and a superstructure made of solid wood columns, beams and walls, reinforced with steel blades where columns and beams meet. Each wood-based structural component is made of multiple panels laid perpendicularly to each other, and bound together with pintles and gudgeons or organic structural adhesives. The Hyperions’ skeleton is made of 25% inert materials and 75% bio-sourced materials. This mixed structure is reputed for its strong mechanical resistance (including in the event of earthquakes); for its high resistance to fire; and for its high acoustic and thermal performance.

A plus-energy project that optimizes its environmental footprint

Wood, by definition a natural and renewal material, allowed us to minimize the “inherent energy” of the materials used to build the six garden towers. Seeking a neutral environmental footprint, we wanted to go even further, by producing the “operational energy” (for lighting, climate control, hot water, etc.) on-site, while recycling our liquid and solid organic waste into natural resources, recycled and recyclable in a closed loop, also on-site.

That’s how my wife Kamalesh came up with the idea of wind lampposts that rhythm the greenbelt along the site. They produce their own electricity thanks to magnetic-levitation, vertical-axis wind turbines (VAWTs) integrated on their pole.

For the towers, she imagined blue-colored, photovoltaic and thermal scales that wrap around the façades, following the course of the sun from East to West. These solar sensors also highlight the main balconies’ infill panels, and pixelate the glass domes of the bioclimatic greenhouses — thus securing the production of sanitary hot water and artificial lighting. Even our electric cars are recharged in real time by those solar façades.

As for me, as an agroecologist, I suggested that the project be covered with a genuine, virtuous feeding ecosystem based on organic aquaponics. Thus, carrots, tomatoes, spinach, saffron and coriander grow in light substrates made of clay balls on each apartment’s balcony and in hydroponic greenhouses. They are irrigated with water from ponds breeding several species of fish, whose excrement is naturally rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. In these organic fish farms promoting mixed farming, we also find mollusks and crustaceans filtering and grazing the organic micro-waste. This vertical farming gives residents some food autonomy while saving on the land. Our food is produced mostly on-site or in neighboring agroforestry fields. We also manage to save up to 90% of our water needs, since it circulates in a closed loop via small pumped hydroelectric energy storage (PHES) plants.

The six garden towers are like a vertical village with a high social, cultural and use mix. The flexible, evolutionary spaces dedicated to business incubators, living labs, coworking spaces, multi-purpose rooms and concierge services are located behind the solar facades. All apartments big or small, as well as student housing, open onto cascading hydroponic balconies. Indoor furniture is made of natural materials such as tamarind and sandalwood, and comes from local cabinetmakers, fab labs and recycling shops.

The various spatial uses are linked together with footbridges, and converge under a large orchard roof that serves as a meeting place for our small urban farmer community. Whether it’s summer, monsoon or winter, our families can meet there, pick fruit, go for a run, get some exercise in the sports hall’s kabaddi field, swim in the organic pool, or watch over their kids playing kho in the playgrounds. These communal footbridges are irrigated by collecting rainwater and residents’ greywater, and the filtered water’s organic nutriments are absorbed by the plants’ roots. This network of sky-high suspended walkways allows residents to move from one tower to the other, from one use to the other, and to forge social and interdependent relationships among neighbors.

From Rajasthan, Jaypee inherits high temperatures and droughts, while freezing currents from the Himalaya can sometimes bring harsh winters. In order to secure the natural ventilation of our living spaces in this mostly hot and humid subtropical climate, we put together a natural climate control system, articulated along the vertical circulation cores of the wind chimneys. This system takes advantage of the earth’s thermal inertia (under the foundations), which remains stable at 18 degrees Celsius (c. 64 degrees Fahrenheit) all year round. Through natural airflow, the external air — which can reach 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) and fall to 3 degrees Celsius (c. 37 degrees Fahrenheit) in the winter — is therefore naturally cooled or heated in contact with the earth, and so without using a single kilowatt of electricity. As you may have guessed, our village basically imitates the climate control of a termite mound.

Top down and bottom up: When collaborative city rhymes with local resources and supply chains

The fusion “forest + agriculture + urban fabric” is a humanistic alternative that brings together the best of both the city and the countryside. From agroforestry to wood-based construction to permaculture and aquaponics, the Hyperions project is the symbol of a short supply chain economy based on harvesting local resources. This virtuous circle generates links between local producers and “prosumers”. Residents, organic farmers, garden producers, agroecologists, loggers, agronomists, architects and designers: all participate in a sustainable production, distribution, consumption and recycling process.

Using this circular, collaborative economic model, we’ve been able to not only reinforce the economic fabric by creating local jobs, but to also turn the project into a formidable sharing economy and co-construction playing field. Between the democratized technological innovations and the bottom-up social innovations, we’ve regained control of energy, resources and space. We’ve become the true actors of our city, as opposed to mere consumers.

We the “Urban Farmers” claim that converting worldwide agriculture into organic techniques and bio-sourced construction could reduce worldwide CO2 emissions by about 40% by 2030. Hyperions is a sustainable agro-ecosystem project capable of resisting climate change thanks to its healthy economic and environmental ecosystems.

Solidarity, fairness, and the right symbiosis of human actions on nature: those are our founding ethical values.

Amlankusum, Agroecologist, Jaypee