Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico in 2017, killing nearly 3,000 people, displacing thousands more and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage. To make matters worse, the storm wrecked much of the farming operations on the island.

As a result, an island that already had to import about 80 percent of its food now had to import more than 95 percent. The frequency of these catastrophic events will only increase as the sea level continues to rise.

A team of RS&H architects and engineers looked to address these issues with the Agri Tower, the firm’s entry for the 2019 eVolo Skyscraper Competition. The Agri Tower is a response to the ever-encroaching threat of sea level rise and a new direction for agrarian urbanism.

“We looked at not just prevention and resistance, but also support,” said RS&H Healthcare Design Leader Michael Compton, AIA, LEED AP, EDAC, who led the RS&H team. “The structures have to not only sustain themselves during a significant weather event like a hurricane, but they also have to account for the slow degradation of the land itself.”

Established in 2006, eVolo’s annual Skyscraper Competition is one of the world’s most prestigious awards for high-rise architecture. It recognizes outstanding ideas that redefine skyscraper design through the implementation of novel technologies, materials, programs, aesthetics, and spatial organizations along with studies on globalization, flexibility and adaptability.

This is the second straight year RS&H has participated in the competition, pulling together experts from several Practices and specialties to create a one-of-a-kind concept.

Introducing the Agri Tower

The Agri Tower provides structural support to the lily pads, pods and canopies, while also housing all community assets and residences. The glazed portion of the tower also doubles as a power source through the use of photovoltaic technologies.

These coastal towers not only provide shelter, but they also create a sustainable, vertical agricultural environment that ensures all three needs for human survival – shelter, water and food – are met.

Lily Pads Provide Agrarian Sustainability

At the base of the Agri Towers, large agricultural lily pads spread out like roots to meet the water. These pads utilize a combination of local traditional farming techniques and the more natural approach of permaculture and regenerative agriculture. By creating a new, rich layer of top soil and vegetation, the Agri Tower will improve the local water cycle, increase biodiversity, and enhance ecosystem services. In addition to providing nourishment, the lush landscaped lily pads offer much needed green space to the crowded city center.

Detachable Pods Usher in Aquaponics

As sea levels rise and the lily pads are submerged, detachable pods will continue to provide food for the Agri Towers’ residents. Some pods will float along the sea with vegetation growing above while others will submerge and act as harvesters, leading to the cultivation of both aquatic vegetation and sea life. Other pods will serve the purpose of aquaponics, combining aquaculture with hydroponics.

Rainwater and Solar Canopies

Water is collected and harvested via large canopies, as well as from desalinization through the plant life on each lily pad. Solar canopies are composed of photovoltaic panels, which will provide sustainable, independent electricity to the towers – this microgrid can also be used to provide electricity back to the island. Cables connecting the towers to the lily pads act as conduits for the harvested food and collected rainwater.

As for the details that stand out to Compton, he turns to the entire team.

“I feel strongly about our end result, but the process of getting there was really something special,” Compton said. “Nothing was off the table, which made it really fascinating. Ultimately, it really allowed our team to be as creative as possible.”

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Joe VanHoose
Joe VanHoose
Joe is a storyteller with more than a decade of experience in media relations, with particular specialty in writing and promoting. He can be reached at joe.vanhoose@rsandh.com.