'Learning Barge' Earns U.Va. Architecture Professor Phoebe Crisman a Major Award from the American Institute of Architects

March 6, 2008 — Phoebe Crisman, associate professor of architecture at the University of Virginia, has been selected as a 2008 recipient of the American Institute of Architects Education Honor Award for her work on the "Learning Barge," a floating ecological classroom to be launched on Virginia's polluted Elizabeth River.

The Education Honor Awards program, created in 1988, recognizes collegiate faculty achievements and contributions to education and to the discipline of architecture. The awards will be presented in May during the AIA National Convention in Boston.

In conjunction with the Elizabeth River Project, an environmental nonprofit focused on improving the conditions of the river, plus community partners and professionals and U.Va. students, Crisman developed the idea of a self-sustaining, buoyant Learning Barge to bridge the current disconnect between the Elizabeth River, one of the most contaminated rivers in the United States, and community members in Norfolk and surrounding counties, who are often isolated from the river because much of its shoreline is controlled by industrial and military interests. The 120-by-32-foot barge promises to give both students and community members the opportunity to study an unfiltered version of a real marine ecosystem and understand their place within it.

"This has been an amazing opportunity for students to connect with a range of people with whom they might never have interacted," said Crisman. "It's has been rather stunning to see the way that the students have stepped up to the challenge and gone beyond what I thought they could do."

The vessel, a collaborative research, design and fabrication initiative of students from in architecture, engineering, landscape architecture, education, art and history, incorporates research and sustainable design principles to promote environmental education. The floating field station is powered by solar and wind energy, collects rainwater, filters gray water with native plants and utilizes recycled and renewable materials.

Crisman has cited several objectives for architectural education, including making a positive difference through design by connecting students with real communities that would not have access to design services; fostering a commitment to environmental ethics and deep, hands-on knowledge of green strategies at the architectural and urban scales; linking that awareness to formal and aesthetic research; and helping students connect their design education and daily lives as responsible citizens of their local and broader community.

The integrated educational component for K-12 schoolchildren offers opportunities to experience the river firsthand and engage in hands-on exploration and learning. Its mobility allows it to travel every few months to areas undergoing current environmental initiatives – allowing its passengers to observe oyster restoration efforts, wetland plantings or remediation of contaminated sediments.

According to Crisman, the prefabricated components will be constructed in Charlottesville this spring for eventual installation on the barge.

Even before it hits the water, the barge has received a raft of awards, including recognition from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the James River Green Building Council and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

It has also received financial support from the Virginia Environmental Endowment, the Lowe's Charitable and Educational Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.Va. School of Architecture's Public Service Fellowship Program and the U.Va. School of Architecture Foundation.

For information about the Learning Barge project, visit www.arch.virginia.edu/learningbarge.