Learning Barge: Vessel Connects Community to River, Gives Students Research-Design-Build Opportunity

April 24, 2007-- Even for the resourceful architect, finding a way to connect individuals living in the heavily industrialized regions around Norfolk, Va., with the Elizabeth River that’s right in their backyard is challenging.

“It’s interesting when you talk to people in the area because they always go under the river through tunnels, but often they can’t get to the water’s edge because so much land is privately held by military and industrial uses,” said Phoebe Crisman, a practicing architect, urbanist and assistant professor of architecture.

The solution came while Crisman was working on a sustainable plan to link the area’s urban and ecological systems: if community members don’t have direct access to the river, make the river directly accessible to the community.

In conjunction with the Elizabeth River Project, an environmental nonprofit focused on improving the conditions of the river, and architecture students enrolled in her studio and seminar courses, 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. 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.

“In addition to taking kids on a field trip to a pristine nature preserve far removed from their daily life, we will take them to their troubled home river to help them understand that they are a part of the ecology of that place and that how they live their lives has a direct impact on their environment,” Crisman said. “The objective is to foster a sense of environmental stewardship at an early age.”

Powered by solar and wind energy, the barge will give K-12 school children the opportunity to directly interact with renewable sources of energy. The barge’s functioning wind generator, for example, will enable the students to track the orientation and speed of the winds. The rainwater collection system, another unique feature, will allow students to witness how filtered water from the roof can be used for hand-washing and then recycled back into a native plant filtration system onboard, which transforms the grey water into fresh water that can be released back into the river. Through an onsite composting system, the barge is even capable of processing its own waste.

“Only drinking water is brought onto the barge; everything else is generated through the environment,” said Elizabeth Davis, a fourth-year architecture student with a design concentration. “We have done extensive research to ensure every material [used] is the most earth-friendly available, all the way down to the type of wood and where the wood comes from.
These materials are ones that people can incorporate into their own home.”

The opportunities for environmental education, however, are not restricted to the indoor and outdoor classroom spaces onboard the barge itself. Unlike the limitations of a stationary exhibit center or museum, the barge has the ability to travel every few months to areas undergoing current environmental initiatives. By analyzing the regions’ seasonal hotspots, Crisman and her crew can shape the learning experience on the barge around each locale’s ongoing projects, such as oyster restoration, wetland planting or contaminated  sediment remediation.

Due to the new demands and unique features of this multi-semester, interdisciplinary, research-design-build project, architecture and landscape architecture students were challenged to think outside the box of contemporary in-class assignments.

“The project is really interesting …because in architectural education, you tend to be sitting at your desk just doing your project, designing it and getting feedback from your professor,” said Adam Donovan, a third-year Master of Architecture student and job captain for the project.

“But in reality, that’s not how it works.You can design a building, but in the end, it’s what the builder builds that matters. Design-build is a hybrid between the two, which really streamlines the process.”

To ensure the project’s long-term sustainability, architecture students have forged a collaborative network with students from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, under the direction of Professor Paxton Marshall, and the Curry School of Education to assist with the project’s technical engineering demands as well as the educational curriculum being developed for onsite instruction.Externally, the team is working with six local teachers in the region to develop lesson plans and to link the learning initiatives to Virginia’s mandatory science SOLs.

Funded by grants from such organizations as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Virginia Environmental Endowment and most recently a $125,000 grant from Lowe’s Charitable and Educational Foundation to support the onboard classroom, the barge’s total two-year design research and build phase as well as its five-year educational operating coststands at approximately $1 million.

Crisman and her students have received two major national design awards and are continuing to showcase their project at numerous competitions and lectures in hopes of receiving additional funds. They have been invited to compete in the upcoming Environmental Protection Agency’s P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet Award competition, from April 23-25 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Now entering the construction phase of the project, students have started to build the classroom components scheduled forcompletion in June of 2008, which will be shipped via truck to Norfolk and assembled on the barge hull during the summer. According to Crisman, the barge should be fully operational and ready for its first patrons in fall 2008. The Elizabeth River Project will own and operate the Learning Barge, working with partners that include the Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Norfolk and Virginia Beach school districts, NOAA and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“The most exciting aspect for me is doing a project with my students that will make a positivechange in the real world, while working with a nonprofit group who would not have been able to make something like this happen without the resources, knowledge and enthusiasm of the University and the students,” Crisman said. “It’s been great to see the students giving back to the commonwealth of Virginia in a very direct way and especially to one of the most problematic environmental regions.”