U.Va. Students Build a Floating Environmental Classroom

July 13, 2009 — About 10 University of Virginia students, along with a handful of alumni, two faculty members and consultants, put in another 16-hour workday Thursday at a Chesapeake shipyard. Their mission: to prepare a floating classroom, dubbed the "Learning Barge," for its September launch date.

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Thanks in part to a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the students are spending six weeks living in two Virginia Beach townhouses while constructing the classroom, bathrooms, demonstration wetland habitat and breezeway on the solar-powered barge.

Since the project's 2006 inception, more than 100 students have been involved through a variety of means: design studios, environmental seminars, engineering courses, competitions, fundraising efforts and construction.

Phoebe Crisman, associate professor of architecture and the project's director, is living with the students this summer, along with her husband and their son. "This reminds me a lot of the study abroad courses I have led," she said, "only here we are abroad in Norfolk."

Living with their professor has provided students with the unique opportunity to continue learning even after the day's work is done.

"At the end of the day we've had these really interesting philosophical discussions about the way things go together, the nature of the profession and … the way architectural practice has changed over time," Crisman said.

The barge project officially began in 2006 when Crisman led an architecture studio that explored possibilities for creating a floating environmental classroom to educate grade-school children about the various natural and man-made processes under way on the polluted Elizabeth River in eastern Virginia.

The U.Va. School of Architecture is partnering with The Elizabeth River Project to create the barge, which the environmental group will operate. Several other institutions are playing a role in the barge's development, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Matherne Marine Design, Virginia Environmental Endowment, as well as the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science. The vessel must also receive certification from the Coast Guard.

Funding for the project has come from several donors, such as the Dominion Foundation, the U.Va. President's Fund for Excellence, EPA P3, and Lowe's, among many others. It has received substantial in-kind support from such companies as Skanska, Crisman+Petrus Architects and Conergy. (A complete list of supporters is available online.)

The construction team has been creative in finding needed resources. For example, when the students first arrived at the shipyard in June, there was no electricity, water, bathrooms or lockable storage for supplies. Within short order, Crisman recalled, she and the students teamed up to solve each of these problems, thanks to the generosity of several companies.

Another challenge was learning how to properly "tarp over" the worksite, so that the heavy rains which have occurred often over the past few weeks would not wreak havoc.

"Until about 100 years ago architecture education was never taught in universities – you were an apprentice," Crisman said, "Now that everything's being done at the university, which is fantastic, there's also a level of abstraction."

The Learning Barge project "is somewhere in between. There's still the academic intellectual rigor, this is still coursework, but at the same time it's hands-on coursework," she said.

Several students (some now alumni) have participated in the project for years. Project director Danielle Willkens, who received both bachelor's and master's degrees from the University, first became involved through a graduate school studio in 2007.

"It's really exciting to see it go from paper to construction," she said. "You have so many hours banked on the computer in CAD drawings, and construction document submissions to the Coast Guard, and competitions to help raise money for this. So much of it has been raising money for a thing that didn't exist yet." To be able to actually show where the money is going, she added "is really exciting."

Willkens will monitor the barge over its first season of operation, during which she will fine tune the "owner's manual" and oversee any needed adjustments. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts also stipulates that Willkens document the first year of the project and publish a book of children's art created on the barge field trips.

U.Va. students taking associate professor of architecture and art Sanda Iliescu's "Painting and Public Art" course last spring created kapoks, a type of seat cushion, for the young students who will ride the barge. The kapoks were on display at the School of Architecture earlier this summer.

The project's construction manager, Andrew Daley, who earned his bachelor's degree in 2007, also has long history with the Learning Barge. He recalls he first encountered the project when a friend suggested he attend her studio review in the spring of 2006, which featured the first round of barge designs. Daley subsequently took some courses taught by Crisman and found himself increasingly attracted to the research-design-build process.

Since graduation, Daley has remained active, picking up additional design and construction knowledge through work at local Charlottesville businesses Pretty Hard and Alloy Workshop, which have been useful in his role overseeing the barge's construction.

Farhad Omar, a graduate student at U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science, helped design the electrical systems on the barge. Once complete, the system will harness both solar and wind energy, which will be the primary power sources for the onboard appliances. Omar, who received his undergraduate degree in engineering at U.Va., wrote his undergraduate thesis on the barge's electrical design before spending the following year researching solar panels.

Now, as a graduate student in electrical engineering, he is glad to be back working on the project. "No theoretical experience comes close to practical experience. Learning things on the fly, you have to make a lot of adjustments and you learn more," said Omar, who will stay on to monitor the electrical systems for a while after the barge's launch.

Nate Matthews, a rising second-year student in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences who hails from Chesapeake, has volunteered his time since the first day of construction. He learned about the project through Crisman's Global Sustainability seminar last spring, and when he heard the team could use extra hands he enthusiastically joined in.

Like each of the students on the team, Matthews has benefited from specific training on every tool he has been assigned to use, many of which involve a high level of craftsmanship. "It's been a good experience. I've definitely learned a lot," he said.

Kate Claeys, another May graduate and a native of the Pacific Northwest, was finding the July heat oppressive, but was maintaining a good attitude about the progress being made. "As much as you think you know things are going to come together, it's so different once you're here – which can be incredibly frustrating, but also incredibly neat to see it all."

Claeys is the project's resident expert on the basins that will form an onboard wetland to demonstrate the region's natural, unpolluted habitat. Recent research has focused on which plants to include and what modifications will be needed to accommodate them.

Emily Miyares, a graduate architecture student, and Whiney Newton, a civil engineering student who was first exposed to the barge project through a course she took with engineering professor Paxton Marshall, were working together Thursday. One of Newton's recent tasks was to go below deck through a narrow opening and solder several pipes that make up the thermal water heating system she helped design. Both students will be starting in the master's in planning program this August, where they expect to continue exploring the concepts they have learned through the project.

Crisman, the students and alumni are appreciating the moments of serendipity that continue to shape their design, even while in construction. Crisman recounted a rainstorm that filled one of the barge's gutters, causing a beautiful rippled reflection on the ceiling of the classroom; now, she said, they will modify the gutter to emphasize that effect, as it fits perfectly into the barge's curricular theme of environmental sustainability.

The team now faces a push to the finish. Shipbuilders will soon install a third of the barge's deck, railings will go up, and then testing of the systems will begin.

Crisman noted she often has to tear the students away from the site each evening. "We're all having this moment right now of seeing an end approaching and not wanting it to end – as much as it's been challenging, it's been so fun."

The barge will be lowered into the Elizabeth River by the largest crane barge on the east coast, 'Samson,' in mid-August, and a christening will be held at the High Street Landing in Portsmouth on September 14th.

— By Derry Wade