Buoyant Ecologies

Buoyant Ecologies

Ocean levels are rising, and are predicted to rise further in the foreseeable future. Inhabitants of coastal areas will be forced to reconsider their relationships to the water’s edge. Do we retreat? Do we try to hold back the sea? Or do we find as different way to co-exist with it?

One group investigating the possibilities is located in the San Francisco Bay area. Buoyant Ecologies is a project created by two architects and a designer who are also on the faculty in the Architecture Division at California College of the Arts (CCA), Adam Marcus, Margaret Ikeda, and Evan Jones.  The project is a collaboration between architecture students and faculty of CCA, marine ecologists from the Benthic Lab at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and composites fabricator Kreysler & Associates. (Full disclosure: Kreysler is the sponsor of this blog). The project also received funding from Autodesk, which gave it an initial home at the Autodesk Workshop at Pier 9 in San Francisco. In its second year, the project received additional support from the Port of Oakland, which gave them a home for 2015 and 2016 at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park.

The basic idea is that, as water encroaches on areas that are now land, we can collaborate with the sea by building on it in ways that serve both the marine and human occupants of the shared territory.

The underlying notion behind Buoyant Ecologies’ research is perhaps best illuminated by the work of Dan Gossard, a grad student at the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories / Benthic Lab program, who is working his way through school by cleaning boat bottoms. Anyone familiar with ocean-going boats knows about “fouling,” the accumulation of marine life that attaches itself to boat hulls, piers, and almost anything else that is continuously in the water. When he inspected boats that had not been cleaned for a few years, Gossard saw complex ecosystems growing, and he realized that there was another way to look at the hulls and their dependents. He began documenting the growth with an underwater video camera before he cleaned it off.

This led to the question, what if we constructed a building that interfaced between land and water, and we deliberately designed it to support and encourage the attachment of marine life? What if we could share the space at the water’s edge with the inhabitants of the water?

The Buoyant Ecologies project has two major components. One is a graduate architectural studio, which has just completed its third iteration. It explores the design of buildings that collaborate with the sea. The idea includes borrowing from boat-building culture, and embraces the creation of structures that are buoyant and float at their permanent locations.

The notion of attracting marine life leads to the other aspect of the project. If a relatively smooth boat hull can support a marine mini-ecology, would a less regular surface be an even better host environment?

“We’re looking at an upside down coral reef,” explained Margaret Ikeda in an exclusive interview. “Marine life has different types of spaces to attach to. Biologists thought, if it’s more contoured, can we get more diverse species  and create a more rich and diverse ecology?”

The first two studios, in 2014 and 2015, devoted some time to designing surfaces that might act like natural, irregular undersea environments such as coral reefs. These designs were executed as 3-D models, and transformed via digital fabrication methods into a series of 2’ x 2’ fiberglass composite prototype plates. The plates have been in the water, some of them for years, at the Port of Oakland and in Monterey Bay Harbor, growing life.

“We had a flat control plate and a contoured plate, taken out of the water after 1 -1/2 years. The difference was pretty exciting.” They are also studying other kind of structures, such as simulating mangroves with deep tubes.

The focus of the students’ building designs has also been on structures made of composites, leveraging the ability of that material to be shaped freely, as well as its proven durability in marine environments. “Bill Kreysler challenged us to think about comps in a new way,” explains Ikeda, “because it’s a good material to put on the water. Obviously: they build boats with it. He was the one who began the investigation.”

During the first studio in 2014, students created ideas for floating structures, roughly 40’ x 60’. “They were mostly not rectangular,” recalls Ikeda. “They were spherical or ovoid. They really looked like they were out of the ocean. They don’t look like buildings we see on land. The students were creating by thinking about marine life and what it might look like if you put it on land.”

For the 2015 studio, they gave the students the option of building on land at the coastal edge, but recognizing that the building might get very wet, even submerged.

The most recent studio, in 2016, featured designs that were land based, some that were fixed in the water on piers, and buildings that floated.  In terms of advancing design with composites, Ikeda feels the most recent studio raised the bar.  “They really pushed everything to being made out of composites: beams, floor, etc.”

Ikeda points out that a building crossing the interface between land and water requires a different approach. “The underside is as important as the top side. We don’t think of it as the underside. We’re treating it as a façade.”

The work so far has been well received, and inspired additional funding. “We now have funding to build something,” Ikeda reports. “It’s not going to be full scale, but a scaled design that we hope at least one person could get inside. It’s called a float lab. It depends on where we can float it and how much money we can get.”

Images courtesy of California College of the Arts.