“The research that this team took was in-depth, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and collaborative. That and how they displayed the results over time was over-the-top impressive.” — Juror Randy Deutsch, AIA
Climate change and coastal erosion are growing challenges to waterfront communities, and not just human ones: Rapidly changing ecosystems are wiping out indigenous plant and animal habitats. In an effort to combat this loss, the Architectural Ecologies Lab (AEL) at the California College of the Arts (CCA), in San Francisco, turned to a bane of many boat owners: biofouling.
Though biofouling, the phenomenon in which surfaces placed underwater will quickly attract plankton, fish, and other sea life, can slow down boats and eat away at structures, AEL leveraged it into an approach to replenishing coastal ecosystems, creating the Buoyant Ecologies Float Lab.
According to CCA associate professor of architecture Adam Marcus, AIA, the idea grew out of a partnership with Autodesk Pier 9, the fabrication and innovation center of the software company. Autodesk asked Marcus, his co-instructors and CCA adjunct professors Margaret Ikeda and Evan Jones, and their students to design a floating building that could sit just offshore from its center, across the Embarcadero. But during their research, the students became fascinated with how the structure would look below the waves, and whether a design that mimicked natural underwater surfaces could better promote aquatic life.
AEL worked with scientists at the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, in Moss Landing, Calif., to develop a vocabulary of eco-friendly shapes and geometries; and with Kreysler & Associates, a composite-materials fabricator based near Napa, Calif., to build a set of 2-foot-square, fiber-reinforced polymer plates. Made of the same high-performance material used for sailboat hulls, the structures are noncorrosive and strong enough to float for decades without degradation. As the team experimented with different shapes, testing nearly two dozen prototypes since 2015, they discovered that flat-bottom surfaces tended to promote homogeneous populations, meaning whichever plant and fish species already dominated the surrounding waters. By increasing the surface area with the addition of irregular swells and valleys, the team could promote a wider variety of plant and animal life. For example, narrow valleys provide refuge for small fish, away from predators.
Within a few days of placing two of these prototypes in the water, diaphanous green algae had attached themselves to the undersides, creating “a hanging, underwater forest,” Marcus notes. The plates’ undulating above-water surfaces were also critical, channeling rainwater into small depressions that became artificial tidal pools.
As an added benefit, the structures act as wave-attenuation devices—an “artificial mangrove,” Marcus says. Scaled up, he says, “We imagine they could be connected in a chain, like a necklace just offshore to act as a breakwater.”
This fall, Marcus, Ikeda, and Jones will launch a full-size prototype into the San Francisco Bay. Out of the water, the approximately 14-foot-long by 9-foot-wide and 5-foot-thick (on average) plastic float is a manifestation of advanced computer modeling. But in the water, the futuristic buoy will become an inviting home for a diverse range of aquatic flora and fauna.
Project: Buoyant Ecologies Float Lab
Design Firm: Architectural Ecologies Lab, California College of the Arts, San Francisco . Adam Marcus, AIA, Margaret Ikeda, Evan Jones, Taylor Metcalf, Georine Pierre, Jared Clifton (project team)
Research Partners: Benthic Lab; Moss Landing Marine Laboratories . John Oliver, Kamille Hammerstrom, Daniel Gossard
Fabricator: Kreysler & Associates
Naval Architecture & Engineering: Tri-Coastal Marine . Andrew Davis
Funding: Miranda Leonard, Kreysler & Associates, Ashland, Autodesk Pier 9 Workshop, Port of Oakland
Special Thanks: Jonathan Massey, AIA, Lisa Findley, Stephen Beal, Tammy Rae Carland, Karen Weber
Size: 120 square feet
Note: This article has been updated since first publication to correct the location of California College of the Arts' graduate campus and to feature additional collaborators in the project.