American Society of Landscape Architects ASLA 2006 Student Awards
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The Elizabeth River is a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. An excerpt from the site map is composed of GIS data, aerial photos, a NOAA navigation map, photos of mooring sites, as well as wetland, sediment and oyster projects. Layers of the map are activated depending on one's interest. Note the domination of the waterfront by industry and the corresponding distance of most neighborhoods from the shore.
Data from EPA's Toxic Release Inventory was imported into ArcGIS to locate contemporary industries that are releasing chemicals to the environment. Note the concentration of South Branch industries releasing chemicals.
This is a conceptual sketch of the "arm" that provides contact between the barge and the land. This device expands the curricular element of sequence: by walking from and between land and barge, visitors explore a rich ecological territory of transitions.
A rendered perspective of the barge at Paradise Creek. The Learning Barge pivots at the point where the arm and the deck connect. This allows the wind and water currents to be registered as a slow rotation of the barge, engaging the moored barge with the dynamic site.
Our studio made final models to accompany each of our four design phases. This 1/8":1' scale model marked the terminus of the studio.
The Curriculum Drawing shows, in narrative and in diagram, two examples of potential days spent on the barge. A sample 10th grade curriculum and a wetland planting day are represented with their spatial use of the barge in time. We created spaces on the barge informed by our developing vision of how they would be used.
Excerpts from the Navigation Drawing show a three year mooring sequence for the barge. A climate and events timeline, including regenerative projects, runs along the top of the drawing. The events inform the mooring, which is described in terms of the strategic and curricular opportunities of each site. Approach and spatial typologies are registered for each site. A "benthic layer" of site photographs, partially rendered as eroding piers, conveys experiential qualities unique to the sites. Sequencing the barge based on rhythms and characteristics like these will guide future moorings in this flexible proposal.
Excerpts from the Navigation Drawing show a three year mooring sequence for the barge. A climate and events timeline, including regenerative projects, runs along the top of the drawing. The events inform the mooring, which is described in terms of the strategic and curricular opportunities of each site. Approach and spatial typologies are registered for each site. A "benthic layer" of site photographs, partially rendered as eroding piers, conveys experiential qualities unique to the sites. Sequencing the barge based on rhythms and characteristics like these will guide future moorings in this flexible proposal.

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The Learning Barge
Neil Budzinski, Student ASLA, Laura Bandara, Student ASLA, Jayme Schwartzberg, Associate ASLA, Kim Barnett, Affiliate Student ASLA, Adam Donovan, Affiliate Student ASLA, Zoe Edgecomb, Affiliate Student ASLA, Matthew Hural, Student ASLA, Matthew McClellan, Student ASLA, Katherine Pabody, Affiliate Student ASLA, Phoebe Richbourg, Affiliate Student ASLA, and Clark Tate, Affiliate Student ASLA
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia
Faculty Advisor(s): Phoebe Crisman

"What an imaginative idea to get kids outdoors to learn about the environment and sustainability. Fun, refreshing, creative, and cost-effective."

— 2006 Student Awards Jury Comments


The Learning Barge is a floating environmental classroom and field station on the Elizabeth River, Virginia. Its mission is to educate people about the river landscape while serving as an outreach and facilitation vessel for the Elizabeth River Project (ERP) and their sediment, wetland and oyster regeneration projects. ERP, a grassroots environmental organization, has been working since 1992 to foster the regeneration of the river's ecology after more than a century of impact by heavy industry.

Project Location, Project Scope and Size

Our project represents 15 weeks of a design studio in which second and third year graduate students in architecture and landscape architecture worked collaboratively. The Learning Barge is a design / build project and is scheduled to be launched on the Elizabeth River in June of 2007.

The Elizabeth River is a heavily industrialized waterway occupying a southern portion of the Chesapeake Bay estuary. Significant U.S. Naval activity and a continuing trade in chemicals contribute to a hybrid beauty in which industry and ecology coexist. At 32 X 120 feet, the Learning Barge moves to different locations on the river four times a year. The project scope includes the barge and its revealed systems, the expanded context of the river including sites that the barge engages, and the national significance of a new model for addressing environmental contamination at the scale of the region.

Site and Context Investigation

The studio process included four cycles of paired research and design, which were documented in a 170-page studio book that was compiled incrementally. The research phases of this project were particularly important because of the intended construction of the Learning Barge. Research encompassed issues of site and barge and included estuarine ecology, contamination and regeneration, wind and solar power, blackwater / greywater processes and many aspects of navigation. Sizing the renewable energy systems and the onboard planting were two particularly intensive research areas. Identifying specific sites for mooring was complicated by the fact that ERP had little graphic information about the locations of their projects, and we had little experience with the river. We overcame these issues by talking with people who know the river, creating a many layered GIS-based map, making reconnaissance trips by boat, and scanning the terrain with commercial software.

Design Program, Design Intent

This studio grew out of the idea of an architectural practice that actively seeks out projects to pursue. It was not a response to a competition or a request from a client. Similar to the self-direction of the ERP and their grassroots river clean-up initiative, we suggested a project that we thought could have a positive impact upon the Elizabeth River and its communities.

The Learning Barge has a larger site agenda that accompanies its facilitation of regeneration projects and its educational mission. It seeks out marginal and compromised sites - sites out of mind - and identifies them by mooring in their domain. Secondly, it aims to engage the civic realm. The barge is both nomadic and consistent: nomadic when seeking out educational opportunities on the river, and consistent when it moors and becomes a civic theater.

Unique to ERP's efforts is the "One Creek at a Time" strategy that avoids singular, big-budget remediation projects in favor of multiple, smaller projects that proceed over time as funding becomes available. The sitelessness of the barge is a great asset within this decentralized context. As ERP cleans the river, creek by creek, the Learning Barge moves to the work site and serves as both a place of observation and as a place for staging operations. It is the consistent element that reveals the common purpose linking together disparate sites along the river.

Students respond to the regeneration projects by writing, drawing, or collecting, and embedding the records of these activities into the artifact wall. These records are complemented by maps and photographs that document each regeneration project. Over time, the artifact wall becomes an archive of ERP's river clean-up, the place where one goes to see the work of the organization.

We imagine a range of constituents and events occupying the barge, including ERP project facilitators and volunteers, ERP board meetings, adult education classes, summer camp field trips and a "walk-in" public agenda. The curriculum fell within the purview of our design, so we proposed the model "Curriculum = Site + Module + Sequence," yielding a flexible curriculum that responds to the qualities of specific sites. A possible macro-sequence exploring the curricular opportunities of our chosen sites is explored by the Navigation Drawing.

The architecture of the barge was also conceived to be a primary pedagogical tool contributing to the varied curriculum. Explicit inside and outside conditions are created on the barge, but the separation between them is blurred by enclosure walls that offer multiple layers of varying permeability. These layers utilize "passive" climate control for comfort within a vast range of unpredictable environmental conditions. Our design also includes revealing the barge's energy systems and making their operation transparent. Access to both of these conditions is introduced by the Armature, which is a structural exoskeleton running one length of the barge. The Armature is also a passage without walls in which partial enclosure is afforded by the mechanisms of the thermal, electrical and plumbing systems.

Environmental Impact and Concerns

The Learning Barge could leave several impressions in the river's ecological landscape. It first will extend this landscape virtually in the mind of each visitor through its primary occupations, public education and outreach. The power of this potential impact will be ensured by bringing the public to the seat of concerns, the very landscape of the river. The barge is a small device relative to the river through which the landscape is re-presented phenomenologically. Its occupation requires one's immersion into the event of the river, and on its deck the expanse of the river's peculiar natural and industrially affected horizon can be seen through the metering structure of the Armature. The river's coexistence with the constructions that have disturbed it is thereby brought to the forefront, and the sublimity of this rare experience underpins the knowledge gained by each person who visits the barge.

Operated completely by alternative technologies, the barge is a new model by which the use of renewable energy is made understandable and more attractive to the public. The siting strategy contributes to this model also: the proposed sequence of mooring locations is partly dependent upon cooperation with members of the River Stars program, an ERP project that engages river industries to implement environmentally conscious practices. This collaboration will reinforce the potential of the River Stars program by supporting these industries in their practice and making their efforts more prominent.

The Learning Barge seeks to inspire stewards of the future landscape, a public that cares about and knows how to look at the river. At the same time, the barge is a means by which the tangible restoration of the river can continue. Once built, it will facilitate wetland plantings upon the river, the cultivation of new oyster reefs, soil testing, water testing and other regenerative efforts.

The Learning Barge has the potential to connect the community with the river's landscape. Along the Elizabeth, industry often forms an impenetrable physical barrier between the neighborhoods and the water. As people respond to the barge's invitation to immersion on the river, this barrier gradually becomes permeable.

Design Challenges and Significant Issues Addressed

There were three significant design challenges that consistently tested our ideas about the project:  site, curriculum, and water. Ours was not only a roving site, but a disconnected platform on which to build an off-the-grid classroom and field station. The geographical and ecological complexity of the river demanded its own rigorous attention, particularly because of our desire for numerous mooring sites; this, however, was superimposed by the accordingly complex political and proprietary parameters, including Homeland Security, which hampered our investigation of some of the most interesting sites.

Being given the task of building a curriculum meant clearly envisioning our project, not just fulfilling a mandate. This demanded that we be as rigorous in visualizing the occupation of the barge as we were in our site investigations. We strove to visualize very specific, although flexible, choreographic scenarios.

Finally, the studio contended with the poetic challenge of building upon water, and the structural, ecological, aesthetic and phenomenological implications of this. A critical consideration was the river's own regeneration. The river offers both a site and a purpose. Though the river is in critical need of repair,  the Learning Barge teaches that the smallest efforts to respond to this enormous condition could effect exponential reverberations in the future river landscape.


The roof plan illustrates the placement of photovoltaic and solar hot water panels as well as the rainwater collection system. The floor plan shows that the perimeter of the barge is devoted primarily to circulation and observation of the surrounding river, while the interior space is focused on more structured activities and observation of systems particular to the barge.
The longitudinal sections are taken through the ramp leading to the lower deck (top image) and through the classroom space (lower image). Both sections illustrate how the elevation change on the barge relates to the focus of activity on board the barge.
The transverse section is cut through the barge's on-board river filtration system. The planted bed on the far left is for treating greywater, while the other beds filter brackish river water, illustrating the natural filtration process that takes place in a functional wetland condition.
Diagrams show the barge's water, energy, and heating systems. Because the barge is designed to promote ecological conservation and restoration, it operates on renewable energy, uses captured rain water for hand washing, and heats its enclosure with solar hot water. Open to the landscape, the barge aims to be self-sufficient.
This image shows the interior of the classroom space looking toward the planting. The wall to the left is thickened from the steel armature running along one side of the barge. The wall contains fold down tables, teaching tools, and other elements of the flexible classroom.
The group of students are shown gathering on the Story-Telling Stairs. This space serves as a means for observing the planted systems on board, as a place for gathering around focused instruction, or simply sitting and eating lunch.
This perspective shows student activity on the larger observation deck. This space is used for gatherings and observation.
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