Buoyant Ecologies Float Lab
Architecture firm: CCA Architectural Ecologies Lab
Owner: California College of the Arts
Location: The prototype was deployed in San Francisco Bay in August 2019. It is currently moored in the Port of Oakland’s Middle Harbor Shoreline Park.
Category: Holistic Design
The Buoyant Ecologies Float Lab is a prototype for a new kind of resilient coastal architecture. It merges expertise from design, advanced composites manufacturing, and marine ecology to imagine a floating architecture of the future that can exist productively with its surrounding environment. The project has developed through a multi-year partnership between academia and industry that serves as a model for expanding architectural agency beyond architecture’s traditional disciplinary limits. The project consists of a floating breakwater structure that incorporates a digitally fabricated, ecologically optimized fiber-reinforced polymer composite substrate. Underwater, the hull’s peaks and valleys vary in size to provide habitats for different species of invertebrates. The project challenges conventional notions of “biofouling”—the unwanted accumulation of marine life on the underside of floating structures—and instead proposes controlled upside-down habitats as an ecological resource. The underwater landscape creates pockets of space for diverse species of marine invertebrates, helping to promote ecological diversity and supporting biological growth that can develop wave attenuation capacity. The Float Lab was launched in Oakland, California in August 2019 to serve as both a public ecological demonstration project and a floating platform to further the research into ecologically productive substrates and floating breakwaters.
The Float Lab builds upon three years of applied research, prototyping, and monitoring conducted by a collaborative team of architects, architecture students, marine ecologists, and composites manufacturers. As a research endeavor, the project facilitates productive feedback loops between design speculation, scientific knowledge, and advanced expertise in composites fabrication. The project began as an academic experiment seeking to expand architecture’s capacity to engage extra-disciplinary expertise and address one of the most pressing ecological challenges of our time. It has resulted in a robust multi-disciplinary partnership in which the outcomes would not be possible without the contributions of each partner. The project employs parametric modeling, file-to-factory workflows, and robotic fabrication to translate ecological performance criteria to logics of geometry, form, and material. The integrated, interdisciplinary approach streamlines the design and production processes, facilitating a direct link between empirical ecological research, digital fabrication, and material performance. A critical component of this process has been its emphasis on full-scale prototyping, which has provided important lessons in both ecological performance and fabrication limitations. The Float Lab will support the continuation of this process: attachment fittings on its underside will suspend future prototypes to further develop the wave attenuation potentials of the optimized substrate.
The Buoyant Ecologies Float Lab is a study in adaptation—in how we think, how we design, how we build, and who we build for. The project emerged out of a series of Integrated Design studios led by the Architectural Ecologies Lab at California College of the Arts. With input from marine ecologists from the Benthic Lab at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and fabrication specialists from Kreysler & Associates, the project evolved from the students’ speculative designs for floating buildings into a deployable prototype for an ecosystem-servicing, multispecies-supporting marine habitat. This project offers a compelling model of a research-driven, collaborative design process focused on the future habitability of the planet. The project would not exist without the input of the scientists, who challenged and enabled the architects to think about ecological performance in new ways. Nor would it exist without the catalyzing influence of the student architects whose design proposals provoked new conventions of thought around the maintenance and restoration of marine habitats. The lessons of the Float Lab are many, not least of which is the value of interdisciplinary collaboration in pursuit of new ways of working—for all involved—and, consequently, new habitats for a variety of lifeforms, including humans.
"A terrific project that combines pedagogy, sustainability, design technology, practice, and fabrication. This is the future architecture should be building—integration with and enhancement of the natural environment." ~ Jury statement