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 section through the Float Lab shows its basic structural logic and integration of systems. Image: CCA Architectural Ecologies Lab

Architect's statement

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.

Owner's statement

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

Additional information

Project attributes

Year of substantial project completion: 2017

Estimated date of construction contract: August 1, 2017

Construction documents phase: The one-month construction documents phase was completed in close collaboration with fabrication partner Kreysler & Associates. Integrated file-to-fabrication workflows streamlined this process and essentially eliminated the need for construction documents altogether. While a small set of drawings was produced for reference purposes, all translation of design information was managed through an integrated digital model. This model was produced entirely parametrically, allowing the design team to quickly incorporate feedback from the fabricator regarding CNC clearances and other fabrication constraints. The digital model translated directly to the toolpathing software used to operate the CNC and robotic machinery that fabricated the hull formwork.Project delivery: The project was completed in a design-build capacity, in direct collaboration with the fabricator.

Building area - acres: 0.002

Building area - Total Gross Square Feet (GSF): 120

Cost: withheld

Project team

Deployment Team: Port of Oakland, DC Marine

Design Lead: CCA Architectural Ecologies Lab – Adam Marcus AIA, Margaret Ikeda, Evan Jones

Design Team: Taylor Metcalf, Georine Pierre, Jared Clifton

Fabricator: Kreysler & Associates

Marine Ecology: Benthic Lab, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories

Naval Architecture & Engineering: Tri-Coastal Marine


Anthony Hauck, Chair, Hypar AEC, Waltham, Massachusetts

Phillip Bernstein, FAIA, Yale School of Architecture, New Haven, Connecticut

Desiree Mackey, GEI Consultants, Denver, CO

Sera Maloney, The Foth Companies, Lake Elmo, Minnesota

Natasha Luthra, Jacobs, Philadelphia, PA

Image credits


CCA Architectural Ecologies Lab

Float Lab 01

CCA Architectural Ecologies Lab

Float Lab 02

CCA Architectural Ecologies Lab

Float Lab 07

Architectural Ecologies Lab, California College of the Arts

Float Lab 08

Architectural Ecologies Lab, California College of the Arts