It’s easy to see the Elizabeth River in Virginia from a distance, but because of large industrial and naval sites along its bank, getting close is much harder. And few people would want to spend time close to the river, anyway—it’s been singled out as one of the most polluted sources feeding the Chesapeake Bay, thanks, in large part, to the build-up of chemical compounds and pollution from storm-water runoff.

Two years ago, while working on a river clean-up and revitalization project, Phoebe Crisman, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Virginia, had “a wild idea.” Why not put a mobile classroom and lab, employing green technology, on the river—a sort of ‘learning barge’ that would bring the river closer to those who depend upon it?

“We wanted to build environmental stewardship and teach the public school kids about the clean-up process and the inextricable links between the river ecology and human actions,” says Crisman. “But we couldn’t access the river since all the land was privately held. So the thought was, get them out there to directly experience a river that few residents ever traverse.”

Unlike most environmental education centers rooted in pristine natural environments, the 120-foot-long, 30-foot-wide Learning Barge will move around this intensely industrialized river, changing locations every few months.

Born out of a graduate studio class that Crisman taught at UVA last January, the barge’s design will serve as a lesson in sustainability: It will be independent of the power, water, and waste grids, relying solely on energy produced by sun and wind. Both the barge’s exterior and interior furnishings and exhibits will be built using recycled materials and green technologies, and photovoltaic panels and wind turbines will provide power, while rainwater and wastewater will be filtered in the onboard constructed wetland.

Crisman estimates that the barge will cost some $500,000 to build, with another $100,000 needed for yearly operation, including a full-time barge keeper and a part-time educator. Grants from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Environmental Endowment will finance the program. Construction of the barge, which will be classified as a U.S. Coast Guard certified vessel, will begin in January, with the launch planned for June of 2008.

Crisman’s graduate students were enthusiastic about working on a project that pushes all sorts of boundaries—architectural, environmental, organizational, and educational.

“Hopefully,” says Matthew McClellan, one of the dozen architecture graduate students involved in the project, “the Learning Barge will help to teach local and regional residents that the Elizabeth River and Chesapeake Bay are not simply the bodies of water one sees from the interstate while driving to work. We hope that seeing the restoration efforts currently taking place at various sites along the river will foster greater interest in seeing its natural resources preserved.”

This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2006.

Copyright Environ Press 2006

Learnin' on the river
A polluted waterway will be the unlikely host for a sustainable, floating classroom.