Science Wednesday: 2008 P3 Winner – The Learning Barge

About the author: A winner of EPA’s 2007 P3 sustainable design competition, Danielle Willkens, Associate AIA, FRSA, is the Project Manager of the Learning Barge. She has been a member of the project team since 2007 and holds a Master of Architecture from the University of Virginia.

In 2007, I participated in the EPA’s P3 Design Competition as a student representative for the Learning Barge project, a design/build initiative within the Schools of Architecture and Engineering at the University of Virginia, to create a unique environmental classroom and field station.

Despite months of planning and building, we seemed to have the odds stacked against us as competitors: after spending a night loading a U-Haul with a portion of the Learning Barge’s prefabricated classroom our truck refused to start the morning we were to drive from Charlottesville, Virginia to Washington, D.C to display our project at the National Sustainable Design Expo.

When we finally, arrived rainclouds threatened to drench our exhibits outside of the tent area. Although we had a nerve-racking start to the competition, our P3 ‘ulcers’ were quickly mended a few days later when it was announced we were winners of a Phase II grant.

The Learning Barge will be located on the Elizabeth River, the most polluted tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, and will provide interactive kindergarten through high school, and adult education about how the river and human activities are inextricably linked.

Unlike environmental education centers located in pristine “nature,” the Learning Barge will traverse an important urban river linking Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach. Moving to a different river restoration site every few months, the Barge will teach participants about the tidal estuary ecosystem, wetland and oyster restoration, and sediment remediation efforts. It is estimated that more than 19,000 students and adults will visit the Barge annually.

The design of the vessel harnesses energy from the sun and wind, filters rainwater and gray water in a contained bed wetland, and utilizes recycled materials and “green” technologies.

Currently, we are just a few short months away from completion, when the non-profit Elizabeth River Project will take over operation of the barge. In anticipation of our launch this summer check us out at:

The recognition we received from EPA’s P3 Competition helped secure several other key grants and awards: an American Institute of Architects Education Award, National Council of Architectural Registration Boards Prize, Waterfront Center Award, United States Green Building Council GoGreen Award, and National Endowment for the Arts Access to Artistic Excellence grant.

Editor’s Note: Winners of the 2009 P3 Design Competition were announced on April 21, 2009.