New research facility shows how to live with rising tides

NORFOLK, Va. — The Elizabeth River Project’s latest work doesn’t fight the rising tide. It will roll with it.

The environmental group is constructing a 6,500-foot resilience lab along Colley Avenue and Knitting Mill Creek. The building has an intentional life span of about 30 to 50 years; when sea levels reach a certain height, the structure can be disassembled and moved to allow a living shoreline, that’s part of the design, to take its place.

The outdoor pavilion will float when the area floods and is meant as a refuge for people who canoe down the river-like streets after a deluge or for those caught outside.

The Pru and Louis Ryan Resilience Lab and Learning Park is scheduled to open next fall. The $8 million project is funded by Pru and Louis Ryan of Norfolk and donations through the ERP’s Next Wave Campaign. The group picked the location because it is a notorious flood zone and the creek is an important tributary.

Marjorie Mayfield, executive director of ERP, said the lab is meant to be an example of how to live with rising tides and not against them, while also reducing the environmental footprint.

The lab was designed by the Norfolk firm Work Program Architects and will be constructed to protect against a 3-foot increase in sea level. It is also being built using “off-the-shelf materials that any business owner or resident has access to,” said Sam Bowling, lead architect and project manager.

The lab will be equipped with solar panels, rainwater collection barrels and gray water collection systems. It also will employ natural cooling techniques such as a “green wall” of ivy.

The proposed living shoreline will be at the back of the property and planted to restore wetland and oyster habitats. Once in place, it will help trap contaminants and filter the water.

There will be two storage sheds, one of which will float, a research dock and a public boardwalk for people to look out over the creek. A kayak launch will be just off the boardwalk.

The Hampton Roads Sanitation District already built a dock on the property and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science has put in a water monitoring station there. Other institutions are planning to conduct research at the lab when construction is completed.

ERP is also planning to host workshops, in collaboration with Old Dominion University, that teach about coastal adaptation.

Mayfield hopes the project will be the start of something bigger – an “eco-district” of businesses and homes that are able to adjust to rising tides with sustainable infrastructure and reduce stormwater runoff pollution.

The “cornerstone will be our Ryan Resilience Lab, and I think it will be a really cool place to come to enjoy environmentally minded people and businesses,” Mayfield said.

The group plans to work with businesses in the area to improve eco-friendliness using techniques like rainwater collection and extending permeable sidewalks along the north Colley corridor. The ERP also plans to plant more trees, install rain gardens and walkways around the lab that will permit rainwater to seep into the ground and prevent runoff.

Concrete sidewalks allow water to flow over them and send pollutants into nearby bodies of water.

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