Case Study – VIMS Eastern Shore Seawater Lab

VIMS Eastern Shore Seawater Lab

VIMS Eastern Shore Seawater Lab

Learning to Live and Work with the Sea

At the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), the ultimate goal is to provide practical solutions that lead to a vibrant Chesapeake Bay and healthy coastal ecosystem. They have a 70-year history of providing objective expenses that address the challenges facing the coastal ocean. VIMS research helps sustain fish and shellfish stocks, improve water quality, keep our beaches clean and even develop new energy sources. Their studies provide a better understanding of the intricate web that supports ocean life.

VIMS is one of the leading marine research and education centers in the U.S. Their research extends from inland watersheds to the open ocean, with an emphasis on the coastal zone. They have a three-part mission to conduct research, educate students and citizens, and provide advisory service to policy makers, industry and the public. These services benefit Virginia, the nation and the world. From the foods we eat to the waterways we enjoy, research conducted at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science directly improves the quality of life for all of us.

History + Context

VIMS works on three campuses-the main campus at Gloucester Point, Virginia, a field lab in Wachapreague on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and the Kauffman Aquaculture Center in Topping, Virginia, near the Rappahannock River. Wachapreague, known as the “Little City by the Sea” was originally settled by the Matchapungos (members of the Algonquin people). A patent for the area was received by Nathaniel Bradford in 1662 for 1000 acres and the first Europeans settled in the area in the early 1800’s. It was not until 1874 that Wachapreague began as a small town. Today it has a total area of 0.3 square miles and a population of 236 people. The Wachapreague Channel winds from the town, through the seaside marsh, the barrier islands and on to the Atlantic Ocean making this a popular place for fishermen. With this easy access, ‘working waterman’ traditions provide the highest quality seafood known to the Central East Coast. It is the commercial fishing and private charter bustle which still dominate the economic base of settlement.

While its location is in an extremely rural and isolated agricultural setting on the Eastern Shore, the Town’s development pattern is restrained, compact and presents a very traditional urban planning concept. The town today and its residential areas resemble the quiet town of 1940. It is pedestrian focused and preserves the town’s waterfront for public access in its entirety. Inviting, friendly and charming is the atmosphere of this historic Victorian era place.

VIMS like to think of themselves as good neighbors at the Wachapreague Campus and supporters of the core traditions in which this town thrives. This site was selected to become a campus because of the natural high-salinity seawater necessary for the objective experiments focused on their three part mission. This campus consists of low lying land which fronts on Finney’s Creek, one of the many estuaries along this shoreline.

Location, Location, Location

On this Wachapreague Campus, many of the seawater laboratory operations were staged amongst four metal corrugated clad shacks that dated back to the late 1800’s and originally were built as oyster shucking houses. They had no temperature control and two had dirt floors. Other experiments are conducted in multiple large tank configurations assembled on site at ground level encompassing the buildings and the balance of this site.

The actual site of these structures is “created land” from mounds of oyster shell deposits that were leveled to allow the construction of the shucking houses. The site has basically a flat contour and an approximate elevation +5.5 -+6.0 with a High Hazard Coastal Flood Zone Map rating VE :: 11 +12. This translates into a site which does flood with each storm event, causing significant interruption to the operations of the field lab work. With each flood event, there is loss of time and often important “work in progress” due to the breaking down, clean-up of the creek mud, silt and jetsam and flotsam which fills the site and floors of the buildings and reconstruction of all the experimentation support equipment. Now the question is why do they insist on this site? The phrase – “location, location, location” answers that simply. It is uniquely easy to access clean, high-salinity seawater which allows researchers to rear, maintain, and observe marine organisms under conditions that mimic those of the coastal and open ocean.

The ESSL Director, Mark Luchenbach said, in the past, “despite the poor facilities we were absolutely packed with researchers…because we have access to good clean water, a good environment and we have an institutional history of being able to maintain and rear marine organisms”

Another scientist recently said, “this is the only place between New Jersey and Florida where you can work on sharks.”

VIMS Eastern Shore Seawater Lab And Context

Main Entrance

Interior Tank Area

Interior Lab

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Focus and Objectives

Keep It Out

The objective for this project became to replace the aging buildings with a new 8,000SF flood proof structure to house the Seawater Testing Laboratory and support functions. The new facility was to provide survivability during and quick recovery from minor and major storms and hurricanes frequent to this campus.

Bring It In

The engineering needed to support at a top rate the pumping of 1,840 gallons per minute of seawater into the building, through the tanks and out of the facility, back into the creek. Systems needed to be redundant and flexible for current and future users. Transparency of support and engineering systems was very important to the user so there is a quick and immediate understanding of how to use the facility.

Open + Gracious

The layout needed to provide high volume open clear span space that would allow easy tank and experiment reconfiguration and adaptability by different scientific user groups. Fresh air movement and natural daylight considerations were important since the main large laboratory segment of the building would not have air conditioning.

Intelligent + Clean

This new facility would become the largest structure in town. As a good neighbor, the significance of this structure should melt into the town and the marine environment, so not to dominate and overpower the character of this cohesive seeing.

The Challenge + Design Approach

In coastal communities, design concepts that allow buildings and landscapes to be “resilient” lead to…addressing flooding as a given natural process of weather and water.
The driven concept of “water balance” is a paradigm shift; allow water on the site and live with it.

In Virginia, State owned buildings are not allowed to be constructed within a 100 year flood plain; however, in 1997, Governor Allen issued an Executive memorandum outlining a variance that would be considered if certain conditions were met. Our project, as a seawater dependent research facility, met the criteria of being a “water dependent use”. The use however, had to comply with appropriate codes, ordinances and regulations and be flood proofed.

The quest for the most appropriate type of Flood Proof Construction for the needs of this facility began with an all-day “Flood Proof Design Approach” charrette. We vetted six alternatives and arrived with a mitigating solution.

The “Contingent” construction type, (which still requires human intervention) with the finish floor below the maximum flood elevation was selected as the best supporting approach for the programmatic needs of this facility. The average site elevation is +6.0. The fixed finish floor would be set at +9.0. The flood proof-construction would provide flood proof protection up to +14.0 (per FEMA and State Requirements). Flood gates and shields would be positioned at any opening in the exterior wall construction below this +14.0 elevation. This approach would secure the variance required from the Division of Engineering and Building, acceptance from Department of Conservation and Recreation
as Virginia’s Flood Plain Managers and the building permit from The College of William & Mary’s Code Review Team.

This decision placed the finish floor elevation 3’-0” above the ground level which satisfied the user’s number one key objective. – minimize interruption and allow quick recovery from flood events. The average storm event rarely brings water higher than 3’ feet and with the finished floor elevation being extended to the exterior with an expansive deck area, exterior experiments will also benefit from this protective measure.

With this foundation of agreed good decisions, the design team could go to work and begin to explore the architectural character.

The Architecture

Understanding the natural and built patterns of a place will often reveal undisputable positioning, form and texture that become the basis for study and tools for innovation.

Here in Wachapreague, seemingly everything floats… or wants to float. Even the heaviest of objects defy gravity here. So not to be swept away, the elements of tethering and anchorage prevail. Our project would clearly introduce a significant new, heavy element that would resist flotation, yet coexist in the flood plain as a water dependent structure.

Concrete became the dominant material for form and anchorage. A tour de force handmade structure of piles, poured in place grade beams and continuous 10-foot-high foundation walls form the vessel component of the building and provide the resilience necessary. The superstructure floats over this extended foundation with 40’ span open web trusses, combinations of parallam and microlam timber supported on an external family of timber and concrete piles. Structure, Strength and Form bring clarity to the edges and challenge our perceptions. Working with line and shape to create something that defies expectations brings a sculptural quality of the design forward. Built for a purpose.

From this thinking a seawater testing laboratory emerges resilient to the forces of the environment, suited for and designed for water, not against. It is designed for flooding, a natural process of weather, that is frequent and nothing new. It is designed for resilience to maintain an acceptable level of functioning structure. It’s designed for harnessing, collecting, storing, and recycling; water, wind, and sunlight.
The boundaries of this site have been pushed forward. Working for a client who studies sharks, crabs, oysters, flounders and other creatures of the like, it wasn’t difficult to convince them of the idea inspired by a dream about shark fins which are dangerous, sharp, and emerging ominously from the creek pool of piles.

This building remains true to a true idea. We were asked to make something that made a blunt statement that utilized raw, modern materials, and unfussy, clean lines, and that is highly functional and appropriate for its environmental forces.

Here a marine garden of piles provides a portal to the contemporary response of this idea. When asked what we do, we respond: “we bring intelligent design for the water to the community.”

Additional Photos

VIMS Eastern Shore Seawater Lab And Context

Seawater Lab And Pump House

Pump House

Main Entrance


Seawater Lab During A Typical Flood Event

Seawater Lab During A Typical Flood Event

Seawater Lab Floor Plan

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