New research facility shows how to live with rising tides

NORFOLK, Va. – The Elizabeth River Project’s latest work isn’t fighting the rising tide. It will roll with it.

The environmental group is building a 6,500-foot resilience lab along Colley Avenue and Knitting Mill Creek. The building has an intended lifespan of around 30 to 50 years; When sea level reaches a certain height, the structure can be dismantled and moved to allow a living shoreline, which is part of the design, to take its place.

The outdoor pavilion will float during high tide and is intended to serve as a sanctuary for people paddling down the river-like streets or standing outside after a deluge.

The Pru and Louis Ryan Resilience Lab and Learning Park is slated to open next fall. The $8 million project is being funded by Pru and Louis Ryan of Norfolk and donations through ERP’s Next Wave campaign. The group chose the site because it is a notorious flood plain and the creek is an important tributary.

ERP executive director Marjorie Mayfield said the lab aims to be an example of how to live with the rising tide, not against it, while reducing the ecological footprint.

Designed by Norfolk firm Work Program Architects, the lab will be built to protect against a 3-foot rise in sea level. It will also be built with “off-the-shelf materials that any business owner or resident will have access to,” said Sam Bowling, lead architect and project manager.

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

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The proposed live shoreline will be located at the rear of the property and will be planted to restore wetlands and oyster habitats. Once in place, it helps trap contaminants and filter the water.

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

The Hampton Roads Sanitation District has already built a dock on the property and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science has established a water monitoring station there. Other institutions plan to do research in the lab after construction is complete.

ERP also plans to partner with Old Dominion University to host workshops focused on coastal adaptation.

Mayfield hopes the project will be the start of something bigger — an “eco-neighborhood” of businesses and homes that can adapt to rising tides and reduce stormwater pollution with sustainable infrastructure.

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

The group plans to work with companies in the area to improve environmental performance through techniques such as collecting stormwater and expanding permeable sidewalks along the North Colley Corridor. The ERP also plans to plant more trees, create rain gardens, and walkways around the lab to allow rainwater to seep into the ground and prevent runoff.

Concrete sidewalks allow water to flow over them, releasing pollutants into nearby bodies of water.

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