Elizabeth River Project Establishes the Resilience Lab

The Elizabeth River Project Responds to Sea Level Rise by Intentionally Building Showcase Structure in a Floodplain
Credit Elizabeth River Project Resilience Lab
Photo courtesy of the Elizabeth River Project

It sounds counterintuitive. Deliberately constructing a groundbreaking, 6,000-square-foot building with campus along Norfolk’s busy north Colley Avenue strip is crazy, right? Not when you appreciate that the site was deliberately chosen to test resilient design and construction practices in response to rising seas and to demonstrate innovative approaches to creating the coastal community of the future.

In line with the City of Norfolk’s Vision 2100 Plan, and in partnership with numerous stakeholders, the Elizabeth River Project (ERP) has purchased .75 acres along Knitting Mill Creek to establish the Resilience Lab (RL) complex and learning park and to help create an eco-corridor within an established community whose members are heavily invested in the area’s revitalization.

The Lab’s future home at 4610 Colley Avenue was the only available site identified by Resilience Innovations (RISE) and the City of Norfolk as an appropriate proving ground for emergent, environmentally resilient construction practices and cutting-edge approaches to zoning.

Knitting Mill Creek is a small tidal creek and a tributary of the Lafayette River. The surrounding watershed is an interesting mix of commercial use zones and residential neighborhoods. Depending upon location, many homeowners enjoy creek access that’s watercraft-friendly. Unfortunately, the creek has a history of numerous water quality issues, not the least of which are created by the impacts of stormwater runoff made worse by sea level rise.

Over the years, community alliances have arisen to help mitigate storm water issues, and there has been some incremental improvement. But it takes a village as they say, and establishing the Resilience Lab on the creek’s shores will facilitate the growth of new, forward-thinking alliances between multiple regional universities, homeowners, the business community and developers.

When completed, the Resilience Lab will be the area’s most highly visible example of an architectural project specifically designed to be an ever-changing educational outreach platform demonstrating practical, real-world, responsive construction techniques that promote sustainability and support shoreline restoration.

Sam Bowling is an architect and project manager with the Norfolk-based firm Work Program Architects (WPA). WPA specializes in a multi-disciplinary, community-centric approach to design. ERP is working with Bowling and other members of the WPA team to develop plans for the Resilience Lab. He says that the RL project is both fascinating and complex. “The challenge was to design the structure and site plans to conform to commercial building codes while remaining an approachable, accessible, and educational public space. It will be built 10 feet off the ground, and the parking will be underneath. We’ll use environmentally sustainable techniques and off-the-shelf materials that any builder or homeowner has access to: water saving irrigation methods, rain barrels, solar panels and gray water reuse methods.”

The RL site has an intentional life span of 30 to 50 years to match sea level predictions. Once the building is no longer viable, the property and shore will be placed in long-term conservation via a conservation easement.

Learn more about the Elizabeth River Project’s initiatives, including how to contribute to their Next Wave Campaign, at ElizabethRiver.org.

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