Learning Barge

Portsmouth, Virginia


The Learning Barge is a mobile, 32'x120' environmental field station built for the Elizabeth River Project whose mission is to clean up the Elizabeth River, one of the most contaminated estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay. The Barge is off-the-grid, powered solely by site-based solar and wind energy systems. It collects its own rainwater, composts waste and filters its waste water through an on board wetland. Crisman+Petrus Architects conceived the Learning Barge concept as a crucial component of the Money Point Sustainable Revitalization Plan in 2005. The intention was to create a moveable platform where citizens could learn about the processes of river sediment remediation, tidal wetland restoration, and the sustaining co-existence of human and ecological systems at Money Point and other Elizabeth River restoration sites. In January 2006 Phoebe Crisman brought the project to the University of Virginia School of Architecture, where she led a four-year research, design, and fabrication effort by multi-disciplinary teams of UVA students and faculty. The holistic, integrated design approach involved multiple disciplines and several public, private, and governmental organizations.

Christened on September 14, 2009, the Learning Barge has since won twelve major awards and completed eight seasons of successful educational programs reaching over 70,000 students. The Elizabeth River Project, in collaboration with several public partners, offers daily educational programs for K-12 school children and the public. Now visitors to the Learning Barge see, firsthand and in an interactive way, what the ordinarily abstract terms "remediation" and "natural processes" mean. The Learning Barge itself was designed as a didactic device reliant on natural systems - sun, wind, water, earth and biology - and built using primarily recycled materials. The Barge tells the story of the inextricable link between water and land, as well as the crucial balance between industrialized human activity and the environment on the Elizabeth River. Visits to the Barge may be scheduled via the ERP website.

Photovoltaic panels and wind turbines provide power, an evacuated tube solar thermal array heats the classroom, and passive solar and day lighting concepts are used throughout. Rainwater is collected and filtered for non-potable use, and greywater is filtered in the onboard constructed wetland habitat. River water is manually pumped into native saltwater plant basins for testing and cleaning. Other sustainable building concepts include composting waste disposal and the use of recycled materials and sustainably harvested local hardwood. The renewable energy and water systems publicly exhibit a high quality of life while demonstrating energy independence with a substantial reduction in global pollution.

Traveling to remediation and restoration sites along the industrialized Elizabeth River, the Barge and its curriculum is building ecological literacy among the K-16 and adult populations of Hampton Roads. The Learning Barge has completed eight seasons of successful educational programs reaching over 70,000 students.

The Elizabeth River shipping community has rallied around the Learning Barge. Local shipyards volunteer to take on the expense of hauling out, cleaning and repainting of the hull, and the pushboat community competes to move the barge from mooring to mooring or when a hurricane threatens. Knowing that their children are learning on the Barge about restoring a clean and healthy River ecosystem, the source of their livelihoods, local companies and workers have taken the Barge on as their River mascot. The Barge has truly succeeded in drawing the entire Elizabeth River community around the idea of her mission.

The objective was to create a technically sound, educationally informative, economically feasible and innovative implementation of science and technology for sustainability, which proved that an environmental education field station built using rigorous environmental criteria would have a positive impact on the students, the community, and in the broadest sense, the planet.

Visit the Learning Barge!

Click the image to go to the Elizabeth River Project website where you can get more information about the barge, fieldtrips and visits:

Learning Barge at the University of Virginia

From 2006 to 2009, Professor Phoebe Crisman worked with her students at the University of Virginia to design and build the Learning Barge. The Learning Barge was launched and public environmental education programs began in September 2009. For more information on the research/design/build initiative, see the UVA Learning Barge website by selecting the image to the right: