Competition / Collaboration: What a Design Challenge Taught Us During a Year Online

by Cullen Meves, ASLA

Topography and Temporality / image: Ke-Ping Kuo, Student Affil. ASLA, Northeastern University

As college students are returning to class this Fall, either online, remote, or hybrid, this post reflects on the extraordinary year just completed and the advances in digital technology evolving simultaneously in our socially-distanced current scenario. The 2020-2021 university school-year saw an immense shift in academic practice and online curriculum. Every professor, faculty member, and student experienced a barrage of new online technologies, teaching and collaboration strategies, and a fundamentally changed appreciation for the vast array of digital tools available.

Over the course of the Spring 2021 semester, five universities engaged in the Envision Resilience Nantucket Challenge, spearheaded by ReMain Nantucket and adapting educational models developed at University of Florida. The Challenge called on interdisciplinary teams of graduate students from leading design universities to reimagine Nantucket Harbor under the latest projections of sea level rise. Teams were asked to create visually impactful designs and propose adaptations and innovations that would enable coastal communities to imagine what Nantucket’s future under sea level rise and climate impacts may look like.

The teams worked with 24 local and regional advisors as well as residents of Nantucket for context and inspiration, all from remote locations geographically dispersed across the United States and for the most part connecting only via online meetings during the semester-long Challenge. Digital communication and representational tools took center-stage over the course of this Challenge and highlighted the strengths and weaknesses these tools offer in this new era of online design.

The evolution of the Envision Resilience Nantucket Challenge serves as a perfect example of how expanded digital capabilities can spur meaningful action. In 2019, during the Keeping History Above Water conference in Nantucket, Marty Hylton, Director of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Florida, and his group presented the future sea level rise scenarios for Nantucket using visual representations created from 3D laser scans of the historic downtown streets and processed utilizing Autodesk ReCap™ Pro point cloud software to quickly develop current, accurate 3D representations of street-level sea level rise scenarios. These sea level rise visualizations shocked the audience and spurred them to begin looking into ways to provide the community with viable solutions to some of the inevitable water issues they would face. Fast-forward to Spring 2021, and ReMain Nantucket had organized a comprehensive university competition to continue to bring these issues to light and help the Nantucket community visualize solutions.

In reflecting on the results of the Challenge and the fantastic work encompassed in the submissions presented for the Envision Resilience: Designs for Living with Rising Seas exhibition, this post highlights a juxtaposition of the new and unique digital tools utilized during a year of uncommon online university education alongside the steadfast traditional forms of analysis and representation that are a foundation of design curriculum and remain impactful tools for communication.

Each of the contributors from the University of Miami, Harvard University, and Northeastern University took the time to expound on their observations from the Competition process.

University of Miami

What are some of the new and unique tools each of the teams utilized to complete their research/exhibition presentations?

During the research phase of the Nantucket Challenge, students were exposed to a myriad of data sets, resources, experts, and collaboration platforms. All of these shaped their design proposal. Some unique tools and data sets they used or referred to included wave path diagrams, detailed studies regarding the vegetation on the island and how each responded to sea level rise, as well as case studies and breakthrough resilient design strategies such as 3D printed breakwater receptors.

Students had the additional benefit of consulting with other University of Miami faculty, including at our UM Rosensteil School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, the UM College of Engineering, and at the UM School of Architecture. For example, students learned of engineering innovations being created at UM, such as the SeaHive system, which can be used to protect seawalls and also on the sea floor to reduce storm surge wave action. Our students were able to understand its different applications, benefits, and specifications, and in the end incorporated SeaHive in their ‘design toolkit’ proposal.

Students used Miro boards to collaborate online and to share information. We also relied on it during crit sessions. Our students worked together, as one team, producing a masterplan for the entire city, which illustrated how the proposals were also tied to each other. Each case study focused on the most vulnerable neighborhoods within each of the three given project sites.

Exhibition proposal board courtesy of University of Miami
Exhibition proposal board courtesy of University of Miami

What are some of the steadfast traditional forms of analysis and representation that are a foundation of the curriculum and remain impactful tools for communication?

Proposing a design framework on an island like Nantucket, which has such rich history and a design aesthetic that is held dearly by its residents, calls for a thorough analysis not only of site, but of place as well. Focusing on place-based design was a huge factor, which was reflected in the team’s attention to a wide gamut of topics, including historic preservation and environmental factors.

Shared resources, platforms, and the weekly lectures allowed all the participating students to create proposals, which tied their ideas of resilient design with the vision of Nantucket’s residents. Our students had the opportunity not only to be exposed to maps, data, experts, case studies, and past and present projects on the island, but were able to speak with the people who live and work there, and this provided significant opportunities to understand their needs, wants, and priorities. A significant effort was made to listen to what the local experts were sharing with us and addressing them directly, as we knew they were residents, too. Yet, while avidly listening to locals, the UM team’s ‘design toolkit’ proposal and masterplan suggested new approaches to tackle the island’s challenges, which may not have been thought of before.

This challenge was one that called for intense research and a lot of designing in section, which, as we know as designers, is one of the most telling ways of truly understanding the entire design. Our sub-groups worked diligently to create a proposal that was compelling, using the section drawing to explain not only how the proposals could be experienced in the short-term, but also how they would logically evolve over time, as climate stressors and shocks increase. For this reason, students produced short-, mid-, and long-term proposals.

Our team also produced a user-friendly pamphlet, outlining the main concepts and the proposed toolkit. It was distributed at the June forum. We thought printing 100 of them would suffice, but they disappeared within the first half hour of the event.

Exhibition proposal board courtesy of University of Miami
Exhibition proposal board courtesy of University of Miami

Harvard University

What are some of the new and unique tools each of the teams utilized to complete their research/exhibition presentations?

The Graduate School of Design (GSD) studio started with an understanding of the environment in a perpetual dynamic state, the idea that change is continuous and inevitable. Therefore, in order to design in response to this dynamic context, students were asked to study—through fluid modeling tools—simulations of the hydrologic forces they were discovering, and then to study how potential designs/constructions would interact with those flows. For instance, questions for investigation included:

  • What are the particular flow dynamics in play in your study area?
  • How do altered flow dynamics (through design propositions) affect sedimentation and/or erosion processes?
  • How can these be tuned to create potentially productive habitats and/or accumulations that might aid in coastal adaptation measures?

Students engaged in a number of fluid modeling workshops under the direction of Xun Liu, currently a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia and an MLA graduate of the GSD. Students learned to use the tool FluX, which was developed in Processing, a java-based software sketchbook and language widely used within the context of the visual arts. The customized tool allows real-time fluid simulation and hydrodynamics visualization on designed landforms, and can be used for quickly prototyping design interventions in fluvial environments. The tool is compatible for real-time data transmission with most design software, such as data importing from GIS and model exporting to Rhino and Grasshopper, which makes it a supplement to landscape designers’ larger toolset.

Early studies looked at simple interactions between water flows and minimal designs/constructions, in order for students to become comfortable with using both 3D and time-based software platforms for design research and investigations. These studies ultimately evolved through the development of their projects as well, offering students both a frame for thinking and a tool for iterative testing and demonstration.

Demonstrates the FLuX module about water flow by Yvonne Fang and Kymberly Ware, Student ASLA, Harvard University GSD
Depicts a proposal animation from Tong Lin and Tong Shen, Harvard University GSD

What are some of the steadfast traditional forms of analysis and representation that are a foundation of the curriculum and remain impactful tools for communication?

Given that landscape is a dynamic medium, it was valuable to return to simple, time-based animations in both the research and design stages of the work. This helped to establish a mindset within us as designers and critics, and it served useful communication functions as well, reminding others (including the general public) that a particular landscape has changed quite dramatically through time. For the Nantucket studio in particular, this helped to communicate important research findings—glaciation processes, hydrologic flows, habitat and fisheries changes due to climate, and human migrations from seasonal indigenous settlements through current vacationers and seasonal workers. It was also useful in depicting the ways in which design proposals would be implemented incrementally and then evolve through time, including dynamic representations of various stages of inundation from tides, sea level rise, and storm surges.

Demonstrates a composite video of work by Tong Lin and Tong Shen, Harvard University GSD:

Depicts a proposal for light infrastructure along Cotue by Fabiana Casale and Maria Ulloa, Harvard University GSD

Northeastern University

What are some of the new and unique tools each of the teams utilized to complete their research/exhibition presentations?

Thanks to the amazing effort and resources provided by the competition organizers, the Envision Resilience Nantucket Challenge exposed the students to vast new data sets and formats for data analysis than are traditionally available during a semester-long course. The recently completed high-resolution Massachusetts Coast Flood Risk Model exceedance probability shapefiles, provided by MassDOT and the Woods Hole Group, allowed students to understand flood probabilities from an island-wide scale down to street-level impacts. Students could then take this GIS-formatted data and export it as both vector-based plane geometry and high-resolution image maps that could be overlaid on topographic NURBS surfaces accurate to the one-foot increment using Rhinoceros 3D and LiDAR topographic imagery. The combination provided an opportunity to see the layered impact of sea level rise and the pattern-based impact of the topographic surface combined with wave exposure and prevailing surface currents. This information allowed the students to more fully appreciate the physical and climatic challenges the island of Nantucket is facing.

Simultaneously, to understand the daily experiences of residents and get a sense of place outside the study area, students also conducted remote Photovoice interviews with community members. Each interviewee was asked to take pictures of places special or thought-provoking to them. Students were paired with a resident and interviewed them over Zoom about the pictures using the SHOWeD method to uncover deeper meanings. They also geolocated each photo on a class-wide collaborative Google Map, which we then used to create a comprehensive map overlaying oral narrative, pictorial experience, and spatial relationships.

Topography and Temporality, Ke-Ping Kuo, Student Affil. ASLA, Northeastern University
Photovoice Map, Northeastern University

What are some of the steadfast traditional forms of analysis and representation that are a foundation of the curriculum and remain impactful tools for communication?

A common theme of the mid-term and pinup critiques that pervaded the semester was a plea for representation of the ideas and strategies in section. The beautifully rendered plans and perspectives helped give an understanding of breadth and environmental character, but to understand a challenge this complex and this tied to a topography and sea level in flux, section and section-perspective representations were the primary option for ground-truthing the proposals.

Similarly, the students were tasked with developing simple, progression-based diagrams early in the semester to help think through the communication of their ideas. Distilling the complex issues and approaches down into the fundamental elements of the spatial constraint, function, or physics allowed the students to develop their approaches with a clear-eyed basis for their solutions. This also instilled the need for clear, concise communication tools when working with an entity as complex and multi-perspective as an island-wide community.

Resilient Harborside Section, Mia Kania, Northeastern University
Catch My Drift, Piers Ellis, Northeastern University
Emergent Aquatic Ecologies, Ke-Ping Kuo, Student Affil. ASLA, Northeastern University

Special thanks to each of the following for their fantastic contributions to the Envision Resilience Nantucket Challenge and to this blog post:

  • Carolyn Cox, Florida Climate Institute Coordinator, University of Florida
  • Sonia Chao, Research Associate Professor & Director for the Center for Urban & Community Development, School of Architecture, University of Miami
  • Chris Reed, FASLA, Founder and Director, Stoss Landscape Urbanism & Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture, Harvard University Graduate School of Design
  • Sara Jensen Carr, ASLA, Assistant Professor, School of Architecture, Northeastern University

Cullen Meves, PLA, ASLA, LEED Green Associate, is an Associate Landscape Architect & Urban Planner at MKSK and an Instructor for Northeastern University’s School of Architecture. She also serves as an officer for ASLA’s Digital Technology Professional Practice Network (PPN).

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