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Students explore coastal housing challenges

UGA students are working with the University of Georgia Marine Institute on Sapelo Island to create new designs that could help coastal residents weather the next hurricane. 

The students, from the UGA College of Engineering, are focusing on new housing for researchers on Sapelo Island as an opportunity to explore new prototypes for affordable, storm-resilient and culturally appropriate housing options for the southeastern U.S coast. 

“Coastal areas throughout the world are vulnerable to sea level rise and weather-related hazards such as high winds and flooding,” said Merryl Alber, director of the UGA Marine Institute. “The effects of these coastal hazards are particularly acute in rural, isolated communities with limited resources. Adequate housing is critical to the long-term resilience and prosperity of these smaller communities.”  

Four civil and environmental engineering students are developing a housing design to replace decaying mobile homes on the Marine Institute’s campus, currently used as accommodations for guest researchers from all over the world. The project is part of their capstone senior design course, a yearlong class that provides students an opportunity to work on a real-world engineering challenge with a client – in this case, the Marine Institute. Working with a larger interdisciplinary research team from UGA, the students’ broader goal is to consider how their designs could offer an affordable alternative to housing in coastal Georgia and other southeastern states where strong wind events and sea level rise are significant challenges. 

“Many of the homes and structures currently in place are simply not adequate for the level of storm events that impact the area, and the conditions on this island are replicated all along the southeastern coast,” said Alex Rush, a master’s student in civil engineering and a member of the interdisciplinary research team. “This knowledge, if nothing else, further pushes the need for resilient structures that can withstand the coastal elements found in the world of today, and tomorrow." 

In addition to engineering, the interdisciplinary team includes colleagues from the College of Environment and Design, the department of geography, the department of marine sciences, the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, the Office of Research, and the Office of the University Architect. 

Capstone students Porsche Chen, Sophie Knoll, Tannar Singer and Paola Valdivia recently visited Sapelo Island for the first time.  With members of the research team, the group explored the entire footprint of the UGA Marine Institute campus to better understand the research and educational programs offered there. They also learned about the needs of visiting researchers who study salt marshes and other coastal ecosystems.  

UGA Engineering students (L-R) Sophie Knoll, Alex Rush and Tannar Singer looking at trailers currently used to house visiting researchers.

As stewards of a collection of buildings and structures associated with the estate of R.J. Reynolds since the 1950s, the Marine Institute believes the historic context of the site is an important consideration in future building projects. An old dairy barn on the south end of the island has been converted into research and educational laboratory facilities and an old powerhouse is now a dining hall, thanks to preservation efforts by the institute. 

Sapelo Island is also home to the Gullah Geechee community of Hog Hammock, descendants of freed enslaved persons who retain the language and culture of their African ancestors. The historic cottages in Hog Hammock are a living laboratory, with examples of building traditions that will play a role in any new designs the students develop. A tour of Hog Hammock not only gave the team a glimpse into how traditional housing patterns have been maintained, but also how new development can impact the historic character of the community.  

"This trip provided an excellent look into the needs of those on the coast, both structural and societal,” Rush said. 

Pre-manufactured elements, 3D printing and concrete forms are all modern construction alternatives to consider to achieve the goals of affordability and resilience in coastal housing, said research team member Jennifer Lewis, director of the Center for Community Design and Preservation in the College of Environment and Design.   

“Another important goal is to ensure that, on the outside, the houses look like they belong in traditional Southern coastal communities – regions known for small houses with front porches, tucked amongst live oak trees,” Lewis said. 

The members of the capstone team said the opportunity to meet and work with a client is a crucial experience as they prepare for careers in engineering. In addition, they said the Sapelo Island visit allowed them to effectively evaluate UGAMI’s need to develop cost-effective, resilient housing options that can withstand storm events while embracing the historic and cultural assets of the campus and the surrounding community. 

“Our students will have the opportunity to engage with their client and work through the engineering design process of understanding their stakeholders, creating and evaluating design alternatives, and ultimately delivering a set of engineering drawings that meets their client’s needs, said Stephan Durham, professor and assistant dean for student success and outreach. 

“This experience will give these students the confidence to approach similar projects once they enter their professional careers after graduation,” said Mi Geum Chorzepa, who is the engineering faculty mentor to the students on the Marine Institute capstone project. 

The engineering students will conduct their initial research and develop design alternatives during the current semester, then refine their concepts this spring based on feedback from the interdisciplinary research team. In April 2022, the capstone team will deliver a set of engineering drawings to the Marine Institute that will include site plans and details of their proposed resilient coastal homes.  

"We can’t wait to see what they come up with," Alber said. 

By Jennifer Lewis | Photos by Jennifer Lewis

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