Interview with Alex Goad, founder of the Reef Design Lab
A conversation about the rescue of the reefs, the power of nature to regenerate and the potential of designers.
Why is it important to save the reefs?
Reefs occur not only in tropical areas, there are all types of different reef ecosystems which provide vital feeding and breeding grounds for various species. They also protect our coastlines from erosion by reducing wave energy. Reefs are some of the most biodiverse and productive habitats in the ocean and are critical to the health of the planet.
When did you start dealing with reefs and the maritime habitat in general?
During my final year at university in 2013 I started researching artificial reefs and created the MARS (modular artificial reef structure) system which was the catalyst for starting our studio Reef Design Lab. I had always been interested in the marine environment and wanted to work in a field where I could collaborate with the scientists who study it.
What does Reef Design Lab do in concrete terms?
I think the most significant work are our long term collaborative projects with marine researchers. Its easy for designers to come up with restoration concepts, the tricky part is committing to the years it takes to properly test what is and isn’t effective. For example our collaboration with Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS) on the Living Seawall research project has been running since 2015 and this looks at ways we can redesign marine infrastructure to include various habitat geometries. Another project with scientists at Melbourne University is looking at hybrid approaches to coastal defence using a concrete planter to encourage the growth of mangroves.
Aren’t we destroying nature faster than we could ever rebuild it?
It depends on the environment your referring to but for tropical coral reef ecosystems I would say unfortunately yes. Coral reefs are under attack from ocean acidification, agricultural runoff, invasive species but the most devastating damage has been coral bleaching caused by warming ocean temperatures as a result of climate change. The scientific consensus is that the world needs to move away from fossil fuels towards a renewable energy future if we are to preserve the coral reef ecosystems that still thrive today. If we were able to do this, it would be perfectly feasible that many reefs could recover naturally.
So while we wait for the world to sort out our antiquated energy systems (obviously not an easy feat) there are coral restoration techniques that are being developed around the world. Physical techniques such as coral transplanting onto various structures, coral farming, coral seeding units, etc. have been tested over the last few decades with many successful projects. There’s also a lot of fascinating research looking at genetically engineering corals to allow them to withstand the future climate predictions.
Oyster reefs are a good example of an environment that is being restored quicker then it’s being destroyed (in some areas at least). These ecosystems were devastated by decades of trawl fishing but now the practise has been banned in many places and efforts are being made to bring the ecosystem back by placing oyster shells on the seabed as a substrate. We designed a series of 3D printed oyster reefs printed using D-Shape technology for the WWF Netherlands who are currently running an oyster restoration project in the North Sea testing multiple restoration techniques. There’s a lot of amazing restoration projects around the world that is very encouraging, it’s not all doom and gloom.
Isn’t it ironic, that we have to artificially replace something natural, what we destroyed before?
Yes of course it’s ironic but its nothing new. Throughout history we have constantly destroyed ecosystems only to realise their value at a later date. Today there is a lot more awareness and people understand the importance of reef ecosystems. Protecting an ecosystem before it needs repairing should always be the priority.
You build reefs not only at places where they had always occurred, but also build new ones at places that had never had one. Why are you doing that?
It depends on the type of environment we are deploying a reef system but the location is normally determined by the researchers on the project. It can be pretty amazing to see what happens when a reef structure is placed on a barren stretch of sand. Within minutes, fish will often use the structure for shelter and over a few months various fouling species will colonise the surfaces transforming the artificial structure into a mini ecosystem.
What is the Living Seawall?
The Living Seawall is our long-term collaboration with Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS) who initiated the research project and have been leaders in this field for the past decade. The project looks at ways to retrofit existing sea walls with 3D printed concrete habitat panels that can improve the ecological performance of sea walls. In the future we hope to integrate these designs into marine infrastructure. We recently designed a panel especially for Volvo who are supporting the research project as well.
How did the sea wall project develop over the last years?
We were contacted to work with SIMS in 2015 where we started using 3D printing to develop complex geometry for the experiments. We create 3D printed moulds and replicate the panels in marine concrete similar to what many sea walls are built from. Over time we have seen multiple species take refuge within the geometry but the results are still pending on what is the ideal design.
What impact does the sea wall have on the habitat around it?
Sea walls remove vital natural habitat for intertidal species. Rocky shorelines go from having rock pools, crevices and caves to having a flat vertical wall. As much as I love minimalism, intertidal marine species do not. Sea walls are inevitable in certain developments so the project looks at how we can minimise this impact.
Do you think we can only save nature, if we proactivly interfere in ecological systems, or do you see any potential that nature will recover itself?
Nature always has the amazing ability to repair itself if given proper protection. So things like marine national parks are a proven way to allow ecosystems to recover. It gets much more complicated when an environment like a coral reef is being bleached by warming ocean temperature caused by collective human activity. This will be much more difficult to solve in the years to come.
Nature of course has the amazing ability to recover by itself if given the opportunity. Often this is the best way of letting an ecosystem recover. There are countless examples of this around the world.
What is the future perspective of the Reef Design Lab? What are your plans?
We are particularly interested in the areas of eco engineering and will be continuing our international collaborations over the next few years. Its a really exciting time to be a designer in this field as there are still so many unique opportunities to investigate. Design is an amazing communication tool and we hope to continue using that to publicise the work we do with an amazing group of marine scientists.