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FLOAT

Spring 2016  |  Sea Rim State Park  |  Sabine Pass Texas

Project Team: Nevin Blum, Michelle Cantu, Connie Chang, Claire Fontaine, Evan Greulich, Asher Intebi, Marissa Jordan, Estrella Juarez, Kelsey Kaiser, Kevin Keating, Amy McDonnold, Ashley Nguyen, Raquel Royal

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Sea Rim State Park is located close to the Texas / Louisiana state line just west of Port Arthur. As its name implies, the park borders the Gulf of Mexico with beach camping and ocean swimming the Park’s most common draws. Yet, most of the park’s four-thousand acres is wetlands, more akin to the chenier plain of coastal Louisiana than the barrier islands that make up much of the Texas coastline. The Park was wiped out by Hurricane Rita in 2005; rebuilt, and two weeks away from reopening in 2008 when Hurricane Ike destroyed most of the park’s infrastructure again. It reopened in 2014 with limited facilities.

The park’s wetland wildlife—water fowl, alligators, redfish and drum—draw kayakers, birders and fishermen. Just miles away though from this rich environment the vast petrochemical industry of Port Arthur makes this region one of the most heavily polluted of the Gulf Coast. Environmentalists, biologists, and ornithological groups visit the wetlands commonly to assess the sensitive ecology of the region. Couple this with the fact that after the long closing from the two hurricanes, the park superintendent wants to find a unique way to draw visitors back and put the park on the map once more. With those two concerns in mind, the idea arose that UTSOA architecture students would develop designs for two floating platforms, which could be used by environmental groups as well as kayakers looking for primitive camping experiences. No other park in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division (TPWD) offers primitive camping in wetland areas like this.

As part of Poetics of Building field-based approach, students spent time getting a feel for their site through beach camping, kayaking and experiential recordings, all to get a deep sense of the place in which they were to design. From a poetic standpoint they set out to reveal something of the site that was already there but otherwise unseen. To do this, their focus was on water and the potential poetry in its elemental quality. Just as kayaking offers a closeness that reveals something about water, students wanted to achieve that similar intimacy through their project—a deeper connection to the watery place in which their work would become a part.

The site chosen is an open saltwater marsh aptly named “Platform Flats,” a 4.72-mile round trip trek from the kayak launch close to the beach. The students set out to design one platform to accommodate a four-person tent while a smaller one would be for two campers. (The original location of the two-person platform was hidden from the kayak trail and needed some height to be seen above the wetland grasses.) During the design process, funding was adjusted so that only one of the two platform designs could be fully tested through building. The students, with input from the TPWD, decided to combine the best ideas from both schemes and develop a four-person platform with a tower for wayfinding.

One of the biggest design challenges was to float everything in since there is no auto access to the site. This was complicated by the narrow portion of the bayou—less than eight feet wide and little over a foot deep at low tide. To negotiate this bottleneck, no component built on campus was over four-feet wide.

As part of the wilderness experience campers are required to take out everything they bring in, including human waste (the park provides waste containers to each camping party). With this in mind, students developed a concealed toilet area hidden within the eighteen-foot-tall wayfinding tower. The tower cladding is open above its six-foot-high privacy screen so that winds can easily pass through the tower and prevent overturning during storms. The 2 x 4 treated lumber platform is built atop five factory-built dock floats. 

Wildlife experts pointed out the design needs to consider the many alligators in the park and find ways to prevent them from sunning on the deck. A low “alligator rail” around the platform was designed to meet this need. Since the platform is not only for wildlife observation but setting up tents, a system had to be developed where campers could tie down their tents, which are usually spiked into the ground. To accommodate this two tent tie-down rails sit flush with the top of the deck and run end-to-end on either side of the platform. At the platform ends these alligator rails give way to spots where campers can tie off their kayaks and easily climb aboard. All combined the project is meant to bring those who use it closer to the unique environment that they are in, so that something new is revealed about their relationship with the world.

The American Institute of Architects, Texas Chapter recognized this project for its design excellence, 2017 

Texas Architect Magazine