• The semitransparent tower locates the floating campsite within the vast wetlands. Photo by Evan Greulich.

Location Sea Rim State Park
Client Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
Architect Gulf Coast DesignLab / The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture
Design Team Director: Coleman Coker; Students: Nevin Blum; Michelle Cantu; Connie Chang; Claire Fontaine; Evan Greulich; Asher Intebi; Marissa Jordan; Estrella Juarez; Kelsey Kaiser; Kevin Keating; Amy McDonald; Ashley Nguyen; Raquel Royal
Photographers Coleman Coker; Kelsey Keiser

Nestled on the northernmost edge of the Texas Gulf Coast, Sea Rim State Park is a dynamic landscape with 4,000 acres of wetlands along 5.2 miles of coastline. Located near Port Arthur, the area has seen a surge of development and pollution, loss of native habitat, and repeat damage from natural disasters. As the park began rebuilding its amenities following Hurricane Ike, the Gulf Coast DesignLab, an outreach program of The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, collaborated with park staff on Float to create a unique piece of infrastructure within the wetland setting.

With great respect for the Gulf Coast and its invaluable role within the regional ecology, Coleman Coker, founder and faculty member, explains: “The mission of the DesignLab is to increase stewardship of the Gulf Coast by providing inspiring places for environmental educators to do their work. Along the way, we’ve developed a focus on state parks and their efforts around environmental literacy.” With a poetic approach that is particularly responsive to context and clients’ needs, Coker leads students through a collaborative process to design and build small-scale structures with modest budgets over 15-week academic semesters.

For the Spring 2016 semester, the idea for a platform campsite, the first of its kind in Texas, came from an initial conversation between Coker and Park Superintendent Nathan Londenberg, who wanted to make the wetlands more accessible and draw visitors into the vastly underutilized area of the park. While Float is available to all visitors, Coker said: “This project was attractive to us because of the scientists, bird counters, and biologists who could use the platform for their investigations. The project naturally aligned with our focus on environmental literacy and education.” Programmatically, the superintendent asked that the campsite be designed for four guests and in keeping with the park’s “leave no trace” policy. The students were challenged to design in a “componentized” way, with each piece being no more than 4-ft wide for transport by flat-bottom boat in shallow water to the site.

With a small budget provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) matching their construction efforts, Coker and his 13 students successfully created a functional outpost and captivating marker within the delicate environment. The jury praised the project for its design simplicity and multi-dimensionality despite the technical challenges. As described by David Miller, FAIA, “The tower becomes this amazing landmark and beautiful signpost, a counterpoint to the strong horizon of the waterway.” Visitors spot the tower, acting as a wayfinding device, 30 minutes into a 60-minute paddle from the dock to the campsite. The jury noted Float’s successes in tectonics and detailing, highlighting the integration of wood and steel. A semitransparent wood screen accentuates the tower’s verticality, while providing privacy to visitors using the basic toilet. Exposed steel rails flush with the deck’s surface allow for tents to be easily tied down in wind. The thin, horizontal rails, which keep alligators from climbing onto the platform surface, act as a “delicate register” for visitors against the water. Through its materiality and form, Float successfully draws out the inherent contrasts of place as a dynamic gesture within the protected landscape.

Since its completion in May 2016, the public can now experience the beauty and uncommon quiet of this “wetland wilderness” atop the platform. Reservations can be made through TPWD on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Sarah Gamble, AIA, is co-founder of GO collaborative and a lecturer at the UT Austin School of Architecture.

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