Environmental Activism by Design
Coleman Coker and Sarah Gamble
Applied Research & Design, 2023

Environmental Activism by Design provides both a provocative and sobering perspective on the state of architectural academia’s approach to the global climate crisis. It is provocative in its coverage of the inspiring inventiveness of the next generation of designers but equally sobering in its constant reminder that the effort to save humans from extinction will take more than one design-build studio at one university. Written by Coleman Coker, professor of practice and director of the Gulf Coast DesignLab at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, and Sarah Gamble, assistant professor at the University of Florida School of Architecture, this publication serves as a catalogue of Gulf Coast DesignLab projects from the past decade as well as an inspiration for future academic design studios. 

Launched in 2012, the Gulf Coast DesignLab has evolved into a highly respected offering at the UT Austin School of Architecture. The design-build studio is unique in that it exposes students to ecological destruction and inequity, realities that are sometimes neglected in academia. Each project is conveniently located three hours from campus along Texas’s “Black Gold” coast, where the shadow of the petrochemical industry and its environmental impacts are omnipresent. This setting communicates Coker’s ethos of “architecture as ethical action” as it allows students to experience—some for the first time—the ecological and social responsibility that design should enact. 

Each of the four sections of this book contains an informative description of different environmental issues, particularly those affecting the Texas Gulf Coast, and what the architecture industry is—and is not—doing to address such issues. The discussion is followed by two featured Gulf Coast DesignLab projects, describing their site constraints and construction methods and providing both progress and final photos. A testament to Coker’s reliability and ecological responsibility are the repeat clients for whom the Gulf Coast DesignLab has designed: The studio has completed five projects with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and three with Artist Boat, a local nonprofit that provides coastal education to students from inner-city Houston schools.

One of the studio’s most notable projects, FLOAT, was a 2017 Texas Society of Architects Design Award winner, and its publication in Texas Architect spurred the creation of this book. Undertaken in Spring 2016 for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, FLOAT is a four-person floating camping platform located in Sea Rim State Park, which is forty-five miles south of Beaumont and one hundred miles east of Houston. Students were attracted to this project because it provided space for “scientists, bird counters, and biologists who could utilize the platform for their investigations” while also remaining rentable to the public for camping. The intense construction process in the environmentally sensitive wetland site lasted just a few days, with some of the students assembling the ten prefabricated modules while others provided alligator patrol in their kayaks. The students even coordinated with an alligator expert during design to ensure that FLOAT’s above-water camping surface wouldn’t attract the sunbathing reptiles.

STORE, designed in Spring 2017 for Artist Boat’s Coastal Heritage Preserve, is located on Galveston Island. This shaded outdoor classroom contains storage for kayaks, life vests, and educational tools to accommodate school groups before and after their wetland tours. The dynamic rebar screen, which varies from tight to porous depending on security and framing of views, was welded on campus and assembled on site. Gamble writes that in STORE “students engage in the tangible realities of material and assembly—an experience that can be inherently transformative to a young designer.” STORE was recognized in 2019 by the City of Galveston with a Planning and Design Award, which led to two subsequent projects for Artist Boat: FRAME and OBSERVE.

Environmental Activism by Design, at its core, is a means of challenging present-day architectural academia. Coker and Gamble, who refer to themselves as “public interest designers,” provide writings and a catalogue of projects that reflects the environmentalism “that is often not an engrained component of most academic design studios.” Coker and Gamble constantly note that contemporary academia is failing both its students and the planet by not focusing on environmental issues and on those—often the poor and underrepresented—who are impacted by them daily. The Gulf Coast DesignLab, however, “showcases how environmental education can be integrated into architectural education to the benefit of design students and the public clients who utilize the built works they produce,” says Gamble. While the emphasis on ecological stewardship and environmental education is already unique to this studio, so is the realized construction and public use of the projects. Gamble praises the Gulf Coast DesignLab’s built work, highlighting the projects’ diversity of functions and the skills students learn through their design and construction. She notes: “Architecture, designers’ medium for action, can measure flooding depths; orient visitors to the cardinal directions; frame views of native plants; incorporate locally harvested, sustainable materials; and more—shaping learning opportunities for clients, users, and admirers alike.” 

Through Coker’s teaching process, which “emphasizes the power of architecture as a form of activism,” students inevitably subscribe to an individual and collective responsibility to not only design for the ongoing ecological emergency but also provide the public with engaging outdoor spaces so that future practitioners, scientists, and activists are inspired by “a broadened perspective of who they are and what they can do” for the environment. Coker states that his students “gain the satisfaction of helping others achieve equity” while the local “coastal citizens gain greater empowerment to protect their homes, communities, and environment,” demonstrating the wide impact that the Gulf Coast DesignLab wields. 

While Environmental Activism by Design is a timely and well-grounded publication, there is noticeable redundancy in the explanation of specific ecological problems throughout different stages of the book, when other problems could have been explored and discussed. While such problems and the built works that tackle them apply to many of the topics discussed throughout the text, only eight of the studio’s twenty-seven built structures are featured in the book and frequently referenced, while numerous other projects remain nearly unmentioned. 

A book that up until now had no ratings or reviews on the popular book-tracking app Goodreads, Environmental Activism by Design should be prioritized by any student, faculty member, or practitioner who realizes the innate responsibility to design for the present ecological emergency and the future survival of our species. While the projects of the Gulf Coast DesignLab increase public ecological literacy and further the students’ biophilic attraction, Coker and Gamble’s compelling writing successfully enhances the ecologically minded thinking of the reader and sheds undeniable light on the dire ecological situation of the Texas Gulf Coast and the broader planet.

Cole Von Feldt is a designer, photographer, and writer educated in Austin and Copenhagen and trained in New York and Houston. He currently lives and works in New York.

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