Rice University
Rice Magazine| The Magazine of Rice University | No. 3 | 2009

Concrete Evidence

Sometimes there’s no hard and fast rule for concrete construction. Just ask Brantley Highfill and Zhan Chen.

Concrete PondThe two are graduate students in the Rice School of Architecture, and they recently were runners-up in the building element division of the international student design competition Concrete Thinking for a Sustainable World, sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. More than 300 students from 55 schools of architecture from around the world participated in the competition.

The competition asked students to design innovative applications for Portland cement-based materials to achieve sustainable design objectives. Highfill and Chen’s proposal, Constructed Ecologies, made use of permeable concrete planks called GeoPlanks to allow people more access to water in environmentally sensitive areas — particularly along bayous, seawalls and other places that land and water meet­ — than is possible with traditional barriers.

Concrete pondThe idea for GeoPlanks was born in a class on concrete taught by Douglas Oliver, a professor in the practice of architecture who served as the team’s adviser, when the students took a long look at Houston’s bayous.

“Concrete often is used to cover these waterways for flood-control purposes, but it also damages the existing natural environment,” Chen said. “The resulting condition is miles of paved rivers that resemble major highway infrastructure in terms of both cost and construction. Constructed Ecologies offers a productive alternative to this hard landscape.”

GeoPlanks, which are straight and angled interlocking sections of concrete, can dip above and below the surface of a body of water and are designed to blend into the earth. The porous surface of each plank naturally collects soil and seed deposits to reduce the surface area of exposed concrete and mitigate the “heat island” effect.

“We would love the opportunity to fabricate a system and test it out,” Highfill said.