Tillinghast Farm at the Rhode Island School of Design captures a cross section of coastal species progression, moving from beach into Spartina marsh to phragmites and finally forest. RISD has been working with local conservation groups to restore the marsh from WPA drainage projects since acquiring the property, but recognizes that climate change will massively affect it. Facing three feet of sea level rise over the next century, Tillinghast and other salt marshes will retreat or dramatically narrow, reducing fish nurseries, natural storm barriers, and a variety of other ecosystem services. Recognizing this change and RISD's increasing interest in community outreach, a nature center at Tillinghast provides dual opportunities for studying coastal change and teaching marsh stewardship.
Salt marshes form under a complex interplay of climatic, geographic, and biological factors, but the underlying natural processes that shape them are far more predictable. Patches of Spartina grass grow taller near disturbances to buffer the rest, and grasses that die form windswept patches that shield surviving clusters. Flowing water erodes and deposits sediment to smooth the landscape around immovable objects. Processes play out over varying timescales, creating preexisting conditions for one another that form intricate feedback loops over years, decades and centuries.
The classroom is raised above the marsh on narrow pillars, minimizing its impact as the marsh advances around and under it. By building ahead of the marsh’s progress, the structure avoids disturbing the marsh during its construction, and the minimal footprint facilitates a low impact removal once it reaches the end of its usable life.