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BRANFORD, Connecticut, United States

November 2022


GOA (Architect), Yale Building LAB (Research, Design, Fabrication, and Construction)


Yale Building LAB (Research, Design, Fabrication, and Construction), JIG Design Build (General Contractor), Odeh Engineers (Structural Engineer)


Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University




The Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University sought a small, off-grid research facility to serve as hybrid classroom, laboratory and event space, with overnight housing for visiting students, scientists, and creative artists. The building was developed and constructed in a unique collaboration between the graduate architecture and environmental science students working in the Yale Building LAB at the Yale School of Architecture, the architectural firm GOA and its construction subsidiary JIG Design Build whose principals served as teaching faculty, research scientists and administrators at Yale, and public regulatory officials. A three-part curricular sequence studied advanced concepts in life cycle building design that included a research seminar, a collaborative design studio, and a student-built pilot project examining and implementing the principles and practices of regenerative design and construction. These included advanced silvicultural harvests in regional forests and novel bio-based materials and components, circular economic reuse of construction waste, and low impact construction means and methods: off-site prefabrication, non-invasive transport, material handling, and assembly. The research station was designed for future disassembly and material reuse and creates its own off-grid technical infrastructure by taking advantage of local ecosystem services: a rainwater harvesting and purification system developed in collaboration with regional health authorities provides potable water; interior spaces and domestic water are heated through an efficient wood biomass furnace using deadwood sourced from the surrounding forest; electrical energy is generated through a rooftop solar photovoltaic array and battery system; and a composting toilet serves visitors with minimal water use.


The Coastal Research Station stands just above a southwestern facing cove and intertidal zone along the shoreline of Horse Island, the largest of the Thimble Island archipelago lying over a mile off the Connecticut coastline in Long Island Sound. The Thimbles are a chain of small outcroppings of pink granite bedrock that had been the tops of hills prior to the last ice age. At roughly eleven acres in size and the former site of a private estate, Horse Island is an example of a brownfield landscape in recovery. Although the island ecosystem is host to an increasing array of flora and fauna, its current condition remains that of a degraded vineland, sparsely forested with stands of pitch pine, beech, and sassafras clinging to the island’s thin soils and interlaced by invasive species. The island’s changing ecosystem is closely managed by the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History and the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies. The landscape serves as a living laboratory for interdisciplinary groups of researchers, from scientists to artists, who seek to study nature’s recovery from a legacy of anthropogenic disturbance that dates from the colonial period of the continent’s history. Because Horse Island is an isolated and protected site, lacking any utility infrastructure and accessible only to visiting researchers, the island site’s physical bounds offer a rare opportunity in the suburbanized context of Connecticut’s coastline to observe how natural systems respond when human settlement retreats.


The systems and assemblies of the Horse Island Research Station are closely monitored and, with the occasional tweak and adjustment, have performed beyond expectation. The project’s highly transparent, broadly interdisciplinary, and deeply inclusive design and construction process generated broad public, educational, and journalistic interest that spanned the building’s sensitive use of its site, its novel palette of regenerative materials and the means and methods of their application, and the educational promise of advanced research/design/build pilots as a platform for the integration of research and ongoing assessment practices in architectural design and building operation. The island itself has gained new status as a significant site and the focus of intensified efforts in ecological restoration and land management. Today, the island and its new research facility host students, teachers, and practitioners from disciplines and professions in environmental sciences, design and engineering, public policy, and the humanities, dissolving the siloed boundaries between actors and sectors whose collaboration will be essential in the fight against climate change and terrestrial degradation. Since its opening in mid-2022, the Horse Island Coastal Research Station is in constant and robust use by the Yale research and teaching community, partner institutions, and their visitors. Peabody Museum Director David Skelly recently described the Research Station as a kind of “Swiss army knife” that has given new life to a critical but once-neglected landscape and its potentially biodiverse ecosystem.

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