29 May 2024

Hope, Solutions On Full Display at Ryan Resilience Lab


As Luísa Black Ellis surveys Knitting Mill Creek on the Lafayette Branch of the Elizabeth River, she can’t help but recall a time not so long ago when the river was declared “dead.” 

“Thirty years ago, the Elizabeth River was so polluted that scientists would hold competitions to see who could pull out the most deformed fish from the river,” says Ellis, Resiliency Manager at the newly opened Ryan Resilience Lab at 4610 Colley Ave. 

Today, the river’s improved health stands as testament to the efforts of the community, which along with some encouragement from the Elizabeth River Project (ERP), has adopted more sustainable building practices along its banks. 

“Now we face the new threat of sea level rise,” Ellis says. “That’s why we built the Ryan Resilience Lab – to build a grass roots environmental resilience for the river and for the people who live on it.” 

Situated off Colley between 45th and 46th streets, the Ryan Resilience Lab (RRL) serves as the ERP’s latest stunning visual showcase for these practices, and it’s hosting a grand opening Saturday, June 1, 2024 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The public is invited to join the festivities and to learn about the lab’s efforts to combat the inevitable effects of climate change on our region. 

There will be a brief grand opening ceremony at 11:30 a.m, and there will be a kids’ scavenger hunt, electric boat rides, tours, free bike rides and kayak ecotours for visitors to partake in. Earlier in the day is the Clean the Bay Day Cleanup from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Learn more here.

Green Systems 

The first thing a visitor to the RRL sees is a sleek exterior fronting Colley Ave. A stone’s throw from Old Dominion University and Chartway Arena, the 6,500 square foot lab isn’t just about making visual impressions: there’s also substance to its design. The closer you look, the more impressive the structure becomes.  

Built with green systems designed to withstand elements that will eventually destroy the structures around it, the lab uses off-the-shelf solutions that are within reach of the average homeowner, builder or developer. Decked out with solar panels, gardens that absorb rain, adaptable floodproofing, floating storage buildings and living roofs, the lab is meant to inspire homeowners who are concerned about the near future, but aren’t sure where to begin. 

Case in point: Ellis leads a tour to the second floor of the lab on the river side, where a lush garden grows atop a flat roof. Planted with native vegetation with shallow roots, this “living garden” serves multiple purposes, she says. 

“It passively insulates the building and cools or heats it as needed while reducing our need to burn fossil fuels,” she says. “It also reduces our heat island effect where cities have a lot of paved surfaces and cement that act like mirrors, doubling and redoubling the ambient heat of that area.” 

Ellis adds that heat islands are often found in historically black, brown and working class neighborhoods, which is why affordability of designs like living gardens is crucial to their eventual adoption.  

“The bulk of these systems we can help you design, install and cost-share,” Ellis says. “This is a really simple off-the-shelf system that anyone can install.” 

Part of the RRL’s mission is to persuade builders and developers to see that green systems are not only good for the earth and the community, but can also serve as cost-saving measures during construction. 

A Living Shoreline 

Contrasting the hopeful energy around the lab is the stark reality that sea level rise is projected to overtake the facility within 30 to 50 years. In fact, this is why the ERP chose the former American Legion building in the first place: to show visitors in real-time that the land they’re standing on will one day no longer exist. 

The lab’s living shoreline is evidence that progressive adaptation may be a better approach than a protracted fight against the inevitable. Ryan Resilience Lab’s floating structures and deep wetlands are designed to inspire homeowners to consider a not-so-distant future when they may no longer be able to occupy their homes. Built with recyclable elements, the lab is designed to be dismantled and its materials reused elsewhere when that day comes. 

“We built it that way on purpose hoping people will see that and replicate it and start planning for the future with their wetlands,” Ellis says. 

What may sound like a dystopian outlook for the Ryan Resilience Lab is actually a hopeful one, Ellis suggests. 

“People no longer say the river is dead,” she says. “They just ask what they can do to help. We’ve made incredible progress healing the river, but we still have a long way to go.” 

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