2023 Good Design Award for Sustainability – EMU




Reef Design Lab ideates, prototypes, manufactures and implements coastal solutions for real impact, marrying the needs of nature and humanity across a range of nature-inspired innovations. To paraphrase Founder Alex Goad, they thrive within the space of ecologically-inclusive design, where all species – not just humans – are equally considered.

Embodying the studio’s unique approach, Reef Design Lab’s Erosion Mitigation Units (EMUs) are a series of swell attenuating artificial reef modules. They steer away from the hard coastal engineering approaches of the past to solidify a softer nature-based solution. Not only forming a permeable barrier to reduce the height and energy of waves, they provide a rich habitat for native sea creatures and offer an incredible sight for snorkelers.

After almost a decade of scientific research, negotiations and approvals, the first EMUs were installed at Clifton Springs on the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria earlier this year. Each sculptured module has created a complex range of habitat niches that have welcomed all kinds of marine life, including mussels, oysters and banjo rays. In-built rock pools also provide an intertidal habitat that birds love to feed on. 

Reef Design Lab’s Erosion Mitigation Units have received the 2023 Good Design Award for Sustainability. Good Design Australia caught up with Alex ahead of the 2023 Good Design Awards Ceremony to dive into the inspiring EMU journey.

Erosion Mitigation Units (EMU) – Winner of the 2023 Good Design Award for Sustainability

Good Design Australia: The EMU project seems to do a lot more than mitigate coastal erosion. What else do these reef modules offer?

Alex Goad: The whole point of the EMU installation down at Clifton Springs was to look into how you could create multi-benefits around engineered coastal infrastructure. It shows that an engineered concept can provide coastal protection, but also be this multi-benefit installation that people could snorkel on, swim around and be educated about eco-engineering. There’s already quite a few school groups that go down there. In my mind, it’s sort of a no-brainer I guess. We need to guard the ocean and we have to build this infrastructure. Why not do it in a more beautiful way?

Everything that we’re doing is founded in scientific collaboration. The Clifton Springs installation, for example, is being researched by the National Centre for Coasts and Climate who are with Melbourne University. They’re looking at oyster recruitment and fish aggregation. We work in a relatively new area of work, so it’s just really important to collaborate with a lot of different people to make sure what we’re doing is actually having a positive impact.

GDA: Around Australia, you see a lot of rock groynes and seawalls as the traditional coastal erosion solutions. Were there aspects of these traditional designs that EMU draws from? Or, was it trying to intentionally steer away from them?

AG: I think it would be naive to say we’ve reinvented coastal protection, but we’re quite interested in how we can bring in a more of a designed approach to how we build. Looking to the future, we are unfortunately going to have to continue to build a lot of coastal protection structures, but I also think this exposes an opportunity to create habitat and bits of community infrastructure while protecting the coastline.

GDA: The EMU features a rather interesting design. What details were you trying to balance with this?

AG: Originally, the project was going to potentially be an underwater sculpture park of sorts and then be merged into a breakwater. We wanted to create an interesting aesthetic to be almost like a true underwater form – a sculptural breakwater, essentially. This gave us the opportunity to develop an undulating system which allows people to snorkel through the breakwater. Traditionally, breakwaters are very closed off and you can only swim around them, so EMU presents this very fluid, very porous type structure that challenges that.

This brought on a deep-dive into eco-engineering principles that had us looking at surface textures, creating rock pools and little caves, implementing all these functional aspects. What’s really exciting about this is the more complex the surface geometry of the unit, the better colonisation of different organisms you’re going to get. However, within that, you also want to be sure that you don’t create geometries that might encourage invasive species as well. So we do work really closely with a range of different scientists to ensure we’re designing in the right direction. 

Erosion Mitigation Units (EMU) – Winner of the 2023 Good Design Award for Sustainability

GDA: How has a sustainable focus come into play with the use of materials and the manufacturing process?

AG: We manufactured all of the units from a mould that we built in-house at our studio using digital manufacturing techniques. We then cast all the units like you normally would, but also incorporate recycled shells, which was something that Ralph Roob [Senior Environmental Engineer at City of Greater Geelong] suggested. One of the issues with incorporating any kind of shell product into concrete mixes, though, is that it can weaken the concrete because it’s a lot weaker than regular aggregate. So, to incorporate the shell without jeopardising the strength of the product, we vibrated and cast the units in a way that saw the shells come to the top – the surface of each unit. The resulting shell texture provides a great substrate for shellfish to colonise. We also used an eco-blended concrete mix with a lot of fly ash and various other byproducts to reduce the cement content.

We’ve tried to pack all of that into these modules, all while making something that is economical to manufacture. Coastal protection is not an area of work where the budgets are super high – you’re essentially competing with cast concrete blocks – so that’s all come into play as well.

GDA: You note that designing for nature as well as humanity is an important next step in the evolution of the built world, and this project is an important catalyst for that change in the coastal protection space. How would you describe design’s potential to face or challenge environmental challenges? 

We’re in a particularly interesting area to really explore the realms outside human-centred design, so we see massive opportunity there. It really can be of value to everyone, the environment, people, various kinds of species, but I think it’s also important to be careful of greenwashing throughout the process. The issue with a lot of these kinds of work is they’re not complete solutions to any kind of environmental issue, they have just options to mitigate certain impacts. 

This means that truly impactful projects in the area need to be communicated properly. Otherwise, I think it waters down the potential of the field. It’s why we work really closely with scientists who publish a lot of papers on the sort of work that we do. They’re very honest about whether something we’ve installed has been really effective or not. With honesty, there’s huge potential for this work, and I believe we can only say it’s done in an appropriate way if there’s genuine, proven benefit.

GDA: Good Design Australia defines ‘good design’ as ideas, products, projects and services that show potential to lead to a better, safer and more prosperous future for all. How would you describe ‘good design’ yourselves? 

AG: I’m not sure if I could sum it up in a more eloquent way than that! But, I think certainly what we think of as ‘good design’ is something you can have fun with. It’s important to bring joy into this kind of design work. We also think it’s important to bring in an interesting aesthetic language to push the message of what you’re trying to do, whether that’s eco-engineering, design for the natural environment or otherwise. 

Just to bring joy back into the product is a really important part for us. And I think that is, you know, what ‘good design’ can be.

Erosion Mitigation Units (EMU) – Winner of the 2023 Good Design Award for Sustainability


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