For the past six years, architecture/engineering firm Leo A Daly has been designing sites for remote field stations that are collecting environmental data across the country on behalf of the National Ecological Observatory Network, an independent nonprofit entity funded by the National Science Foundation.
Over its 30-year lifespan, NEON’s 106 aquatic and terrestrial sites will track climate conditions, land-use changes, and data on invasive species. The sites have been selected to represent different regions of vegetation, landforms, climate, and ecosystem performance.
One difficult design problem, according to Elizabeth Hunter, the firm’s Project Manager for NEON, has been complying with a mandate of near-zero ecological disturbance. “NEON’s engineers wanted to build [the field stations] with a hovercraft and not disturb anything,” she says, only half jokingly. Leo A Daly, which has designed structures for national parks, had to find ways to meet NEON’s demands using equipment no bigger nor more intrusive than a small skid steer loader.
Case in point: the instrument hut and tower for a site called Dead Lake, near Demopolis, Ala. The site is located close to the Black Warrior River and is susceptible to flooding. NEON has strict criteria about enclosing its instruments within a continuous foundation, so the design team called for the tower to be built on a foundation supported by piers five feet off the ground that allow floodwaters to pass through. The station went live in 2013.
The sites are mostly self sufficient, but have to be accessible by scientists, who visit the sites periodically to collect data and recalibrate the equipment. At Dead Lake, an elevated metal boardwalk wiggles its way around trees and other obstructions from the site to a staging area a couple of hundred feet away.
Hunter says the buildout of 60 towers and 46 aquatic sites—including 40 relocatable structures—should be completed by 2017. The towers range in height from 26 to 300 feet and take two to six months to build. The sites cost anywhere from under $500,000 to more than $1 million each.