Portable Laboratory on Uncommon Ground (P.L.U.G.) is a collaborative design/build project by students and faculty in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.

Matt Lutz, of Newport, Va., assistant professor of interior design, and a group of students from the School of Architecture + Design, are preparing this innovative structure to begin housing Virginia Tech researchers from the college of veterinary medicine as they study the affects of human interaction on chimpanzees in Africa’s Mahale Mountains National Park, one of the most remote areas of Tanzania.

The college of veterinary medicine’s program in Africa, Bush-to-Base Bioinformatics, facilitates the study of the dynamic interrelationships between animals, humans, and the environment. The program captures, organizes, stores, shares, analyzes, and disseminates biological and life sciences information from field sites to web sites. Inside the P.L.U.G. structure, these researchers will live and work as they collect observational and physical data. Not only will the structure adequately protect the researchers from environmental hazards in the wilds of Africa, it will respect the delicate environment in which it is placed and leave no trace when it is removed.

The first prototype for the P.L.U.G. project came from a design/build course taught by Lutz and Steve Thompson, chair, graduate program, School of Architecture + Design, in the summer of 2001. The P.L.U.G. structure is designed to be easily assembled and disassembled by researchers on location—no tools are needed! With only two people needed for the assembly process, the parts lock into place like a giant Playmobile® toy for grown-ups. Webbed aluminum beams on the ground level cam-lock with vertical end panel structures. Then end panel structures cam-lock and support the upper webbed aluminum beams. Lightweight structural insulated panels in-fill the beams and form the laboratory space on the ground level and a sleeping loft on the upper level. A tent covers the structure and netting keeps insects and curious monkeys out while allowing breezes in. “Inhabiting P.L.U.G. is akin to executive camping,” said Lutz.

Even as Lutz and his student team prepare the structure for placement in Africa this coming May, they are keeping an open mind towards other possible uses for their environmentally friendly, mobile research dwelling. “This archetype of a field-ready ‘laboratory-box’ with an enveloping ‘tent-dwelling’ has nearly boundless possibilities. For example, it is ideally suited to be rapidly deployed in disaster relief situations where less nimble facilities can reach,” said Lutz. Lutz, who received a master’s degree in architecture from Virginia Tech and a bachelor’s degree in historic preservation from Savannah College of Art and Design. He has been with Virginia Tech since 1999.

The College of Architecture and Urban Studies student team is: Nathan King, student project leader, a graduate student in industrial design from Christiansburg, Va., (Nathan has been with the project since the conceptual stages and will travel with the building to Tanzania and deploy it in the outback); Jennifer Ash, senior, interior design, from Virginia Beach, Va.; Howard Chen, senior, industrial design, Richmond, Va.; Jon Mills, senior, industrial design, Blacksburg, Va.; and Jason Zawitkowski, graduate student, architecture, Nutley, N.J.

Ed Dorsa, associate professor, industrial design, participated in an advisory role during the initial stages of the current P.L.U.G. prototype.

Lutz recognized by the ACSA for outstanding design

Lutz has just been named the winner of an Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture Faculty Design Award. Lutz will receive the award, one of only four bestowed this year, at a ceremony on March 9. Lutz wins this honor for his design work on the Kentland Smokehouse, an early 19th-century, hexagonal Flemish bond brick building, a contributing building in the Kentland Farm Historic and Archeological District. Lutz worked under the auspices of Virginia Tech’s Campus Renovation Services on this design.

The College of Architecture and Urban Studies is one of the largest of its type in the nation. The college is composed of two schools and the departments of landscape architecture, building construction, and art and art history. The School of Architecture + Design includes programs in architecture, industrial design and interior design. The School of Public and International Affairs includes programs in urban affairs and planning, public administration and policy, and government and international affairs. The college enrolls more than 2,000 students offering 25 degrees taught by 160 faculty members.

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