As part of the Masters in Advanced Ecological Buildings and Biocities (MAEBB) program at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) in Barcelona, students and researchers designed and built the Forest Lab for Observational Research and Analysis (FLORA). The project is a research facility made from sustainably-sourced timber that allows researchers to live and work from within the forest canopy.

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An observatory deck encased in a net and raised above into the trees

FLORA is located in Valldaura, which is in the central forest of the Collserola Natural Park in Barcelona. It is the most extensive green space in the metropolitan area as it consists of over 8,000 hectares of land. Since it is located in a mountain range near the ocean, the park boasts a fascinating ecosystem. It features roughly 190 types of vertebrates, 1000 plant species and Aleppo pine forests consisting of over 10 billion trees. While the project is based in the Parc de Collserola, it is designed such that its form can be adapted to suit other forest sites around the world.

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View from the back of a timber structure that cantilevers into a forest

Studying the treetops

The project is inspired by the work of the American biologist Margaret D. Lowman, A.K.A. Canopy Meg. She is considered to be the pioneer of canopy ecology and has spent over 30 years designing treetop walkways and hot air balloons to conduct research in forest canopies. Dr. Lowman aims to monitor the health of the ecosystem from above and research the diverse species that live in the treetops.

Woman in a timber structure encased in a net looking out towards a forest

Furthermore, analyzing the canopies is vital to understanding forest ecosystems and climate change mitigation. Tree canopies play a significant role in the water cycle. They percolate precipitation into the soil which conserves roots in heavy rainfall and produce leaf litter to nourish the soil. They also release water into the atmosphere through transpiration. By studying these processes, scientists are given insights into climate resilience. This is because these processes give shed light on the storage and flow of carbon dioxide.

View from a walkway that projects into a lush forest

A sustainable, holistic design approach

To construct FLORA, the design team carried out research to understand the forest’s biodiversity at the underground, aboveground, canopy and sky levels. This exploration gave them insight into what was needed for the project to be a conducive research space. The structure features spaces like bird-watching spaces, working spaces and birdhouses, which make it easy to interact with the wildlife and surroundings.

Man seated inside a timber room peeping out from a window

Additionally, FLORA embodies a “zero-kilometer” philosophy. This means that the primary building material, pine timber, is obtained from the surrounding environment. This slashes the extensive carbon emissions that are associated with a supply chain. For this project, the team used 70 pine trees. These were selected based on Collserola’s approved Sustainable Forest Management Plan. Once the pines were harvested, the students processed them into glulam beams, cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels and solid wood using the facilities at IAAC’s Valldaura Labs.

Raised timber structure that looks out towards a dense forest

The 8.5-meter high structure was assembled from components that the team pre-fabricated. This includes the CLT core that rests on the glulam timber column and glulam bridge. The core is encased in layers of natural cork panels to provide acoustic and thermal insulation.

Raised timber structure in a snowy forest

The project is wrapped in a net, which was designed digitally and woven together by hand. Through its design, the net camouflages the structure. By allowing the building to blend in with the environment, scientists can carry out their research easily and with less disruption to the environment. By immersing the researchers in the natural environment to study the local biodiversity in a non-disruptive manner, FLORA serves as a model for ecosystem and climate resilience research spaces.


Images via Adrià Goula and Valldaura Labs