Humans are enamored with the idea of transformation and change. We like to observe the differences between two separate points in our lives, judging and scaling and defining ourselves by who we’ve been and who we are and who we might be. We grow into the idea that we have the power to transform ourselves and our environment, for better or for worse. This ability to witness our own transformation, not only as individuals, but also as a collective, can be both damning and inspiring.
When it comes to our planet’s oceans, the scale of this transformational culpability is immeasurable. Thankfully, groups such as the US-based Reef Ball Foundation and Australia-based Reef Design Lab are making efforts to reverse some of the damage that humans have inflicted on our planet’s oceans, aiming to transform destroyed reefs and marine ecosystems through artificial craft.
Todd Barber, Kathy Kirbo, and Larry Beggs founded the Reef Ball Foundation in Athens, Georgia in the 90s, a group that would eventually have world-wide impact. “It was just sort of a goofy friend thing [while] I was in a diving class with Todd at the University of Georgia,” says Kirbo. “We were both already certified divers from a young age, so we kind of hung out because we already knew how to dive in the class.” Barber, his father, and a group of friends started volunteering under the name “Reef Ball Development Group,” and as the idea gradually got more serious, they involved scientists and concrete experts, eventually establishing the nonprofit foundation in 1997.
The reef-ball itself consists of several sizes, and is a circular-shaped unit made of a cement mixture that has a similar pH to sea water, impersonating a natural reef that invites colonizing organisms. Like a real reef, the reef balls are textured and covered in small holes, nooks, and crannies, which offer protection and habitat for small creatures. “We originally started [the foundation] for coral reefs,” says Kirbo, “but once we started working in different areas and different countries and understanding the whole full reef ecosystem, we started doing oyster reef restoration. Then we started doing mangrove restoration. Then living shorelines, now living sea walls, and erosion control for sea resilience. It just kind of expanded.”
The Reef Ball Foundation operates mainly out of Georgia and Florida, but has national and international partnerships for varying projects that include community involvement, research, public education, and, of course, reef restoration. The foundation works with the likes of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Mwambao Coastal Community Network, and BREEF: Sir Nicholas Coral Reef Sculpture Garden. As of now, the Reef Ball Foundation has placed reef balls in over 60 countries and has participated in 6,500 projects. That equates to the contribution of around 600,000 reef balls, adding 54 billion kilograms of biomass to oceans.
Subsequently, Reef Design Lab (RDL) was founded in 2014, and is an interdisciplinary design company that is dedicated to designing and producing solutions for the loss of marine habitat. “Our business really started when I did industrial design at University and one of my honors projects was the MARS Modular artificial Reef structure,” says Alex Goad, founder, director, and industrial designer of Reef Design Lab. “That was like a modular artificial reef system for coral transplanting and coral farming. That project was essentially the catalyst for starting our entire company.” The RDL team is a small one, made up of about four people, who work together on collaborative projects with other institutions. Goad says that what’s helped the business to grow are these collaborative projects, such as a living sea wall they recently worked on with the Sydney Institute of Marine Science. “What we’re also known for is combining digital fabrication,” Goad says, “like 3D printing with traditional techniques as well. I think that’s something that’s really important. You know, there’s so much hype around 3D printing. ‘3D printing can solve everything!’ It obviously can’t, and there’s a limit for what the technology can do. But, we are very much involved in it and we think that there’s so many opportunities for it, but I think any technological advancement has to be combined with marine scientific research.”
There are several 3D printing techniques: direct concrete 3D printing, where instead of casting an object, it's extruded out of a nozzle; sand based 3D printing, which drops down a liquid to solidify a sand and cement based material; small scale ceramic 3D printing, which is similar to concrete printing. At Reef Design Lab, their most popular method of artificial reef building are molding techniques, which are the most cost effective. They have large format 3D printers in-house which are used to make molds of infrastructure units, in which all of their shapes are casted.
“A lot of what we do is mass constructed,” adds Goad, “especially for coastal protection structures. You have to produce hundreds of these, and it’s much more economical and environmentally friendly in a sense to design a 3D printed, reusable mold. We’re able to do computer modeling to optimize geometries for habitat, you know, textures, all things that are researched through our partnerships. What’s awesome about that is that sort of optimization of habitat also goes hand in hand with minimizing the amount of material that’s needed as well.” For RDL, it’s important that sourcing material and production are as environmentally friendly as possible. Because they deal directly with the natural environment, they’re limited to certain materials such as concrete, steel, and ceramic.
When asked about the challenges within the artificial reef industry, both Kirbo and Goad say that perception, funding, and permitting play a role. “A lot of the projects that we do,” shares Goad, “they have to be combined with research, because we don’t want to be doing something that isn’t environmentally beneficial and might potentially even be negative—if you’re creating habitat for invasive species, for example. It’s funding for the project itself, funding for the research that needs to happen. Then the complexity of permitting issues are some of the main sort of blockages for these kinds of projects. But, it’s starting to change, these kinds of projects. Artificial reef creation, ecological wave breaks are starting to get so much more traction. People are more aware of it and it’s starting to become a bit more commonplace. It has a long history as well.The Reef Ball Foundation has been building artificial reefs for decades now. It’s not a new technique, you know—this isn’t something that’s just suddenly been developed.”
Kirbo notes the differences in engagement from people in the early days of the Reef Ball Foundation compared to now. “When we first started doing it in the 90s,” she shares, “people thought we were crazy. The environmental movement just wasn’t as strong then. I remember Music Midtown, Atlanta, the organizer, was kind enough to ask me to have a booth. Most people just asked me if they could throw their trash away there. As we progressed, I got to have a booth at the Paul McCartney concert and zillions of people were curious and interested. Climate change, erosion control—it’s so demanding now. We’re very optimistic, but we have a big problem in the world.”
The quest to restore marine habitat is a journey of trials and tribulations. “The most important thing I’ve learned is that people are good,” Kirbo concludes. “I know that sounds corny, but it’s the truth. From all our projects and trips around the world, people have been nothing but wonderful to us. Everyone has more in common than differences for the things that matter. Everyone loves their family and friends and wants a home and a nice quality of life.”