Lego-style designer reef could help save marine life

By James O'Hanlon | March 16, 2015

A young design student has created a modular structure that speeds up the development of artificial reefs

A YOUNG AUSTRALIAN designer has devised a novel way to help grow artificial reefs, and it’s inspired by Lego.

Alex Goad, an industrial design student at Monash University in Melbourne has developed what he calls the Modular Artificial Reef Structure (MARS). Each branched module is built from concrete and coated with textured ceramic which provides the perfect surface for marine plants and animals to colonise.

By clamping together various modules, like Lego, marine scientists and aquariums can use the MARS system to create endlessly customisable artificial reef habitats.

Modular reef speed up natural process

Normally coral reefs are built upon a foundation of calcium-rich coral skeletons. It can take centuries for this coral ‘rubble’ to build up and form an ideal habitat for a flourishing reef. Climate change, pollution and unsustainable fishing practices threaten to destroy these foundations.

Large storms and destructive fishing methods, such as dynamite fishing, can destroy reefs in an instant, killing their inhabitants and removing their foundations. The barren landscape left behind leaves nowhere for reef-building animals, such as corals and sponges, to settle.

But the new MARS system can greatly reduce the time it takes to build that foundation.

Rebuilding damaged reefs with the help of modules

Alex has plans to use his newly designed product to help rebuild damaged coral reefs and speed-up their recovery.

“Reefs do naturally repair themselves but this can take decades,” Alex says. “Just like how we re-plant trees we must start re-planting reef environments.”

The modular design allows for artificial reefs to be built on site cheaply and easily, using small boats and built by hand within a matter of days.

“The idea is that once the MARS arms are transported to the deployment area…the hollow ceramic form is filled with marine concrete and composite rebar, utilising local labour and concrete manufacturers,” Alex says.

A new spin on artificial reefs

“I’ve always been obsessed with SCUBA diving and snorkelling,” Alex says. “I noticed that a lot of the product-based artificial reefs seemed incredibly out-dated and did not provide adequate protection for all creatures that would use it.”

The complex network formed by the connected MARS modules interrupts water flow, trapping food particles and creating refuges for small animals. Independent trials of the MARS units have been running for about a year in places such as Port Melbourne and Cairns, as well as some aquariums, and Alex is now searching for development opportunities to build these reefs on a large scale.

To refine his idea Alex teamed up with marine scientist and developer David Lennon from the organisation Sustainable Oceans International, who has worked extensively on artificial reefs.

“Alex approached me when he was working on his final year project at university,” David says. “I could immediately see the merit behind the concept.”

Alex and David are now working together on other projects that include large-scale 3D printing of custom designed reefs.

“Alex brought the essential element of design, which was something that I was lacking so far,” David says.

Designer reef wins awards

The design industry has recognised the innovative approach of the MARS system. Alex recently won the Hills Young Australian Design Sustainability Award, the James Dyson Foundation Design Award and the graduate prize for Best Product Design from Monash University.

Together Alex and David have formed the not-for-profit company Reef Design Lab to start implementing designer reefs as a tool for habitat conservation.