They'd previously been working out of a tent, but upon meeting architect Matthew Lutz, then a professor of architecture at Virginia Tech University where they are both based, and receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation, Kaur, Singh and their organization Bush-to-Base Bioinformatics, set about ameliorating the situation.
The result, PLUG Project (Portable Laboratory on Uncommon Ground), was a collaborative design/build project between the faculty and students of the College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Lutz was a veteran of mobile, solar-powered structures, so the fit was a natural one.
"PLUG Project," says Lutz, "focuses on the design, construction, and deployment of a highly mobile long-term dwelling and laboratory facility that can be deployed in environmentally sensitive areas where vehicular access is either objectionable or unavailable."
From late 2007 until September of 2008, when Kaur, Singh and their daughter returned home to Virginia, the trio inhabited the 300 square feet of PLUG Project. With sleeping quarters upstairs and all the necessary technology to run a top-drawer research laboratory, Kaur and Singh set out to learn as much as they could about the spread of airborne disease between humans and the largest population of human-habituated, free-range chimpanzees in the world.
Totally off the grid, but making use of all manner of cyber infrastructure and a satellite dish, PLUG Project has a solar-powered water pump, a digital weather station and a DNA replicating machine.
Because of the remote nature of the research—a 12-hour boat ride down Lake Taganyika was just one phase of the journey from Virginia Tech to the Mahale Mountains—Lutz and the design team planned the structure to be eminently mobile. "The building is porter-able, with no component heavier than what two healthy adults can carry," he says. Kaur told me that a couple of students and a representative of the architecture department made the trek with her small family to help erect PLUG Project and set up all that they would need for their time in the jungle. It took about a week, all told.
No tools are needed to construct the small structure—a boon for those in isolated areas—and was designed so that two people could put it up in little time. A tent covers the structure and netting allows for passive ventilation while keeping nosy neighbors of the animal kind at bay.
"There was no 911 out where we were," Kaur reports. "We were truly being pioneers. We were living among the leopards, monkeys and wild chimps. It was a wonderful experience."
Lutz, now at Norwich University in Vermont, is keen on doing a second version of PLUG Project. "I'm trying to get funding for a second one," he reports. "The big question is how to improve what it needs to sustain itself when there's no one around."
Lutz says that solar panels are "worth ten times their weight in gold out in the bush," so he is very curious to see how it's all held up since the family's return. Singh was recently back in Tanzania making use of the structure and Lutz is anxious to talk to him about how it has held up.
The new PLUG Project is slated for use on Rubondo Island in Lake Victoria in Tanzania. Kaur and Singh aim to do similar research there and will need another hardy shelter. As Lutz told me about his plans for the next version of the research station he quickly started dreaming of iteration three. "I'd love to do an Arctic version of this thing," he mused. "That would be my dream project."
To view a short film showing the construction of PLUG Project, click here.
Photos of the laboratory space and boat journey courtesy of Dr. Jatinder Singh
Photos of PLUG Project courtesy of Nathan King
Computer renderings courtesy of Matthew Lutz.
Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.