As sea levels rise and land sinks, Maryland’s Eastern Shore is a prime place for scientific study—just not if a former chicken farm is your lab.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources purchased the Drawbridge Farm, located on Monie Bay about seven miles west of Princess Anne, in 2011 to support research on the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. But after years of trekking to the isolated location and working in a farmhouse kitchen, state environmental officials are looking for a more functional field station.

Inspired by UMD’s “WaterShed” solar-powered home that won the 2011 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon (and featured wetlands to filter stormwater, a green roof and edible garden), they teamed up with a graduate design studio at the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation to jumpstart the development process.

“None of us has ever built a house before,” said Jennifer Raulin, manager of the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. “Working with the design studio is helping us tease out what we really need.”

The class of 33 students will produce 17 proposals, said Julie Gabrielli, an architecture lecturer who teaches the course with Clinical Professor Amy Gardner and Lecturer Brittany Williams. In addition to visiting the site, students have been mentored by professional architects, engineers, climate experts and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration staff. The goal, Gabrielli said, is to teach them how to keep a project’s ambitions in balance with issues like remote location and the impact of sea level rise.

“It’s probably the first time they are exposed to hearing feedback from so many different individuals,” she said.

The final result will be a blueprint to inform DNR as it proceeds with the project.

From its location in a floodplain to potential impact on sensitive wildlife, the project has a lot more questions to consider than other architecture exercises, said Zebi Brown, a master’s in architecture student taking the course. The class, she says, is showing the importance of actually visiting a site—how tall is “tall grass,” really?—and keeping end users in mind.

“It’s much more specific and has a lot more variables,” Brown said. “We haven’t had to put a fume hood in before.”