Collaboration yields custom-built mobile laboratory bound for Africa

The one-of-a-kind structure, which doubles as a dwelling, is the latest innovation for environmentally conscious researchers

Virginia Tech researchers studying the possibility of human-animal disease transferral have teamed up with an interior-design professor on a custom design-build project to create a two-in-one portable research laboratory and dwelling that leaves no trace of its presence when removed.


A schematic of PLUG showing the structure's interior and exterior PLUG's outer layer is a light-weight tent canopy.

The project is bringing new meaning to the Minimal Impact Code practiced ardently by environmentalists.

One of the code’s most widely known components — “pack it in, pack it out” — directs the practice of reducing physical damage and preserving natural ecosystems.

The result is an environmentally friendly structure called PLUG (Portable Laboratory on Uncommon Ground), a collaborative project by Virginia Tech students and faculty in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine (VMRCVM).

Collaborative effort

Matt Lutz, a Virginia Tech alumnus and former assistant professor of interior design, and a group of students from the School of Architecture + Design served as creators of the innovation.

The College of Architecture and Urban Studies student group is composed of:

  • Jennifer Ash, interior design;
  • Howard Chen, industrial design;
  • Jon Mills, industrial design; and
  • Jason Zawitkowski, architecture graduate student; and
  • Nathan King, student project leader and industrial design graduate student.

A cross-section schematic of PLUG highlighting the loft and laboratory PLUG's interior offers loft-style quarters and securable lab space.

King has been with the project since its conceptual stages. Along with Chip Clark, architecture graduate student, King traveled with the building to Tanzania for its deployment in the outback.

Previous student team members include Clay Moulton, Mellissa Pyles, Jamie Radecke, and Katie Dufresne.

The researchers are not only using the structure as their portable field-ready research laboratory, they also call the structure home months at a time while they collect observational and physical data.

The structure is integral in facilitating their ability to study the effects of human interaction on chimpanzees in Africa’s Mahale Mountains National Park, located in one of the most remote areas of Tanzania.

Research program

PLUG is one component of VMRCVM’s program in Africa, called Bush-to-Base Bioinformatics.

The program focuses on research concerning the study of the dynamic interrelationships between animals, humans, and the environment.

Information collected will help Tanzanian park rangers maintain the park in a way that will preserve the health of tourists, wildlife, and ecosystem.


Lutz (second from left) stands with student team members in front of the structure. Lutz (second from left) with student team members.

Practical design and assembly

The PLUG structure is designed to adequately protect the researchers from the environmental hazards in the wilds of Africa while maintaining respect for the delicate environment in which it is placed, and will leave no trace of its presence when removed.

Researchers on location can easily assemble and disassemble the structure on location, as it was configured to be set up without tools.  With only two people needed for the assembly process, the parts lock into place much like a giant Playmobile® toy for grown-ups.

"Inhabiting PLUG is akin to executive camping," Lutz said.

PLUG’s components — lightweight aluminum sliding panels, high-tension fiberglass rods, and fabric — help achieve the simple set-up process.

Laboratory space is located on the ground level and a sleeping loft on the upper level. Finally, a tent covers the structure and netting keeps insects and curious monkeys out while allowing breezes in.


Much more complicated than the assembly will be the transportation of this futuristic laboratory to its destination.

Its clever design makes it possible to be self-crated for transport by ship across the ocean and easily convert to a trailer.

The trailer can be hitched to a vehicle and towed across land, and works as a handcart for when the roads stop and the terrain becomes passable only by foot.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF Grant #0238069). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

Form and function



Podcast: Lutz discusses PLUG's design and purpose. (Length 10:03)

The researchers


  • During the initial stages of the prototype, associate professor of industrial design Ed Dorsa played an advisory role.
  • The material-makeup was influenced by contributions, largely corporate gifts-in-kind, consisting mostly of building materials.
  • The first prototype for the PLUG project came from a design-build course taught by Lutz and Steve Thompson, chair, graduate program, School of Architecture + Design, in the summer of 2001.

Structure assembly

PLUG is quickly assembled by two people using no tools.

View the structure assembly demonstration. (MOV | 944KB)

Powering PLUG

  • PLUG's energy comes from its own small solar -electric power station.
  • The station charges 10 gel-cell batteries.
  • The batteries are capable of operating lights, computers, laboratory equipment, a refrigerator, and other portable devices used for gathering and recording data in the field.

Award winner

The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture recently honored Lutz with its Faculty Design Award. Lutz, working under the auspices of Virginia Tech’s Campus Renovation Services, will receive his award at a ceremony March 9, 2007. The award is one of only four bestowed this year.

PLUG in the news

Spotlight Archive

Look through previous Spotlight stories

Access the archives