Introduction: Bamboo BOAT Lab

About: I want computers to be wilder. Running a Jungle makerspace in Panama.…

Build your own floating, self-sustainable ecological makerspace!

A key part of environmental conservation is increasing the public's awareness and contact with nature. The challenge though is how to get people in contact with these natural environments in a safe, engaging way. This is why we made the BOAT Lab! In this Instructable you can learn how to make your own with lots of high-quality pictures and videos for each step!

This quick video gives a great overview of the whole thing!


The BOAT Lab stands for TheBuilding Open Art and Technology Laboratory. It’s also a boat!

It serves as an interactive, community science-center. This floating raft is decked out with tools and equipment to not only explore art and technology, but connect people’s inventiveness directly to the natural areas surrounding it.

The lab primarily monitors an endangered coral reef. It’s a floating makerspace to bring artists, engineers, tourists, and fisherfolk together to understand, explore, and preserve the nearby precious resources hidden under the waves. It’s a key figure in the larger Waterspace program created with community members here in Dumaguete. All the teams contribute different We have teams rigging together arrays of Philippine-specific water-quality sensors, performing eco-oriented plays with e-textile costumes, melting collected ocean plastic into new tools, and creating beautiful light-up public artwork on the ocean.

The BOAT Lab itself functions as a central platform for these community projects. It’s solar powered, traditionally crafted, modular mobile makerspace floating in the ocean. It has submarine drones, sensors, LED and water-projection systems, and tools to build and repair everything. It’s a literal platform providing a rare chance to experience, and empathize, with the hidden undersea environment. (It's even been visited recently by a BLUE WHALE!) Most importantly, it’s built and owned by the community, which grants them the agency to direct maintain this project and attack issues most important to them and their precious reef.

This awesome boat can support at least 10 people at a time and run for 24 hours a day! It's the site of several on-going workshops, performances, and art exhibitions happening in the Philippines as we speak! It's also mobile and modular in design so it can be easily floated or carried to new sites.


The BOAT Lab was primarily built in just 9 days. It is mostly composed of reclaimed bamboo wood (Kawayan Tinik - salvaged from previous boats), recycled barrels, and nylon string. It was constructed with workers from the local community (fishermen skilled in boat-building), and built using traditional methods. Beams are connected via tensioned knots and special nails carved out of bamboo themselves.

Perhaps best of all, we managed to build this whole structure for very little money! The full budget is laid out in other steps, but the whole 8x6 meter boat only cost us $1640 to put together! For a lab the size of an apartment, it cost less to build than many people's monthly rent!

It has already been a great success in the Banilad community. Thus, (as with all fun and helpful things) I wanted to openly share how you can build your own! I will cover

  • how to build your own huge boat lab
  • traditional filipino boat making techniques
  • its power infrastructure
  • key design features of the lab
  • Weatherproofing and Security
  • citizen science and electronics projects
  • sustaining a lab
  • safety protocols


  • ways to engage with local communities and environments

Check out the instructable and hopefully build your own mobile, floating laboratory! I imagine a world full of inexpensive, self-sustaining laboratories, moving to interesting places all over the world!

Much of this instructable is also available as a print-able book, available for free here:

Step 1: Background


This project was a integral part of a larger workshop program called "Waterspace." Waterspace was a series of collaborative education and design projects hosted by Andrew Quitmeyer as part of the ZERO1 / US State Department Arts Incubator, i partnership with the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the U.S. Embassy in Manila.*** It consists of a program to develop community skills in art and technology to promote environmental health.

The Waterspace program was designed from November 2015 - March 2016. The actual projects were carried out in only three weeks during April 2016 on location in Dumaguete, Philippines.

The central idea was to unite Art and Technology to promote Environmental Health in the region.

After scouting many areas, we chose the Banilad beach site as our primary field site to study its ecological problems and potential community solutions.

Following a week-long participatory design workshop exploring technical skills and community issues, five main teams emerged to address different topics. All projects connect with a central artwork, the BOAT Lab.


Banilad Beach is our target site for these projects. It hosts a beautiful coral reef full of rare sea creatures. This environmental treasure, however, is on the brink of destruction.

Banilad is a small neighborhood (Barangay) south of Dumaguete in the Philippines. It generally consists of poorer fisherfolk who make a living catching, drying, and selling fish.

The government recently designated its reef a “Marine Protected Area” where guards (The “Bantay Dagat”) are supposed to be paid to prevent destructive fishing or pollution practices. Sadly, lack of funding, public interest, and financial incentives have left this protected area in disrepair. We partnered with the Marine Guards to take ownership of the BOAT Lab, using it as a platform for the community to learn to love and protect their reef.

Situating our projects in this area aims to increase awareness of this precious resource and also provide social and economic incentives to protect the sea.

I also created a full book of photography and other how-to articles you can check out for free!

Step 2: Beauty and Impending Destruction

The most terrifying part of working in these spots in the Philippines came from how intensely beautiful the natural areas were, and how much they were rapidly being destroyed.

When we first started interviewing community members, they unanimously declared the largest problem facing them was GARBAGE (Basura). The beach was a mesh of shredded plastic, bottles, and diapers. The reef had garbage tangled inside it killing fish and strangling coral environments. One man even told us about how over the past 20 years he was sad to see his house slowly slipping into the ocean as the sea levels rose. It was terrifying and sad. But there was a bit of hope, and I think this project helped push the communities hope for their precious environment a bit further.

Step 3: Design

The lab is designed for modularity. The current incarnation consists of four re-configurable 3x4 meter platforms. If one is damaged, it can be taken out and repaired while the remaining lab continues to function. These modules can also function independently as an array of mini-BOAT Labs in different locations.

The lab is self-sustaining and currently powered by a 250w solar panel connected to a solar charger, a 100ah non-spillable battery, and 1000watt inverter. It has 4 anchors which lock it in place.


The idea started with several drawing. Then we iterated with virtual 3D models. We also built physical model prototypes to test ideas, and better share the concept with locals.

The final design ended up quite similar to what we had planned!


The basic form consists of multiple floating raft platforms with protective roof coverings. Each raft is a bamboo frame holding sealed plastic drums in place. This provides a super sturdy platform, and each independent module can safely hold 800lbs! To protect against the sun and rain, the modules also have roof sections. The roofs are basically another bamboo frame with thin plastic sheeting for waterproofing. Each of these modules can be used independently or connected to make an even stronger, larger laboratory. Ours includes 2 modules with roofs connected to 2 modules. Your BOAT Lab could easily accommodate many more modules for a massive island!

Step 4: Materials and Budget

We built a WHOLE LABORATORY out there, so there are tons of different materials. In terms of building the main structure, though, we put it all together with just a few simple ingredients:

  • Bamboo (Kawayan Tinik)
    • We got our bamboo mostly from salvaged parts of other boats that had been decommissioned around Dumaguete. They had a really big floating schoolhouse that had been destroyed by a storm which we managed to salvage lots of materials from.
  • Plastic Drums
    • This provides the main floating abilities of the lab. We also manage to salvage these from other rafts that had crashed in the nearby area.
  • Nylon string
    • We used basically really thick fishing line. It's what all the locals use to build their own boats. Specifically we used 100 gauge nylon string. Other builders sometimes use long strings of rubber that are recycled from the insides of tractor-trailer tires. They call this rubber string "conveyer." The rubber supposedly lasts longer, but we couldn't source large enough quantities of it at the time. You can also make your suprisingly strong own plastic string by shredding plastic bottles (more in a later step!)


The main tools you need are gloves and a saw. The saw lets you cut the bamboo to size, and the gloves let you tie the wood together tightly! You can make 90% of this boatlab with just gloves and a saw.

Other tools that will help include some basics like:

  • Drill
  • Machete
  • Metal Nails
  • Measuring Tape
  • Tarps for shade
  • Water
  • Food


A big solar panel powered everything on board, and these were very easy to find in the Philippines.

The rest of the electronics we found locally, or brought from the US.

In terms of our electronics prototyping equipment, we bought much of our own, but were lucky to recieve lots of materials and tools from Sparkfun's Education Department!

They are an incredible organization, and we are so thankful to be able to make good use of the equipment they gave us! Thanks!


Now this seems like it would be a huge undertaking to build your whole own floating laboratory. Making something this big must be prohibitively expensive right? Nope! In fact I included an interactive budget here so you can explore exactly how the entire Waterspace program's money was spent!.

This budget includes $1000 of equipment from Sparkfun, $10,000 from ZERO1+US State Department, and about $1500 of my own money for a total of $12,500. And boy, did we make it go far!

For instance, if you look at our graph, building the BOAT Lab only took about 1/8 of the budget ($1600), and stocking it with furniture, solar panels, and electronics was only another $2,000. The rest of our budget went towards individual projects and sustainability grants to keep people working and using the BOAT Lab.

Step 5: Traditional Bamboo Boat-making

Before building our own BOAT Lab, I went around and interviewed the locals and studied how they built their own boats from the materials nearby. You can see lots of photos of different ways people traditionally build their own boats here in the Philippines.

The basics of boat making in this region consists of tying together lengths of bamboo with string or rubber. Using this basic method people build boats, houses, and even furniture with bamboo.

Type of Bamboo

There are two types of bamboo we had available in the Philippines, "Kawyan Tinik" which has a diameter of about 4-5 inches, and "Butong" which is huge and has a diameter of 8+inches. The Butong is harder to find, and not really necessary for our boat's structure.

Step 6: Bamboo Nails

The first way that the boat-builders connect main supporting structures of bamboo is by making nails out of bamboo itself!

They slice many long rods of bamboo. They slice the front end pretty sharp, and leave a notch before the broad stopper head to kind of lock the nail in place.

Then they bore holes perpendicularly through the bamboo pieces that are a little too small for the nail. Finally you hammer this nail through the hole until you have a good snug fit!

Next they will totally secure these connections by tying them in place!

Step 7: Tying Wood (Ba'at)

Most of the boats are made just by tying things together REALLY TIGHTLY. They call this process "Ba'at" in Visayan.

To do this just follow these steps:

  • Get a long piece of nylon cord (or tire rubber, or string)
  • Tie one end around some bamboo with a regular square knot. Tie a couple of extra knots
  • Make a figure-8 between the bamboo and it's neighbor bamboo that you are attaching it to.
  • After each figure-8 pull everything nice and tight
  • repeat-10-20 times

That will get two logs together. Then comes the part where they make this joint REALLY TIGHT.

  • start wrapping the remaining cord around the cord bridging the two pieces of wood
  • You will make a coil that will start drawing the wood even closer together
  • after you have a nice firm coil, finish off the knot with several square knots.

This thing is not going anywhere!

Step 8: Raft Module: Frame

Remember that the whole lab is built from multiple modules attached together. The first step to your lab is just building the floating base of the lab. Start by building a frame to hold all your floating barrels together.

  • First, lay down the bottom of the frame
  • Tie the bottom rack securely
  • load the barrels in place
  • build up side walls holding in the barrels
  • lock everything in with a rack of bamboo on the top

You can see a timelapse of the construction here:

Step 9: Raft Module: Flooring and Post Holes

Lay some flat boards across the top of your floating frame. These can be from bamboo that you flatten out in thin strips, or we salvaged some marine plywood from a previous boat.

It's important to leave 4 holes in your flooring at the corners. The posts holding up the roof will go through here!

Make sure to test out your module at the end and check that it floats! This will let you know everything is secure, that there are no problems with your barrels, and the thing actually floats!

Step 10: Building the Roofs

Now you need to add some roofing to your raft.

The roof has two parts: The Supporting Frame, and the Actual Roof.

Supporting Frame

First sink 4 heavy duty pieces of bamboo into the holes in the flooring. Two poles should be longer than the other two.

*Calculation! Important!: The angle of your roof will be determined by the difference in length between these poles. To optimize the sun exposure feeding your solar panels, you need to calculate your roof's angle based on your own latitude. We were at about 8 degrees north in the philippines, but at low lattitudes like this, you need sharper angles to make sure rain still runs off. Thus our final roof angle was set at 12 degrees.

Add some cross beams to the poles to strengthen the whole structure (and provide parts for workers scrambling around).

Actual Roof

The design of the actual roof is pretty simple. Build a flat grid from bamboo (like you already did when making the rafts). Attach some impermeable barrier to it (We had plastic sheeting) to make your roof rain-proof. If this roof is going to have a solar panel on it, make sure to attach it now (before it is fixed on top of the roof). More on this in the solar-panel step!

Step 11: Connect and Test a Full Module


Finally, lift the roof onto the frame, and tie it all together! Video shows some close up looks at the whole thing!


Again, it's super helpful to make sure everything floats in the water! Also, since it's modular, you can test out how the boat works as just a single module.

Each module is pretty big on its own and will easily support 3-5 people. The main downside is that the BOAT Lab become much more STABLE with a larger base (when all the modules are connected).

The effect of this is that doing close work (like soldering) on a single module bobbing in the waves can make you pretty seasick, pretty quick! A single module would work perfectly on a lake, or other body of water without waves.

Step 12: Safety Inspection

Big structures contain many inherent dangers. In our daily lives, we tend to take for granted many of the safety inspections many of the buildings we pass through have. An important factor when working on a large in-progress project, is making sure that things that aren't quite built yet, do not look like they are finished.

For instance, I was working on a solar panel on the roof, and there was an extra support beam we had not yet installed. I decided to just kinda half-install it, so it was in the right spot, but was not properly tied down. Fast forward to 5 minutes later, when I, myself, forgot forgot I only half installed it, and grabbed for it when standing on top of a chair and fell instantly into the water.

The camera recording a timelapse actually caught the moments between me working, and me falling intot he water (pics above).

So two rules:


Step 13: Connect Modules

Once you have your modules ready, you need to hook them together.

First position your modules in the right spots while the tide is in (to move them around easier).

Then as the tide goes out, you can start connecting them while they sit on the ground.

Now, get your longest pieces of bamboo and lock them in place between different modules. Use several pieces for each joint.

Step 14: Protective Scrim and Ladder

Because it is a laboratory we have lots of equipment and items we are working with. Sometimes humans drop things! We don't want this equipment to fall into the water because:

  1. Expensive things don't work very well after falling in the ocean.
  2. Fish don't like your garbage.

That's why we built a little 5cm scrim around the perimeter of the floor. So if you drop something and it rolls away, it won't roll right into the water.

Another little finishing touch is a ladder made from bamboo to get on and off.

Step 15: Furniture (People Holding Tools)

Now that you have a whole floating structure, you can get to the fun parts!

One of your first tasks will be making the lab suitable for human bodies!

We found hammocks and bamboo furniture that we set up all over the lab. Hammocks are nice because they can be quickly set up when in use, and moved away when that space is needed. I got to spend many lovely nights sleeping in a boat lab hammock under the stars!

Make it comfy and fun, and still ready for lots of cool work!

Step 16: Boat Gear

Sometimes when building a crazy idea, like a homemade floating laboratory, you can forget that there are lots of basic supplies you need just for being on a boat. Thus things like:

  • Life jackets
  • First Aid kits
  • Trash Cans
  • Snorkels
  • waterproof cameras
  • waterproof bags
  • drying racks

are really useful for both keeping folks safe, but also helping them safely explore the surrounding natural environments.

Since it is a public space, establishing basic sets of rules is also an important feature. Especially when curious children are frequent visitors, it is quite helpful to have a basic set of policies that can guide everyone's actions.

Key to sustainability is just making sure that this is a cool place where people want to be! So considerations of interesting parts, like a chessboard for passing lazy afternoons, or hot coffee maker to help overnight sea guards or scientists waiting for experiments to finish up are non-trivial.

Step 17: Electronics Cabinet

A large, metal, locking cabinet is a key feature to the BOAT Lab. It protects important equipment from both the environment, curious kids, and pirates! It also stores and organizes lots of your laboratory tools!

We drilled holes in ours to mount it to some of the upright bamboo poles from the roof. We also build a scrim around the bottom that we connected it to as well.

Drill extra holes as need to route wires through to sensors and solar power.

Our cabinet has two modes: Open and Secure. When we are using it, we want it to stay open, so we set up a simple system of carabiners to hold the doors wide open (and not flapping around in the waves). At night we lock it all up to keep stuff from falling out and prevent attacks from PIRATES. (It's kinda cool to be working on a project where you actually have to worry about LITERAL PIRATES).

Step 18: Solar Power Infrastructure

As I mentioned earlier, when you build the roof, you need to attach the solar panel. We sliced bamboo in half to make a bamboo frame that would hold the panel securely in place.

A basic solar power system consists of the following:

  • Panel
  • Charger
  • Battery
  • Inverter

Route your wires from the roof down to the Solar Charger. The charger then connects to the battery and makes sure it doesn't over, or underfill the battery. Then you can connect your inverter which takes the DC electricity from the big battery and makes it into other types of electricity to connect regular appliances (like lights and drills).

If your power needs meet how much power your panel can generate during the day, you are set! Test this by seeing if your appliances you need to power can stay running past the 24-hour mark! If you are low on electricity, you just need more panels and batteries! Our single panel and battery kept us running indefinitely powering 2 laptops, 2 LED lamps (at night), and 4 LED strips.


Your panels can generate A LOT OF ELECTRICITY. When routing the power to your charger, only use good MC4 waterproof connectors, and thick wires rated to carry high currents. I wanted to just test the connection real quick and put some simple gator clips on our 250W panel, and guess what, THEY CAUGHT ON FIRE. DON"T LIGHT YOUR LAB ON FIRE! :)

Another point: YOUR BATTERY HOLDS A LOT OF ELECTRICITY. DON"T TOUCH BOTH NODES! DON"T LET THE NODES TOUCH THE METAL ELECTRONICS CABINET. Remember you are out in the wilderness too and strange things can happen like giant rainstorms! This is why we loaded all the heavy-duty electricity in a separate waterproof box inside the metal cabinet. We also put up danger signs to keep curious kids from melting their arms off!

Step 19: Laboratory Infrastructure

We need to setup workspaces to help this place function as a lab.

Things like tables and shelves are super necessary for setting up equipment, and getting to work! Nearby hanging straps are also useful to putting bags full of gear nearby for specific types of work.

A whiteboard or other drawing surface is important for planning and brainstorming.

AND, I know I already said it before, but TRASH CANS. When you are working in a lab in a building, you generate a lot of garbage you don't even think about (like wire trimmings from stripping wires). You need a quick, secure place to dispose of this stuff before it goes into nature.

Step 20: Projects

At this point, you should have an amazing platform to power lots of different ideas and investigations! In the next steps I will quickly just cover some of the projects we are currently leading as part of the BOAT Lab.

If you want more info on any of these projects,

Follow our facebook page

and read through our whole book

Step 21: Ecological Projects

Sea Sense

The Sea Sense group develops an automated multi-sensor technology to monitor seawater quality parameters (pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity). A pumping machine is utilized to extract seawater sample between 5ft to 10ft depth. The data gathered can be translated into meaningful information for the fishermen to monitor the fish productivity in Banilad Marine Sanctuary.

Foundation University Precious Plastics Program

One group is building a philippine version of the Precious Plastic program:

They help build some of these open-source tools for taking plastic garbage from the sea, and reusing it as useful items.

For instance they already have made lots of simple devices for shredding plastic bottles into string which we can tie bamboo together.

Bantay Basura (Garbage Guard)

Keeping the reef healthy starts with stopping the trash from going into it. I hired a group of awesome little neighborhood kids to become the official "Bantay Basura" or "Garbage Guard."

Step 22: Visualization System Projects

Data isn't much use if you can't connect it back to the people that it matters to. This is why we had a whole team coming up with artistic ways of sharing this work back to the public through visualizations.

They had two primary visualization systems they implemented: Waterfall Projection + LED Strips

Waterfall Projection

The team made an amazing video-display screen where footage from the submarine or other videos can be displayed directly on a sheet of FALLING WATER. It's SO COOL! They even built their own homebrew system


They also hooked up a system to visualize less visual data. They have 4 strips of addressable LED strips that they use to display weather and water quality data.


Step 23: Cultural and Community Engagement Projects

We also got to work with a performing arts crew. Their goal is to inject a message of environmentalism and good uses of technology to the public by hosting a series of theatrical plays in Banilad and the surrounding community.

They could use the BOAT Lab as a performance space to draw attention to the lab, and the important environment in which it floats.

The performance group worked with all the other teams to get to know the site and technology. They even turned lots of items from our work into props (such as the net I cut off the reef).

The Play

Their play is about how many large evil companies are going around the philippines, tricking poor people into working for them to destroy the only resources in their land and moving on. In the play the poor villagers accidentally help create a "GARBAGE MONSTER" who starts uncontrollably killing the natural areas that are the key to their livelihoods. This is based off of current events happening on their Island of Negros, where companies, (like the big Power Company) are chopping down whole forests of old-growth jungle and then greenwashing these misdeeds through seemingly flimsy environmental efforts. They performed this play in our Banilad community, and are touring around the Island of Negros now!

Step 24: Exploration Projects (Submarine!)

We want the sea to be open to all! Some people don't have the physical abilities to actually go snorkeling or scuba diving. For this reason and important feature of our boat lab was an accessible submarine. This can be piloted around the reef nearby from up on the boat lab. It can visually monitor the health of the reef and give people a first encounter with robotics. It also has built in lights so it can explore the reef even during the night when it is harder for humans to go down there themselves.

We were lucky to have won this submarine (which we dubbed "Sabmarino" in the local dialect) from a previous instructable contest. It is an OpenROV 2.7 kit. Building the submarine from the kit was a valuable workshop in itself.

Step 25: Mobility and Modularity

Since it is a modular system, the whole lab can be installed on new sites with (relative) ease!

While floating, the whole raft can be towed or pushed to new locations by only a couple of people.

The modules can also be detached from each other, and function independently as smaller rafts! As mentioned earlier, the only downside to independently floating rafts, is that they wiggle more when larger waves hit, and can cause sea-sickness while soldering.

The modules can be carried over land by a group of 10-14 people (they are HEAVY). They can be loaded onto cars and moved wherever they need to go next! If moving the raft from one environment to the other, be careful about checking to see if you might be introducing invasive lifeforms to the new place.

Step 26: Work With the Community


Bayanihan is a great word I learned from my filipino friends during this project. It somewhat means "community spirit directed towards a goal." It more concretely refers to an old tradition of getting a community together and literally carrying a community member's house to a new place when they needed to move.

My friends pointed out that when we got the whole community together to move the boat into the ocean, we revived this old tradition quite literally. The image of us rounding up the neighborhood to all help carry this huge boat into the water made them all recall the ancient island traditions, and the sense of community spirit it invokes. More info and pictures about Bayanihan are available here:

Community Spirit

Keeping any large-scale project alive ultimately relies on the community taking ownership of it. As an outsider, I did not just want to bulldoze my own values over those of the community. Instead dedicate time and resources to connecting with the neighborhood with whom you will work and listen to what the important issues and challenges they face are.

Build Pride

Chances are, your large outsider project might seem strange to the people living there. Thus you are faced with the challenges of both explaining what the projects are, but how they can help and why the community should have pride in them.

Simple things like branding equipment and making t-shirts helps establish both respect for the tools and ownership within the community of these tools. You should also host lots of public events where people of different social classes can come together. Also make sure to provide plenty of incentives for people to come; in the philippines, this meant FOOD :)

Step 27: Future Steps

We hope that this new public facility will have a long life in Dumaguete. It has already been revitalizing the Banilad beach neighborhood, and serve as a symbol for the magnificence under the sea. It will also be a hub for community creators of art, science, and technology. We hope it can be facility that empowers the locals to understand their environment and draw eco-tourists to explore the amazing natural areas in this region.

Currently there are several projects already underway:

  • Leading more floating electronics workshops
  • Building a glowing floating protective barrier around the reef
  • extensive water quality sensing projects in multiple sites
  • a touring performance series discussing the importance of conservation

And finally, in my own career (I'm starting as a new professor in Singapore!), I hope to more extensively research the creation of mobile laboratories for exploring nature in situ.

Thanks for reading

PS: Free pro-memberships for folks who share their own floating or mobile laboratories!

Outdoor Structures Contest

Second Prize in the
Outdoor Structures Contest

Renewable Energy Contest

Runner Up in the
Renewable Energy Contest

Reclaimed Wood Contest 2016

Participated in the
Reclaimed Wood Contest 2016