More than 150 architects, artists, and generally curious citizens poked and prodded – metaphorically anyway – three river barge displays and their design teams on Monday night. A jury will take a private tour of the space and miniature barge models Tuesday morning and select one team’s design that will be used to create the new fleet on the San Antonio River. It will be the first fresh barge design in more than 40 years.

The winner will be announced on Friday, April 1.

Representatives from Metalab, an architecture firm based in Houston; San Antonio-based Luna Architecture + Design and Lay Pitman & Associates of Neptune Beach, Fla.; and Austin architects and artists Sadi Brewton and Jonathan Davies were on hand at AIA San Antonio‘s Center for Architecture Gallery to explain the unique features of their designs.

San Antonio is a city that loves color, as reflected by each of the design submissions that depicted bright and colorful elements reminiscent of Fiesta. Attendees filled out comment cards that will be compiled and summarized in a report presented to the 11-person jury. From there, they will review the technical and artistic aspects of each team’s submission.

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Between 40 and 50 barges will be purchased by the City. Requests for proposals for manufacturing and operations will be released this month. These new crafts could traversing the San Antonio River as soon as September 2017.

The contest, organized by the City of San Antonio and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architect (AIA San Antonio), called for a barge fleet that could offer experiences tailored for business and leisure visitors and locals who live, work, or play downtown. The contest parameters were broad in terms of aesthetics and design – the most strict element is the San Antonio River’s downtown topography with sharp turns and, at times, shallow waters.

Luna Architecture + Design and Lay Pitman & Associates

This design included the most “bells and whistles” of the three, according to several attendees. But that wasn’t to say it looked crowded or overdone. The mostly white design was accented with bright papel picado flag designs etched into glowing (internal LED) glass that lined the railing. The lights can be programmed for certain holidays or themed events. Other features included onboard wifi, a television screen, and a removable perforated canopy.

The screen could be used to display educational videos, history lessons, or even different company logos for employee or investor outings, said Adam Gill, Luna project manager and designer. “It could also be a sponsorship opportunity. It could be a revenue driver for the City which is a big thing for us because we come from a background in sports and entertainment.”

Luna Architecture worked on the design of Morgan’s Wonderland and Toyota Field.

Some guests baulked at the canopy – but Gill explained that while it’s not completely transparent, the shade’s design would allow passengers to see past it to the architecture and trees of the River Walk while largely shielding them from relentless summer sun – especially on the Museum Reach – and unexpected rainfall.

The stadium-style seats sit on tracks that can slide and rotate, allowing for easy movement between uses, said Gill, who is a native San Antonian. “The configurations are just about endless.”

Technically, the team of local and Floridian designers submitted two designs. One larger, tour and event-sized barge and one smaller, commuter barge that would be a faster, nimbler vessel for locals on the go.

“We lovingly call that one ‘The Gondola,’” Gill said.


Joe Meppelink pointed to a drawing of puppies on a barge and smiles.

“I guarantee those puppies would be adopted by the end of the day,” he said.

Part of his company’s display included outlines of blank barges that guests could draw in. A crowd favorite was the idea to promote pet adoption.

Another use could be morning yoga classes, a “beach cruise” that fills the barge with sand, a play pen, seminars, or Meppelink’s favorite idea: a spin class.

“It would be hilarious to see people on bikes on the river,” the Metalab principal laughed. “And they could charge the batteries.” All of the barge designs include a small, electric motor.

Metalab is an architecture and product design company based out of Houston. Part of the design is also an homage to papel picado flags – but, said Metalab Principal Architect Andrew Vrana, this barge would allow for different paneling and designs to be changed out according to the season or celebration.

The seats and siding on this barge are completely movable (via screws in the chair and floor) and/or removable. The lights that shine at the bottom of the craft and onto the water’s surface are also color-changing and programmable. The design centers around flexibility of use and Meppelink’s programming suggestions aim to maximize each hour of the day with rental and promotional opportunities.

Their design also comes with a bluetooth and/or WiFi element, but they’re excited about introducing an Uber-esque app for the barge that lets people know when a boat is arriving and how long it will take to get them where they want to be.

Sadi Brewton and Jonathan Davies

Compared to the other designs, these Austin-based architects and artists’ design was minimalist – on purpose.

“We wanted to keep it simple, durable, and easy to maintain,” Brewton said. “We also focused on the visual aspect.”

Instead of individual chairs, their design featured “family-friendly” benches that ran down the middle and around the sides “that can accommodate all sizes” of people. Large beach umbrellas, which are stored in a box at the back of the barge, could be easily accessed for unexpected rain showers and especially hot days.

The near-translucent siding also has a light element on the passenger side, creating a box-of-light effect.

Brewton said she had heard of the contest through a an architectural newsletter. Designing a boat isn’t something she would have necessarily pictured herself doing, but “it’s a unique opportunity that’s not going to come along again” during our lifetimes.

Top image: Scott Potter inspects the Luna Architecture + Design and Lay Pitman & Associates design proposal. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at