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Infrastructure as art

How engineers can find artistic opportunities in seemingly uninspiring places

The Domain in Austin, Texas, is a multi-phased, mixed-use development on a site that formerly housed a large manufacturing facility.

By Jim Knight, Senior Principal, Community Development (Dallas, Texas)

Have you ever looked at a retaining wall as a piece of art? I’ve been in the engineering, design, and consulting business for more than 36 years, and it still surprises me how often creative opportunities in infrastructure are overlooked.

Most engineers are selected by a client for a project to simply make it function properly and get from permit to construct—utility connections, traffic flow and access, pedestrian interaction, flood prevention, etc. But our job is to be a consultant, and that means engineers can have great creative impact on a project and, despite general perceptions, the good ones can act as artists too.

There is an art to what we do. Working with architects, land planners, and landscape architects, we can help blend the structures and improvements together to create a seamless, functional development that engages pedestrians and building occupants, while encouraging public interaction. And with the inclusion of integrated design, these features help drive value for the client. With thoughtful approaches to construction, hardscape, softscape, and building interfaces, we can save construction dollars and add to the public enjoyment. 

Watters Creek in Dallas, Texas, is a mixed-use urban development that is enhanced by ponds, waterfalls, and bridges.

Simple items such as how retaining walls, curb lines, sidewalks, and structures interface create an opportunity for thoughtful design. By utilizing different materials (i.e., stone, brick, tile, stamped/colored concrete, wood, etc.) via artistic thought, we can blend landscaping to create a pallet of patterns, textures, and colors that make a relatively benign area standout and come to life. In addition, with the use of material, colors, and textures, these areas can be accentuated by creative elevations or grading.

I’ve seen some consultants simply try to create flat-lined grades for efficiency and ease of effort. This completes their tasks, gets a permit, and allows them to move to the next job. However, it doesn’t add value to the project and hurts the landowner’s product. Through creative design, the use of vertical articulation and structure interface, a previously “sterile” product can stand out.

The way a curb-line rolls along a landscape or the variance of height between the pedestrian ways and structure can create a visual excitement around a project. This use of vertical elements in grading then stimulates the eye and makes the user/pedestrian or vehicle operator notice what was previously not worthy of attention. The integration of vertical elements with grading thoughtfulness helps bring to life the hardscape and softscape that provide beauty to a project or area. It becomes a pleasurable experience previously unknown.

The redevelopment of an airport into a mixed-use community in Austin, Texas, was a perfect opportunity to turn infrastructure into art.

This use of design elements and the creation of “places” for public interaction makes a project incrementally more successful. It shows the true worth an engineer can add to a project, creating long-term value for the client. A simple example is finding ways to hide drainage inlets or other features that disturb the eye.

Engineers must think more like artists and owners to understand how to make infrastructure stand out like art. It is not easy, it takes time and thought, but done properly, it can help a project come alive, add value, and show that previously unnoticed elements can stand out in a positive way.

Infrastructure as art is our goal at Stantec. We want our projects to stand out and help drive our clients to greater success. It is our thoughtful and intuitive processes that can incrementally make a difference in our communities.

Related item: Community Development: Bringing community to life

Jim Knight has nearly 40 years of experience in land development, master planning, and infrastructure design. As a senior leader in our Dallas office, he oversees the team’s pursuit of Community Development work in North Texas. But what he likes most is growing communities. 

Our job is to be a consultant, and that means engineers can have great creative impact on a project and, despite general perceptions, the good ones can act as artists too.

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