From the Design Quarterly: Seeing civic infrastructure differently
December 07, 2019
December 07, 2019
People-centered design for community infrastructure facilities upends expectations
Decades back, bus-maintenance facilities were traditionally built as industrial barns and tucked far away from city centers. The buildings were cheap, functional, and made for large vehicles with little thought given to the people who operate and maintain the facilities. In general, the design of industrial projects for civic clients was often approached as a utilitarian task, with engineered solutions solely focused on the functional and operational needs of a facility within a limited budget. Designers were primarily concerned about the functional side of things, turning radii and clearances in a bus operations and maintenance complex, for example. Seen as back-of-the-house facilities, architecture and design could become an afterthought. Sustainability wasn’t top of mind, either.
But today, bus storage and maintenance facilities are increasingly embedded in residential districts. These are places where members of our community spend their days—and nights. And building a simple barn for buses is no longer an acceptable solution for our civic transport infrastructure. We, as designers and engineers, have an opportunity to not only make maintenance buildings that look and function better, but to create spaces that change how occupants feel about themselves and their profession. Today, we approach these civic-infrastructure projects differently.
We know good design is powerful. There is plentiful scientific research that suggests good design makes us healthier, happier, and more productive.
These infrastructure projects are actually places where people work. At a typical bus operations and maintenance facility, a mechanic works eight or ten hours a day, and the bus operators show up there to receive their assignments before going out on their routes. These may be support facilities, but they are critical to the community and operation of our public transportation network. Thinking about these projects as people-centered buildings in our community really influences the way we approach the planning and design and the end results. We hear a lot of about advanced design thinking for corporate workplace, but good design doesn’t just have to be for the high-tech community, hospitality, or museums or libraries. Good design should be universal. We feel privileged to design for clients that understand this.
What are the elements driving the design for civic infrastructure like bus and rail maintenance facilities? Below, we’ll look at several.
One forward-thinking client is TriMet, the transit agency in Portland, Oregon. TriMet asked us to help it design its first maintenance facility in more than 35 years. Of course, we said let’s do it. With our help the client defined its goals for the project—safety, health, happiness, inclusivity. TriMet’s vision had nothing to do with buses, equipment, or even aesthetics, it was all about its people. Our client said: "we want our people, the family, the people of TriMet, to be happy and healthy, have a better sense of wellbeing—we want this project to include everybody." And that was the starting point. From there, we developed a narrative—inspired by Oregon’s natural beauty—about a treehouse in a dense forest as a welcoming, accessible, happy place to work.
These facilities are government-funded infrastructure. Once built, they’re expected to last for decades, often replaced only after 50-60 years. We must design them to be highly durable with quality materials that are easy to maintain and are respectful of public dollars being spent.
These buildings take a lot of punishment in certain areas—they absorb a lot of wear and tear. And from this we’ve learned how to make them durable. The first six feet off the floor of a maintenance facility needs to be impact resistant, for instance, so we tend to use concrete and concrete block at these locations. That’s where it takes impact from the equipment over many years. Make it durable where it counts is our first mantra.
In every project we undertake, we conceptualize the greatest level of sustainability possible within the budget and schedule—and civic infrastructure should be no different. These structures benefit from access to natural light, so we incorporate a lot of daylighting within these buildings, which makes them great places to work but also cuts down energy consumption, heating/cooling loads and maintenance.
In general, we opt for durable, maintenance-free, and energy efficient. In the case of the LA Metro Division 13 Bus Facility, the client, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro) was on board with pushing through several sustainable strategies. The resulting design utilizes daylighting, natural ventilation, and photovoltaics to reduce energy consumption, and water reclamation and recycling systems to reduce water consumption. Staff can take breaks and eat lunch on the Operations Building’s green roof.
At Division 13, our client came up with the idea of recycling the water from its next-door neighbor, a prison that is required by law to flush its sprinkler system once a month. Previously, that sprinkler system water was simply dumped in a storm drain. In our design, that water is collected in a tank, stored, cleaned up, then used to wash the buses at Division 13, saving thousands of gallons a month. Looking for innovative ways to be good stewards of the environment is another way that we can enliven the design for civic infrastructure.
Considering the neighborhood context and the community opens up aesthetic possibilities for these buildings, which are inevitably in someone’s front or backyard. The aesthetic, the scale, and the materials are drawn from the neighborhood context and the community. For example, the LA Metro Division 14 Rail Maintenance yard sits across from a residential neighborhood of single-family homes. There, we set the two-story facility building back from the street allowing the city to create a landscaped public park. With substantial input from the public, our design allowed the city to provide a public amenity to the community in Santa Monica.
Approaching the design for civic infrastructure as a place for people that the community depends on every day yields buildings that are deeply integrated into their locales and built for the long haul. Simply by accomplishing our goals in a bus operations and maintenance facility and making a building in Portland or Los Angeles everything it can be, we demonstrate the power and value of design for all.
These buildings have the potential to become natural points of pride in the community and tell a story that changes the popular perception about the value of the work done within. If a bus barn can be a beautiful, functional space that makes people happier, it means that every “ordinary” building is an opportunity for an extraordinary transformation that enriches our community.