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Highlighting the hidden: Integrating operational infrastructure into the community

August 06, 2021

By Colleen Dixon

Evolving design strategies are elevating buried infrastructure and educating our communities in the process

Traditionally, operational infrastructure of any scale is tucked out of sight—hidden underground or housed in older buildings. It never gets the attention or credit that it deserves. Yet, often what we have hidden away plays a critical role in things functional and operational. What you can’t see is doing a lot of critical work that many take for granted.  

Recently, infrastructure design has shifted, with more focus on integration of these operational facilities into the urban fabric of our communities. With more careful thought to architecture and landscape integration—and built-in elements to highlight the infrastructure that serves us, we have the added benefit of creating small learning moments as part of the projects. This change is welcomed by those of us who work on the projects that have been behind the scenes. To illustrate this shifting paradigm in infrastructural design, we turn to our recent work on a small but mighty infrastructure project built to serve the water needs of University of British Columbia (UBC) Vancouver Campus’ over-60,000-person population—the UBC Water Pump Station.  

The pumps at the new University of British Columbia Water Pump Station are positioned behind a glazed wall to showcase the engineering systems that provide essential services. 

UBC needed to renew its aging infrastructure, including the pump station. UBC took this project further by placing equal emphasis on creating a design that would sit well within the campus environment. The project sits on a busy pedestrian thoroughfare of the campus, creating an opportunity to elevate the structure to something more than the typical anonymous boxes that most infrastructure projects produce.  What at first seemed like a typical engineering job has been transformed—including architects and landscape designers as key team members.

Now built, we see opportunities for this type of model to be replicated in other campus and community environments. Looking back on this project, we realize there are several ways others can shift their design views to profile infrastructure in different ways.

Adding excitement and profile through education

Educating the public about key operational infrastructure through creative means is something many post-secondary institutions want. They are looking for ways to highlight awareness of infrastructure and operations on campus. Educational opportunities can take many forms. One of the first is engaging the community. For the pump station, engagement is achieved by simply ‘daylighting’ the pumps through providing views through large windows at grade.

Architectural nuances—such as the use of glazing, signage, and infographics—foster learning, interest and awareness of what goes into servicing the campus.

The building systems and hybrid steel and mass timber structure are designed to post-disaster standards contributing to UBC’s resiliency plan.

Ensure your project compliments its surroundings

When putting operational-like infrastructure in a more exposed and public setting, it is important that it blends with the natural surroundings. This fosters two things:

  • More appreciation of the infrastructure
  • An increased understanding and knowledge on how things work

The pump stations site was chosen for operational effectiveness with the added benefit of being in a highly visible place.  From a design viewpoint it required careful thought in complimenting the adjacent buildings. Since most of the pumphouse equipment is  situated above-grade, it became a brilliant opportunity to depart from the norm and create a project that is highly functional, contextual and beautiful. 

Educating the public about key operational infrastructure through creative means is something many post-secondary institutions want.

Resounding feedback—acoustics are more important than you’d think

With operational facilities now more exposed to the community, acoustical performance is an important part of the design. Nobody wants to hear the noises of a substation or equipment drone. We engaged an acoustic consultant who measured background noise levels, created a model to confirm the new pump station would meet campus acoustic guidelines and maintained a building that is a ‘good infrastructure neighbor’ in the community.

Integration of architectural elements and creative use of material draw more attention to operational facilities.

Flexible and adaptable

As we invest more in these types of buildings, it is important that they can stand the test of time and be adaptable. Consider the design of the structure and the materials used. This is important when looking through a sustainability or resiliency lens. How will weather impact the materials? Is environmental erosion a factor?

We also must think about how to create cost efficiencies and flexibilities to plan for future expansion—both inside and outside. At the pump station, we used hybrid structures including mass timber and gluam. And a built-in crane situated permanently in the pump station’s ceiling allows for future installation/movement of large machinery. 

It is fascinating to see how we design and build has evolved over time. Increasing collaboration between architects and engineers will help redefine heavy-duty operational buildings. The transformation is something exciting to see.

  • Colleen Dixon

    An architect, Colleen has worked on a wide variety of projects that range from master plans to buildings and urban design She’s also worked in a variety of settings, including institutional, industrial, mixed-use residential, and retail.

    Contact Colleen
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