Scott Wolf, FAIA, and Anton Dekom, AIA, have answers. Both practice at Seattle-based Miller Hull Partnership and have worked on several recent high-profile infrastructure projects in the region. The West Campus Utility Plant at the University of Washington, which won a 2017 AIA Seattle Award and the AIA Washington Council Civic Design Award, was envisioned as a campus gateway. The design addresses the building’s critical systems by exposing them to public view, not concealing them as merely functional elements of a system. Tall storefront glazing showcases equipment and intertwined runs of piping and conduit, providing a window into the systems that support the campus. Form certainly follows function here, but functional also becomes a formal design vocabulary in and of itself. “[We wanted] to focus on how we could integrate it into the urban fabric and have it not be an eyesore, but actually be something that people seek out,” Dekom says.
Neither Wolf nor Dekom went into the field of architecture planning to focus on infrastructure, but both believe that infrastructure isn’t just a niche focus, but a fruitful future for design.
What did architects take away from your session at the 2018 AIA Conference on Architecture in June?
Wolf: In our assessment, this sector of work— what we call “sustainable infrastructure”—is an area that hasn’t gotten a lot of love from the architectural community, certainly in the past 50, 70 years. It tends to be an engineering-dominated niche, if you will. And while the engineering teams are very good at making these facilities operate efficiently, there hasn’t been much focus on the community integration and aesthetic components of the project. I think that’s changing.
If our cities are growing, it becomes harder and harder to get these facilities out of sight, out of mind. What we’re trying to do is demonstrate that there’s a real opportunity to look at these projects as community assets, instead of community blights.
Dekom: We’re trying to have people appreciate these infrastructure projects for the impact they can have on their communities. I think there’s a perception that infrastructure is something that’s kind of hidden away in the background of our lives, and we take it for granted a little bit. We’re really trying to flip the paradigm by bringing infrastructure to the forefront and highlighting the kind of asset that it can be for a community. There’s a phrase that we used a lot: “Making the invisible visible.”
How did both of you decide to focus your careers on infrastructure design?
Wolf: I didn’t go into architecture with this in mind. [I was] involved in a project for the LOTT Clean Water Alliance back in the mid-2000s. They’re a wastewater treatment institution in the Olympia area. They were very instrumental in driving ideas of using reclaimed water and purple pipe and the right water for the right use, though that project was really more of an administration building and lab for the plant itself.
Through discussions with them, I became really intrigued with this idea of water conservation and water use, both on the supply side and the wastewater treatment side. I saw a lot of opportunity there, and an opportunity to see these [projects] as real community amenities. In the past 10–12 years, I have participated in a lot of these types of projects. Anton worked with me on one for Metro Vancouver, British Columbia, that was a wastewater treatment facility right in the middle of an established community.
There are opportunities where, frankly, what we can bring to the table from the architectural side is something that these projects and owners don’t necessarily think is possible because they haven’t seen that opportunity. For us, we think we can bring a lot of value at relatively minimal cost in that a lot of the cost is loaded into the engineering portions of these projects. For what we would consider very little effort, we’re able to bring a high degree of value to owners and to communities.
Dekom: I definitely didn’t become an architect thinking that I would be working on infrastructure. It wasn’t until I got involved with the Lions Gate [Secondary Wastewater Treatment Plant in Vancouver] that I realized how much of an industry that there was for this. That was an example of an owner who wanted a year-and-a-half process that really just looked at coming up with a design and engaging with the community. I was pretty impressed by the amount of thoughtfulness that goes into these infrastructure projects, and I think that project led to my being involved with the utility plant at the University of Washington as well as other wastewater treatment plant projects.