A growing interest in bus rapid transit helped lead to a recently opened BRT system in Montgomery County, Maryland, the first for the county. “BRT gives riders the amenities, speed, and comfort of a light rail experience but with greater versatility and much lower installation costs,” explains Darin Piippo of Landscape FormsStudio 431. Studio 431 worked with architecture firm ZGF, Montgomery County, general contractor Concrete General, and engineering firm RK&K to design the BRT system’s stations. The project required the stations to be uniquely branded, accessible, safe, comfortable, and offering a positive life-cycle investment.

The project was custom in every sense of the word, as each of the 17 station sites had unique elevations, grades, and dimensions to be considered. Modular and scalable, the stations vary in overall size from 24 to 75 feet long and in the number of components they contain. Some have one overhead shelter, others three or four. Each station includes an illuminated marker that identifies the station location and flashes to signal arriving buses.

ZGF incorporated natural materials and elements reflecting the regional geography incorporated into the design. “We wanted to pay tribute to the landscapes around the county and the area’s hillsides and woods,” says ZGF project architect Chris Somma, AIA. The shelters are reminiscent of tree canopies, with the lower structure branching out to support the canopies. Granite on the benches and station markers pays homage to the County’s stone quarries, which supplied stone for many of the Smithsonian Institution buildings lining the National Mall in nearby Washington, D.C.

The roofs of the stations use cross-laminated timber, a structural and renewable resource; these are the first transit shelters in the U.S. to use the material. The wood panels add warmth and an inviting feel to the shelters, a departure from the often cold and industrial feel of transit stations. Perforated stainless steel columns and benches add “texture and an organic, less prescribed pattern,” Somma says.

“This was a complex project,” he adds. “Studio 431 did a great job troubleshooting issues that couldn’t be solved unless they were the ones building the products. Their engineering knowledge helped tremendously. Their lighting expertise was critical. They understood the goals of the county. And, at the end of the day, they delivered our design.”

Concrete General’s Chris Kirsch notes that maintenance is a major consideration for transportation departments, and he appreciated how Studio 431 thought through a station design in which parts, not an entire station, could be replaced if needed. Studio 431 created tutorials and shared tips with the general contractor and its teams on the process of installing the components for each of the stations. “Studio 431’s knowledge of the installation process proved integral to our success,” Kirsch says.

Studio 431’s Piippo sums up the project and the teamwork that made the BRT system a success. “We had the right people in the right seats on the bus, all traveling in the same direction. The collaboration among stakeholders was great. It always felt like a partnership.”