Electrical substations , which transform and distribute electricity, are usually among the ugliest architecture in a given city. Not so with the newest project from architecture firm NBBJ and public power utility Seattle City Light. The Denny Substation, to be built in Seattle in 2015 in part to support the city’s booming tech and nonprofit scene, is functional, beautiful, and sustainable, and will double as a community center of sorts. It’ll even have a dog park.
“Historically, when substation infrastructure was built in the ‘40s and ‘50s, designs were more about celebrating the functional, industrial character of the buildings,” Michael Clark of Seattle City Light tells Co.Design. Now, with their industrial concrete facades and exposed power lines, these structures tend to be eyesores.
By contrast, NBBJ’s new design aims to blend into its surroundings. It will be built in a densely developed environment, at the nexus of Seattle’s two fastest-growing neighborhoods, the South Lake Union and the Denny Triangle. The UW Medicine’s biotechnology and medical research hub, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the Cancer Care Alliance (CCA), Amazon.com corporate headquarters, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and PATH (a global health organization) are all located in the immediate area, and will be supported by the substation. “There’s no reason a substation can’t be a good neighbor for residents,” John Savo of NBBJ says. “We don’t want it to be your grandfather’s substation–we want it to engage the community, to make it an amenity and not a distraction.” The design has a slanted facade, and at street level, the enclosure is transparent, giving it a subtle, elegant profile in the neighborhood.
The design also incorporates an off-leash dog park, a quarter-mile walking loop, and a learning center for residents to find out more about how Seattle City Light works and its efforts to increase sustainability–the utility uses 89.8% clean hydroelectric power and 3.9% wind power (that’s a lot of green power compared to what you’ll find in, say, New York).
The substation costs significantly more than your standard infrastructure (part of the reason so much public infrastructure design puts function first and aesthetics last). The budget for the Denny Station is $173.6 million–funded by Seattle City Light customers, with the largest part going toward equipment. Much of the steep budget is related to the cost of land in Seattle. “If we were building a substation out in the middle of nowhere, you might see that figure drop to around the $120 to $130 million range,” Savo says. Still, the design team hopes their project is the start of a trend. “As architects, we think of it as a prototype,” Savo says. “There’s no reason infrastructure shouldn’t be integrated aesthetically and sustainably into the surrounding community.”
Construction is anticipated to begin in mid-2015 with energization of the Denny Substation in the third quarter of 2017.