At the heart of all architectural design projects is the combination of function and design…or how to make a building design look good while serving a specific purpose. Most people don’t think much about how water arrives to their faucet, but the facilities required to make this happen account for a good portion of Platt/Whitelaw’ work over the past three decades and some of our most lauded buildings.
When working on public projects, including water- and wastewater-related projects, the design vs. function dilemma is intensified by the need for the processes housed in the project to be accommodated in an efficient and cost-effective manner while also complementing the surrounding environment. Platt/Whitelaw finds ways to resolve these demands while also working in sustainable strategies in all our water and wastewater treatment plant and water reclamation projects. Natural daylight and ventilation, as well as material choices, help reduce the impact of the buildings on the environment while also supporting wellness in the workplace.
Of utmost importance, we have to consider how the flow of the process housed in the building needs to be considered in design. We work very closely with water experts to accommodate pipes, basins, filtration systems, treatment equipment and more. The extent of these requirements can present myriad complexities and require compulsive attention to detail.
“We may have to think about unique challenges like how to take valves and tanks in and out of buildings for maintenance,” said Naveen Waney, AIA, Principal at Platt/Whitelaw Architects. “For one project, we designed large, removable skylight hatches to provide access for a crane that can pull a valve out of its receptacle nearly 20 feet into the earth.”
Whether it is a wastewater treatment, potable-water or pure-water project, additional challenges always present themselves, and each job has unique issues. For example, chemicals such as acid are needed to clean and descale equipment on some types of projects. To purify water, some projects use filters while others use a heating process to create steam before recondensing it back to liquid water, leaving any impurities behind. Architects who work on water treatment and reclamation projects must face issues that they don’t face in most other types of building design.
Fortunately, the collaboration that goes into designing and building water and wastewater facilities is robust. Typically, the civil engineer lays out the facility. That professional knows where the water comes from and where it needs to go and makes specifications about distances, bends, pipe sizes and more accordingly.
With this information, the architect is programming, space planning and problem solving, while working closely with the engineers. The architects and engineers have to be flexible, inventive and work hand-in-hand. It’s helpful to consider the water as our mutual client and design to accommodate its demands.
Naveen and Platt/Whitelaw Associate Thomas Brothers have worked closely together on several water and wastewater projects over the course of decades. Some of our firm’s projects include Operations and Maintenance buildings at the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant, Encina Wastewater Facility and South Bay Water Reclamation Facility. Along with pump stations at Scripps Ranch and one at the new North City Pure Water Facility in University City and Chemical buildings at the Alvarado Water Treatment Plant in Mission Trails Regional Park – all in San Diego – and a Desalter Facility in Camarillo.
As with most types of architecture, the location of a project is fundamental to the architectural design. The Desalter project, for example, is industrial, located adjacent to the city of Camarillo. The challenge for Platt/Whitelaw is in making it look approachable. The Platt/Whitelaw team typically works with the city or county where the project will reside to find an aesthetic that isn’t hidden but also isn’t overwhelming for the surrounding community.
Sometimes, the water flow itself determines the location. Due to the topographic configuration of San Diego, the Point Loma North Operations Building and Grit building our firm designed sits where wastewater flows – to a low point, in this case right at the ocean edge. After it’s treated, the water travels to an outfall location several miles into the ocean.
An important task for our firm was to design a facility that respected the flow of the water and the process required to treat it while celebrating the remarkable location at the bluffs leading to the ocean. We accomplished this through a multi-level building design that complemented the natural topography and accommodated the water flow; with sustainable strategies that reflected the importance of the area’s natural resources; and with material and color selections that would complement the site.
Public art can also help bridge function with design and is used by Platt/Whitelaw in many of its public projects. “It’s a way of saying to a community that there is civic importance to the project,” says Thomas. “And we help celebrate that by making a space for public art.”
Thomas also points out that public art is a way to communicate the purpose of a project. “Lay people don’t typically know what the process is behind the project. An artist can present it in a way that is visually interesting while making it more accessible and sometimes educational.”
Working with water projects also allows Platt/Whitelaw to be a part of cutting-edge technology, including pure water projects, where instead of sending treated wastewater into the ocean or irrigation lines, the treatment facility can make it drinkable. It’s a process that involves making the water so pure that it’s then returned to the regular treatment facility and then sent to storage and distribution tanks for potable use.
The innovative approach lets the region take less water from natural resources (like the Colorado River), which are diminishing, while making the community more resilient to drought and other changes.
“We take pride in working on something very important for the community and knowing we are a part of it,” says Naveen.
Thomas adds, “With water and wastewater architecture, you are thrust into realizing that your design is part of a greater system.”