Too Big to Hide: Rethinking Infrastructure on Campuses

By banishing infrastructure facilities from sight, we avoid an important conversation about their potential—both functionally and aesthetically.
University of Pennsylvania Gateway Complex, exterior at dusk

University of Pennsylvania Gateway Complex, exterior at dusk

Courtesy Peter Aaron / Esto

Infrastructure facilities—think ventilation shafts, water treatment plants, power stations—are often relegated to the peripheries of cities and campuses alike. Typically perceived as blocky, dirty, and noisy, these large-scale structures nevertheless play a significant role, providing us with the basics of electricity, water, heating, and cooling. Infrastructure, after all, is the backbone of everyday life. By banishing these facilities from sight, we are avoiding an important conversation about their electrifying potential—both functionally and aesthetically.

For two decades, our firm has grappled with the design challenges of infrastructure on campuses. Early on, we decided to view these structures as complex and exciting pieces of architecture that can help define urban contexts and shape environments and practices. Determined to literally “think out of the box” of infrastructure’s standard forms, we created three design mantras—think (not build) big, think sustainable, and think playful—and put them to the test.

THINK BIG – urban context and building scale

One of the first challenges we set for ourselves was rethinking the relationship of energy facilities to the urban fabric. Why couldn’t they be key players in this context? Instead of hiding them behind walls, we thought, how about manipulating volumes, materiality, and accessibility to make them pieces of architecture that reshape their surroundings?

A recent example of this is the Ohio State University East Regional Chilled Water Plant (2015). It provides chilled water for new science facilities and the growing northeast quadrant of its campus while redefining the larger context: The plant serves as bridge between campus and city and creates an edge for an important green space.

In close collaboration with engineers, we shifted away from a “solid box” typology to a composition of two offset volumes, derived from the constraints and clearances of equipment, such as the cooling towers. The modulated structure mimics its smaller academic neighbors not only in scale but also in materiality. The upper lifted square volume is wrapped in a cost-effective perforated metal enclosure of copper color, reminiscent of the predominant brick color around it. The glazed lower rectangular volume with semi-transparent views entices the passerby to take a peek inside. The project’s copper and glass facade is also illuminated at night, attracting attention as an elegant new gateway to the campus.

Ohio State University East Regional Chilled Water Plant

Ohio State University East Regional Chilled Water Plant

Courtesy Brad Feinknopf

Ohio State University East Regional Chilled Water Plant

Ohio State University East Regional Chilled Water Plant

Courtesy Brad Feinknopf

THINK SUSTAINABLE – economic, environmental, and social impact

As advocates for sustainable design, we consider economic, environmental, and social impact vital to the design process for our infrastructure projects. Close collaboration with consultants is our secret sauce. Engineers teach us about the new “green” equipment and its operational requirements, and, in return, we question and redefine infrastructure’s spatial relationships for optimal performance. It is an ongoing challenge for us to put this 3D puzzle together into a coherent, meaningful, and economic whole.

One of our current projects that grapples with these issues is the Tufts University Medford Campus Energy Plant (2018). We tucked the plant into a dramatically sloping hillside, hiding the large infrastructure mass inside of it. Two solid brick walls emerge from the hillside and frame a transparent street facade that readily exhibits the tri-generation energy equipment behind it. Working in close collaboration with engineers Van Zelm Heywood & Shadford, Inc., we were able to fit a recip engine, chillers, boilers and an enormous number of pumps and ducts into the tight location. The plant will also include elements that highlight its energy savings features, such as a publicly visible digital readout of ongoing plant efficiency metrics, making it a teaching tool for the university as well as the community at large.

Tufts University Campus Energy Plant  – street elevation

Tufts University Campus Energy Plant, street elevation

Courtesy Leers Weinzapfel Associates

Tufts University Campus Energy Plant

Tufts University Campus Energy Plant

Courtesy Leers Weinzapfel Associates

THINK PLAYFUL – an engaging facade

Once site and sustainability concerns are considered, aesthetics come into clearer focus. We believe that energy facilities can be engaging, bold, light, and elegant—their visual appeal lies in their wrappers. Facades are where we can play with new materials, patterns, and lighting.

Our first chiller plant at the University of Pennsylvania (2000) is a vivid example of this. Employing a facade of corrugated, perforated stainless steel panels, it makes a bold statement that transforms a large-scale complex into a single gesture of ephemeral structure. The elliptical screen wall is carefully lit at night, transcending the building into an object of art. No longer is the “machine” purely functional; it is one to enjoy close up and from afar. The glazed volume within the facade reveals the bustling activities inside the plant and invites visitors to observe.

By rethinking traditional approaches to infrastructure on urban college campuses and interweaving these facilities into the contexts they serve, we hope to fuel conversation about these structures’ untapped potential. Considering the rapid evolution of technology and contemporary discussion about sustainable practice, we think it’s time to put energy facilities in the spotlight of design and urban planning.

University of Pennsylvania Gateway Complex, exterior at dusk

University of Pennsylvania Gateway Complex, exterior at dusk

Courtesy Peter Aaron / Esto

University of Pennsylvania Gateway Complex, corrugated perforated stainless steel panel

The building’s facade comprises corrugated perforated stainless steel panels.

Courtesy Peter Aaron / Esto


This blog series, part of our “voices from inside the profession,” is written by the staff of Leers Weinzapfel Associates, Boston. Posts provide a behind-the-scenes look at the ways the firm’s work serves the public realm by connecting people to place; building to urban context, landscape, and infrastructure; and past to future.

Categories: Architecture, Educational Architecture

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