Electrical substations aren’t beautiful. These necessary pieces of infrastructure, which provide electricity to your home, are usually surrounded by rusting chain-link fence, adorned only with signs warning you to keep out—and for good reason, since they contain potentially dangerous equipment.
But the city of Seattle recently opened a gorgeous substation that welcomes people in, rather than tries to keep them away. Designed by the local architecture firm NBBJ, known for its tech company offices among other projects, the substation is a stunning, geometric work of architecture that doubles as a public park. The building, which spans two city blocks, features two indoor community spaces and has a linear walkway running along three of its sides. On the same block, there’s an off-leash dog park and green space. Located in the Denny Triangle area in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle, which is also home to Amazon’s headquarters and regional offices for Google and Facebook, the Denny Substation uses architecture to transcend its duty as a public utility and to become something more: a 44,000-square-foot public space that its creators think could become a city landmark on par with the Space Needle.
“We’ve got a couple landmarks that show up on postcards and in the backgrounds in movies and TV shows,” says Matt Ayer, a management system analyst who has worked at Seattle City Light, the public utility that spearheaded the project, since 2012 and has helped facilitate the project. “There’s the Space Needle, and you know it’s happening in Seattle. Now we’ve got another one. I can’t wait until it starts to crop up—and I have no doubt it will.”
The folks at Seattle City Light, the Seattle public department that runs electrical infrastructure in the city, didn’t originally envision the Denny Substation as a postcard-worthy icon. After all, it’s a substation. But because City Light wanted to use up two full city blocks, formerly home to a Greyhound bus maintenance facility, and cut off part of a road to make the best use of the plot of land, the utility was subject to the Seattle Design Commission‘s directives. The Commission, which is composed of architects, artists, engineers, and members of the public, was formed in 1968 to oversee the design of any public infrastructure projects. To get the Commission’s permission to take over the road, City Light needed to demonstrate why permanently vacating a public street would be a positive thing for the community.
“The rules that applied during the construction of previous substations were out the window,” Ayer says, referencing how the utility hasn’t built a new substation in several decades. “City Light could not have done it the way we did in the old days.”
Previously, Seattle had built traditional substations on the fringes of the city, where there was plenty of space and few neighbors to complain. Even if people weren’t happy about a substation moving in next door and asked for some kind of public space to compensate for the scar in their neighborhood, Ayer says that City Light would have had the power to say no.
But this time, the Design Commission’s involvement meant that City Light couldn’t plop a standard substation in the middle of urban Seattle. After all, the location was just across the street from a retirement community, and neighbors hadn’t signed up to live right next door to what Ayer refers to as the typical “chain-link monstrosity.”
NBBJ began the design process with the idea that the substation would be completely underground, with a public park on top of it—a concept that has been achieved in other parts of the country. But putting the whole station underground caused too many logistical problems in this case to be tenable. So Jose Sama, a partner at NBBJ who led the design of the project, instead proposed creating a linear walkway around the edges of the substation and angling the sides of the station’s walls to add public amenities like community spaces, including a group of meeting rooms and a space that might become a public library, below the path. Some of the heat that the substation generates will also be used to warm these spaces in the winter.
The idea was a hit with the commission in part because it provided City Light with a unique educational opportunity. “We wanted portions [of the substation] to be visible so that the public could learn or understand what it is a substation does and where Seattle gets [its] power from,” says Phil Ambrose, the senior project manager at City Light who has overseen the Denny Substation project since its initial design phases.
Yet there’s a reason all substations have “keep out” signs—and for the architects, safety considerations presented a serious design challenge. “It’s a substation, so you don’t want to have people clinging to the walls,” Sama says. “But . . . the edge [of the building] still needed to be inviting.”
NBBJ and City Light navigated this challenge by designing small peepholes into the substation’s guts (which, Sama admits, aren’t particularly exciting to look at). Signage embossed onto the substation’s shell and glass windows acts like advertising for City Light and its role in lighting up the city; a timeline of the utility’s history proclaims that it became carbon neutral in 2005.
Still, people are definitely not allowed inside, and City Light installed a more robust safety system than at its other substations, using cameras to sense if people try to climb up the substation’s walls and drop down into the interior courtyard, which houses much of the electrical equipment.
Trying to balance the public space with the substation’s requirements was one of the biggest challenges of the project. Creating room for the public on the plot was an expensive proposition because City Light had to use a different type of insulation for the switchgear, the equipment that controls and protects the electrical circuits inside the substation. Typical substations are insulated by air, which is why they’re so large, but City Light was able to fit an entire substation into less than two city blocks by using more costly gas-insulated switchgear, which has a significantly smaller footprint but can produce just as much electricity. Building a typical substation “would have saved money in the long run,” says Ambrose. “But in the grand scheme of things, my opinion is that it was better in the long term to build something the community could take pride in.”
So far, the reactions from locals have been mixed. Sama says he was out walking the substation’s linear park just before its grand opening in July and ran into an elderly woman who lived in the retirement community across the street. She told him that she and some of her friends had started regularly using the path to get some exercise—which was exactly how Sama hoped that the locals would use it.
Others haven’t looked upon the substation so fondly. “We have had people talk about it in very visceral terms, saying they don’t like it or it’s ugly, and we’ve had just as many people have the exact opposite reaction,” Ayer says. “A few wise souls have said that provoking a reaction is what art is all about. And that’s an odd conversation to have as an electrical utility department in Seattle.”
Regardless if people adore or despise the new substation, the conversation around it has helped to elevate the building to a city icon that is worthy of a postcard. And it could have lasting impacts on public infrastructure projects going forward: NBBJ and City Light hope they have changed the paradigm with the idea that even a city substation can provide public space as well as power to the neighborhood it serves.
“We don’t just need electricity,” Sama says. “We need a space to be able to go enjoy open space and go gather as a community.”