By Tom Tingle
March 14, 2018

by Ted Henifin, Bruce Husselbee, Thomas Tingle, Thomas Jardim

Pump stations are one of the most visible signs of a wastewater utility. Pipelines usually are buried, and resource recovery facilities sit in isolated areas behind secure fences and/or other visual screens. Other than administrative offices, the pump station frequently ranks as the most viable structure of many utilities. These pump stations commonly are in residential neighborhoods where they are highly visible and often unwanted, which add challenges to being perceived as a good neighbor.

How the public perceives, and, sometimes, judges utilities is related to how we design, operate, and maintain the infrastructure that they ultimately pay for. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD; Virginia Beach, VA) has more than 100 sewer pump stations to operate and maintain with more planned soon. Because of the region’s flat topography, sewer pump stations are quite common. Noise, odor, lighting, and aesthetics are just a few of the concerns raised by neighbors.

HRSD has designed and built sewer pump stations since its inception in the 1940s. Some are 70 years old and need refurbishment. As those projects come to pass, HRSD has made it a goal to provide the consultants who design and upgrade these pump stations with guidance for blending the pump stations into the communities they serve.

Historic Context

As cities in America were growing in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they celebrated their advanced public water and sewer projects. They housed them in impressive civic architecture. The style of waterworks buildings matched the character of the city’s other municipal facilities or captured the popular design style of the era. Fairmont Waterworks in Philadelphia was designed in the early 1800s as a Greek Revival village. Chestnut Hills Waterworks in Massachusetts depicted the popular Richardson Romanesque style of the late 19th century in nearby Boston. The Beverly Hills Water Treatment Plant No. 1 applied the Spanish Romanesque style that was overtaking southern California in the early 1920s. Cities were on the leading edge of engineering a healthier place to live and their most visible water and sewer facilities reflected this pride and commitment. These structures could have passed for public libraries or train stations.

As water and wastewater systems became more commonplace in urban and suburban neighborhoods after World War II, grand architectural styles gave way to a more no-frills approach. In many instances, the architecture simply reflected the engineering needs being housed. As land values increased in the late 20th century, infill development moved closer to these facilities. Newer developments reserved less property for infrastructure and buffers. Pump stations crept closer to neighbors. Or more accurately, neighbors crept closer to pump stations.

Plan Development

HRSD assembled a team from aa cross-section of its staff, including representatives from senior management, engineering, operations, and facilities maintenance, to share ideas for better pump station architecture. HRSD sought to elevate its design standards, but also needed to control the potential cost implications. The team needed to consider construction and maintenance costs as well as limit operational effects.

HRSD consulted with the design firm GuernseyTingle (Williamsburg, VA) to help define the goals and determine the best strategy for achieving improved architectural quality in pump station design. The firm led the team through an overview of historic precedents and examples of waterworks and wastewater facilities with a higher level of design aesthetics. The team also reviewed examples of HRSD’s own facilities and potential improvements that could be implemented to improve design quality.

One challenge HRSD faced is the size and diversity of the areas it serves – 18 jurisdictions encompassing more than 7770 km (3000 mi). These localities range form high-density urban cores to sparsely populated rural areas. The design firm challenged the team early in the process to determine the desired outcome of design guidelines. Should the facilities provide a uniform appearance, and HRSD “brand”, or should they be disguised within the neighborhoods where they are located? The answer from HRSD was clear; Respect the context of the community and blend into the surroundings.

The Guidelines

Working with HRSD’s team, the firm identified four significant design issues that influence the overall appearance of pump stations:
• Site considerations,
• General building design,
• Primary exterior design elements, and
• Other building design issues.

Site Considerations. When siting facilities, consider views from neighboring buildings, streets, and public areas, as well as building setbacks to respect adjacent structures. Minimize driveways and hardscapes and soften emergency access paving with pervious or grass paver systems. While fencing often is needed for access control and security, it also should be designed to help screen unsightly exterior elements. Match fencing materials to complement neighboring properties.

General building design. This area addresses overall scale, massing, and architectural style sympathetic to the local context. Larger structures should be articulated with offsets, rooflines, and architectural elements such as porches, doors, and louvers. Most of the HRSD’s service area is near tidal waters and subject to flooding by either storms or sea level rise. Thus, pump stations, which historically would have been placed close to the ground, now can be several feet above the flood plain. The structures to house these pumps can dominate their neighbors. To remedy this, the guidelines recommend such modifications as an architectural “water table” (based on a historic feature where the masonry foundation projects beyond the building’s outside walls at the floor line) and half-story articulation of taller walls.

Primary exterior design elements. These elements include exterior wall materials, roofing and roof slopes, doors, decorative windows/shutters (or false windows/shutters), trim, and louvers. While these elements are very important in establishing the architecture for the building, the guidelines recommend materials and applications that are durable and low maintenance.

Other building design considerations. The final section addresses various exterior elements, some of which are unique to pump stations. These include standby pumps, emergency generators, odor control systems, exhaust systems, emergency signage, security lighting, and security cameras. While these systems are necessary on many stations, the guidelines recommend they be placed in screened locations and disguised within building architectural features.

Test case studies

With the draft outline of the guidelines developed, the HRSD team selected four existing pump stations for the firm to test the guidelines. The test consisted of two questions:
• How could these stations have been designed more aesthetically?
• What elements should be considered when older stations are refurbished?
GuernseyTingle took the HRSD team through a virtual redesign of each station, showing how the design considerations described above could be used to create stations that are more architecturally balanced and more respectful of surrounding buildings and properties.

The case studies helped the team understand which elements were most important as well as which relatively minor revisions could be made to improve architecture without increased cost. Some changes made a significant effect on the appearance of the pump station and its ability to blend into the neighborhood. The case studies also helped the firm refine the guidelines and develop exhibits for recommended design solutions.

Principles of design

HRSD’s architectural guidelines strive to achieve five principles:
• Site and building design should respect the community.
• Architecture should blend into the context of the site.
• Structure should show quality detailing and finely tuned proportions.
• Materials should be selected for durability and low maintenance.
• Design should balance aesthetic form and operational function.

The adopted guidelines encourage these tenets. Moreover, they are intended to be a living document that is updated periodically to address new building systems, new materials, new technology, and changing aesthetic design standards.

How much did the guidelines help pump station appeal, improve? At a recently built structure, the mailman started delivering junk mail and a real estate agent slipped a business card through the mail slot at the faux front door. This is the goal for all future buildings.

Ted Henifin is general manager and Bruce Husselbee is director of engineering at the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (Virginia Beach, VA), Thomas Tingle is president and Thomas Jardim is a project manager and staff architect at GuernseyTingle (Williamsburg, Va).

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