The new City Light Denny Street substation. Photo credit: Benjamin Benschneider/courtesy NBBJ

Katherine Schwab, writing for Fast Company, has reported on the innovative way the city of Seattle is providing public spaces while highlighting the workings of power equipment.

A recently opened substation operates as 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.”

The Denny Substation, through clever planning and some architectural brilliance, has created a space that is more than public utility – it’s a public space that the architects believe could be as famous at the Space Needle.

[Photo: Benjamin Benschneider/courtesy NBBJ]

According to the Seattle City Light’s management system analyst, Matt Ayer, “We’ve got a couple of landmarks that show up on postcards and in the backgrounds in movies and TV shows.

Ayer, who helped facilitate the project, continues: “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 reaction to the substation has taken some by surprise, especially since it’s effectively a utility installation.

After all, it’s a substation.

However, as the new substation was going to take up two full city blocks, and cut off part of a road the design was subject to Seattle Design Commission directives. The Commission required City Light to “demonstrate why permanently vacating a public street would be a positive thing for the community.”

[Photo: Benjamin Benschneider/courtesy NBBJ]

Ayers says of the substation: “The rules that applied during the construction of previous substations were out the window.”

Architectural firm NBBJ began working on the design with a plan to house the entire substation below ground – however, this proved to be a little more complicated than originally anticipated, and the plan was changed. Instead, the company 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.”

[Photo: Benjamin Benschneider/courtesy NBBJ]

Phil Ambrose, a project manager for City Light, talking about why the Commission and City Light liked the proposal, says: “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.

Yet, this is still high voltage, very dangerous equipment and NBBJ and City Light took this into consideration by designing small peepholes into the substation’s insides – allowing people to glimpse the inner workings of the substation while providing a high element of safety.. External signage highlights the role City Light plays in Seattle and provides advertising for the utility.

[Photo: Benjamin Benschneider/courtesy NBBJ]

Through this project, a combined public/utility space has been created – albeit at a bit of an additional cost to City Light, which replaced the originally specified air-cooled switchgear with oil-cooled switchgear. This means it has a smaller footprint, but a higher ultimate cost. Ambrose confirms that building a typical substation “would have saved money in the long run, 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.”

“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.”