The power grid is undergoing a historic transformation that is giving architects and planners greater freedom to create more striking and compact power substations.

Design Thinking Generates Community Support for Power Substations

The power grid is undergoing a historic transformation that is giving architects and planners greater freedom to create more striking and compact power substations.
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Power substations, the community-based facilities that step down high voltage electricity so it can be delivered to end-users, are critical players in the power grid. They deliver electricity to where it’s consumed, namely in homes, businesses, schools and more. Yet often,these structures have been called blights on the architectural landscape thanks to their bland, uninspired designs. No longer.

The power grid is undergoing a historic transformation as cities and suburbs become denser, require more electricity and new power sources become available, such as clean energy solutions.  Coupled with the growing importance design thinking, sustainable building and the push to apply these principles to all communities, architects and engineers are being tasked with creating compelling power substation designs while involving community members in the process.

McKissack & McKissack’s work on five power substations, part of the Capital Grid project approved by the District of Columbia Public Service Commission (DC PSC), comes at this time of change. The area’s power supplier is increasing its distribution capacity to meet future needs. Renewable energy resources such as community solar will need to plug into electrical substations to join the power grid. This also makes them part of the PSC’s PowerPathDC project, which covers grid modernization, infrastructure enhancements and community engagement.

This project is critical now; going forward,substations will be required to accept more power from widely distributed renewable energy sources such as rooftop solar panels to meet potentially exponential need. For instance, substations will also deliver fast-charging direct current for electric vehicles and an increasing number of microgrids. Fortunately, smart grid technology now puts a range of power distribution options into smaller spaces. As a result, architects and engineers have more freedom to create striking designs for urban power substations that can be a source of community pride.


Powerhouse Substation Designs Preserve Historic Architectural Styles ­

Ironically, many early power substations were designed to blend in with their environment, in part to win over neighbors’resistance. Prominent architects received the design commissions for early 20th century electrical substations, such as the Harvard Street N.W. Substation and the Champlain Substation in Washington, D.C. and the Washington Park Substation in Chicago. They adopted Arts and Crafts, Art Deco and Classical Revival styles so the structures would harmonize with surrounding buildings and disguise their industrial use.

It’s a testament to these planners’ success that the National Register of Historic Places lists 42 power distribution and railroad substations in 16 states and the District of Columbia. McKissack produced designs to restore the two District substations added to the register in 2019–including Harvard Street, which began a substantial renovation in August 2020. In both cases,much of the historic building was preserved while increasing capacity housed in complementary modern additions.

The Mount Vernon Substation in northwest Washington D.C. has yet to break ground east of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. McKissack produced conceptual drawings for this  project, which required the years of community review that come with producing significant structures in the nation’s capital. As power substations—both new and retrofits—become critical to the energy sector’s success, innovative design thinking and aesthetic appeal will engage neighbors and win advisory commission approval.


Powerful Relays Come in Small Packages

The new substation is designed to meet future energy needs for the district’s growing Mount Vernon Triangle area. Power needs, available land and existing infrastructure suggested the K Street site, currently a parking lot. The building will have to fit in its 6th Ward surroundings, set back from the sidewalk, and built to run safely and reliably in a trim infill site.  

The saving grace for urban power substations is they do not require multi acre open-air facilities.  In fact, smart grid substations of the future will be up to 70% more compact, with indoor and underground installations that will cut noise and bring power even closer to customers. Their conductors, transformers and circuit breakers still need roof access or open space to swap out parts if necessary. However, gas-insulated piping that surrounds switch gear and other critical mechanicals protect parts from moisture and contaminants, making them safer and more reliable. It also enables substations to use as little as one-tenth the space of conventional open-air installations.

These contemporary substations preserve as well as distribute energy, capturing heat from the transformers to provide winter warmth. Fire protection codes and standards further protect nearby residents, using brick or concrete materials that fit the neighborhood. smaller and trimmer, taking up less square footage. As a result,the Mount Vernon Substation can share a city block with condos and retail stores.


Smart Grids Spur Smarter Designs

McKissack’s substation concepts push the limits of new power technology and design creativity. More significantly, they show energy companies can produce local landmarks that support the power of their brand and please communities.  Attention to aesthetics elevates all types of urban infrastructure. For example, a conceptual design for outer Baltimore Harbor raises electrical transmission cables on 400-foot-tall towers alongside the Francis Scott Key bridge. Another for Washington’s St. Elizabeths east campus wraps the site’s 175-foot water tower with sculptural sheathing that displays educational and event information and serves a public plaza with a water feature.

Clearly, building and sustaining a more resilient and sustainable energy sector will require creative approaches to power substations and working closely . Architects and engineers will be powerful agents of change as they design power substations for the denser urban and suburban communities of the future.

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