The beautification of infrastructure

Atkins | 28 Apr 2015 | Comments

How do you turn a sewage pumping station into a stunning waterfront setting for the public? By incorporating it into the urban landscape so it contributes something valuable to the surroundings – beyond its essential function.

On first glance, the two sites could be mistaken for elegant municipal parks. Living roofs and grass pavers are complemented by a cascading water feature at the first site and, at the second, a rain garden. Sewage pumping stations may not be associated with beauty, but this novel development in Hong Kong’s Kowloon City district challenges those assumptions.

After sitting down with the government’s Drainage Services Department, Atkins embarked on an investigation into how best to upgrade an aged sewage system. According to Atkins’ technical director Xiao Ying, it was the innovative architectural design concept that won the tendering process.

Space comes at a premium in Hong Kong. A population of 7.2 million people must share just 1104 km2 of land, much of which is made up of hilly terrain. Of course, if the development was sited in a sparsely populated rural area there would have been less impetus to break the mould. The Kai Tak Development in the south-east of Kowloon, where the project was undertaken, is anything but rural. The site of Hong Kong’s former international airport, the area was levelled after the port was moved to neighbouring Lantau Island in Hong Kong’s western waters in 1998. As part of the urban reclamation, a new cruise ship terminal, housing, and commercial and entertainment developments are in various stages of completion.

“In the future, high rise commercial developments are going to be constructed in the surrounding area and the Drainage Services Department was worried that people might not be happy with a typical sewage station facade in view,” says Jeffery Chan, project engineer on the assignment. “They were willing to pursue an architectural design that was totally unique. They were willing to go further to invest in something that was extraordinary.”

One option was to build the pumping stations underground, keeping them entirely out of sight: “We considered this at the design stage among other scenarios,” says Chan. “We talked it through with the operations people, but the system relies on a process that means it is not possible to put everything totally underground. For instance, the power transformer must be above ground because if there is a power failure there is a risk of flooding, which would cause too much damage.”

Instead, the new builds were sunken, thus keeping the obstruction of the surroundings to an absolute minimum. Even then, nearly half of the combined project’s surface area is covered in greenery and soft landscaping.

The project’s strengths don’t solely lie in its lush aesthetics. Energy efficient features including solar panels and skylights were installed at both stations, as were rainwater harvesting systems. As ambitious infrastructure projects continue to propel China’s plateauing economy, sustainability is being put front and centre.
Such features have won the project deserved recognition. The stations have already been provisionally awarded a platinum BEAM (Building Environmental Assessment Method) rating. As such they went on to become finalists in Hong Kong’s Green Building Awards 2014, not to mention the Hong Kong Institute of Landscape Architects bestowing the project with a silver award.

Above all else, however, the project serves its much needed primary function. When it comes to water pollution, Hong Kong, which translates to “fragrant harbour”, is going all out. The world’s largest underground pumping station is currently being constructed in West Kowloon to eliminate Ecoli found in sewage discharged into Victoria Harbour, the central waterway bisecting Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. Ageing sewage infrastructure has not been helping this cause.

“The existing system receives raw sewage from a population of around 200,000 people,” says Chan. This equates to nearly three per cent of Hong Kong’s entire population. “Over the years a major problem developed, with sewage overflowing into the water system leading to Victoria Harbour causing some degree of pollution. That’s why the government decided to build a sewage interception scheme, to clean up the water. It intercepts sewage from seven points by using a pumping system to convey the sewage directly downstream, thereby bypassing the old system.”

Farther afield

China is not alone in seeking novel regeneration solutions that solve basic infrastructure needs while simultaneously appeasing the NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) crowd. It is increasingly common for design and engineering companies to offer innovative and creative designs that are harmonious with their surroundings and avoid essential facilities blighting the landscape in populated areas.

This thinking was crucial when Atkins won its bid for the £25m development of the Easter Bush education and research campus at Edinburgh University in Scotland. The project comprises a flagship hub for the campus as well as an energy centre and substation and will begin construction in the next month.

“Because the Easter Bush campus has an agricultural, rural setting our brief was to come up with a building that was not necessarily a replica science park type arrangement with a three or four storey building and car parking round about it,” says Neil McLean, Atkins’ associate director and head of architecture for Scotland. “It needed to be car free, pedestrian friendly and the focus of the campus, plus very much evocative of its surroundings.”

Merging the building design with its environment was achieved by incorporating natural stone and living walls to be made using local plants. Even the modern aspects will feature flourishes, with a leaf pattern designed into the outer glass facade of the elliptical half of the research hub.

Additionally, the energy centre had to be future-proofed to heat and cool both the existing buildings and also future sites as part of the university’s aspiring 2025 master plan to expand Easter Bush to the size of its other four campuses. Instead of settling for a boxy, utilitarian design, Atkins split the energy and refuse functions in a central steading and adopted the same kind of natural stone and timber traditionally used in local farming builds in the area.

Finally, an electricity substation connecting the two was treated as a landmark rather than a run of the mill unit. As well as a living wall, the station will feature an opaque backlit wall that will act as a beacon to light one of the main access routes onto the campus for vehicles and pedestrians. Such touches are as much about form as function.

Indeed, McLean notes that in the very best designs the two should not compete, but rather complement each other. “For example, with the central building we went for a mixed mode cooling solution and that requires openable vents, for which instead of having openable windows we will have laser-cut stainless steel panels which match the leaf patterning on the wall glazing. So it’s a sophisticated approach where the stylistic choices are embedded in the engineering.”

New ways of thinking

Back in China, the country has poured money into construction and infrastructure in recent years as a means to bolster economic growth, which after years of steep ascent has inevitably begun to decelerate. To that end, the mainland government is embarking on one of its most ambitious construction drives yet: a total of 300 projects valued at $1.1 trillion have been greenlit for development between now and late 2016.

Under China’s “one country, two systems” rule, Hong Kong has control over the future of its own infrastructure, which, due to the special administrative region’s finite space, is in a state of perpetual development. Government projections put annual public spending on such projects at more than HK$70bn ($9bn) over the next few years, compared to a yearly average of HK$21bn in recent years.

It is also home to some of the boldest projects. When Hong Kong transplanted its airport from Kowloon to Lantau Island, it pulled down a mountain to make way for the new terminals and runways. It is now working on linking itself up to neighbouring Macau, situated 30km to the west, with a vast bridge that will be among the biggest in the world. Then, of course, there’s its aforementioned Victoria Harbour clean-up initiative.

Wherever possible Hong Kong and mainland China’s governments will be seeking to prioritise aesthetics and the importance of design, and projects such as Kowloon’s Sewage Interception Scheme are setting a precedent of distinction for the future.

“Even at the time we took on the project there was no requirement for this kind of innovative design concept at all,” says Xiao Ying. “Now it’s different. There is now more emphasis on the appearance of new infrastructure projects. The government wants them to be more appealing and integrate into the landscape.”

In Hong Kong’s Kowloon district, Atkins’ goal to create an “Oasis for the Soul” has been fully realised. The city will now be hoping for more oases to come.

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