New London Architecture

GLA powers ahead with electricity substation designs

Monday 28 June 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

The GLA is working hard to improve the look and feel of London’s 18,000 electricity substations, beginning a dialogue with designers and providers that could result in architectural ideas competitions, design guidance – and perhaps a neo-Victorian ‘delight’ in these ‘underutilized assets’. 

The GLA Infrastructure team held the first ideas workshop last week in association with the NLA, bringing together key thinkers in the area, establishing that many of the larger standalone facilities built in the 1950s and 1960s were ripe for retrofit, and that new thinking is needed to bring ‘delight’ and more community integration back into their design. The range of practical examples of design challenges and placemaking opportunities discussed at the workshop were selected from the 350 substations located on the Isle of Dogs in London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The area is currently experiencing unprecedented growth and is also one of the pilots for the GLA’s Infrastructure Coordination Service, which focuses on providing appropriate infrastructure capacity with minimum disruption to local communities.

The GLA’s Marissa Looby said the structures were an essential part of our infrastructure and energy in London but that it was time to rethink how they can make a better contribution to the city. There are typical requirements over safety, security, noise, and access, as well as technical ones over ventilation and lighting. But is there scope for design standards to think through, and look at aesthetics, surrounding sites and compatible uses? 

‘Maybe we could see these as underutilized assets within a community, often isolated and uninhabited’, Marissa Looby said. ‘Can we deviate from some of the more technical standards to enable something potentially more innovative to come out of that? How do we do that and how do we encourage that?’

Issues will include how structures can be integrated into communities, opportunities for innovative design, along with assessing the financial and regulatory hurdles to overcome.
The session figured as the first ‘workshop’ to talk through early ideas, with the potential of ideas competitions mentioned along with pilot projects to redesign substations or build new ones. Looby added that there is the potential for collaborative design guidance for public realm integration of substations with community use overlaid.

Ideas expressed by panellists at the event included the potential for substations to include a mix of uses including housing, the perennial problem of time and money and who exactly funds any changes, and the benefits of allowing for the potential of smaller practices getting involved. One such, IF-DO, has been employed by Argent to create a special substation-as-art at its new Brent Cross Town project; representatives from both firms emphasised the importance of creating a source of civic pride. But one of the main messages came from Hawkins/Brown’s Harbinder Birdi, a member of the GLA Infrastructure Advisory Panel, who suggested that replicating the spirit of the Victorians in creating infrastructure of ‘delight’ might also pay dividends in ‘happiness’ indices, and perhaps even inspiring a new generation of engineers. ‘Maybe we should just celebrate our infrastructure more’, he said.

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly


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