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Built-in Utility

Design elevates water, natural gas, electricity supplies

Kansas Municipal Jan18 4
Photo: Gavin Peters,

Kansas Municipal Utilities Inc.’s training center in McPherson, Kan., is headquarters for a statewide association of government agencies and other organizations involved in municipal utilities. It provides legislative advocacy, continuing education and other services related to electricity, natural gas, water and wastewater utilities to its members.

The training center’s function is focused on utilities. Wichita, Kan.-based 3ten Studio Inc. found ways to express the importance of utilities in its design and materials. In a sense, the firm turned utilities into architectural expressions. Utility played a role in how the building is massed, materials are layered and finishes are unembellished. Some materials symbolize municipal utilities.

Pragmatic Massing

The overall massing of the structure was driven by the uses of interior space. The floor plan is roughly shaped like an upside-down letter L, with the tip of the L pointing north. The short leg of the L houses the front entrance, lobby, conference room and offices. The long stem of the L contains a kitchen, bathrooms, training rooms and large training garage.

The two main portions of the building were built with different structures. The front portion with the offices and circulation area was constructed with conventional steel framing. The back section, which has some long spans, was built with a metal building system supplied by Andersonville, Tenn.-based A&S Building Systems.

Chad Glenn, AIA, LEED AP, president at 3ten Studio, says his firm followed the function and flow of the interior. “How you flow through the facility, how the public will interact with the building, how the training takes place and how the day-to-day office personnel utilize the facility, we oriented the massing itself around the function of the building.”

Revealing Layers and Raw Finishes

In addition to the design’s utilitarian massing, 3ten Studio layered materials and pulled them back at places to reference how they build up during construction and the utilities they usually hide.

“[Kansas Municipal Utilities trains] the people that are installing gas meters, fire hydrants, electrical transformers and what is required to move those around our communities,” Glenn says. “So the concept was to keep the systems and the structure exposed, and express the layering of that system.”

Finishes were kept to a minimum to continue the utility theme. Inside, structural members are exposed and waxed. Corten steel panels, unfinished wood and polished concrete floors were also used. “Utilizing materials that were durable while expressing what they do is the reason we went in the direction we went,” Glenn says.

Creating a familiar environment for utility workers was another consideration. “The people getting training here are used to a more raw environment,” Glenn says. “They are used to seeing the inside and the guts of how buildings operate, oftentimes coming in with their work boots on fresh out of the field. This being a training facility, we wanted to make them feel comfortable.”

One area with exposed metal structure is the central spine of the building, where the conventional steel and metal building portions intersect. “And then as we go, we start to layer the various materials in the wall section itself, so you start to see this bumping effect coming out; you see the progression of construction,” Glenn says. “The steel of both structures is exposed, and then we layer the walls and provide depth and relief.”

Another place where layered materials expose building systems is where some ceiling tiles peel away at the bathrooms. “We have a little bit of an edge that’s pulled away so you can start to see up behind the ceiling grid, giving a cue there’s more stuff going on back behind there,” Glenn says. “So you start to get those little peeks, those little views into the cavities of what may be back behind, paying homage to the utilities that are often covered up.”

Utility Symbols

The three primary utilities, water, natural gas and electricity, are symbolized by building materials. Two shades of blue fiber-cement panels represent water. Rust-colored Corten steel panels represent the fire associated with natural gas, and glazing represents electricity. Storefront systems at the entrance and three clerestory light-wells at the spine provide light during the daytime and illuminate the building at night. Manko Window Systems Inc., Manhattan, Kan., supplied the clerestory windows and storefront system, and Sturgeon Glass and Mirror Inc., Hutchinson, Kan., installed them.

“Both ends of the main concourse glow like a lantern,” Glenn says. “We incorporated each of those three utility elements into the building itself.”

In addition to the Corten and fiber-cement panels, two other metal panels were used on the exterior. Light gray corrugated panels were installed vertically, primarily on the metal building system portion. They were an economical, utilitarian choice, which allowed for more of the budget to be spent on the front façade. “It really became a backdrop,” Glenn says. Dark gray corrugated panels were installed horizontally to accentuate signage.

McPherson, Kan.-based Prairie Landworks Inc. installed 10,500 square feet of A&S Building Systems’ 7.2 metal wall panels in Slate Gray and 1,000 square feet of A&S Building Systems’ PBD metal wall panels in Charcoal Gray. It also installed 1,300 square feet of Western States Metal Roofing’s corrugated Corten steel panels. The project received a 2017 Wichita AIA Award, Excellence in Architecture, Honorable Mention.