This Bus Barn Spotlights Why Even Utilitarian Infrastructure Should Be Beautiful

gh3* architects show that even the most basic of buildings don't have to be banal.

KATG from exterior


Long ago, people cared about the quality of utilitarian buildings. Then attitudes changed and all anyone cared about was cost. I have an architect friend who does a lot of public work and was once told her buildings were too nice—so nice that it looked like the government is wasting money on frills.

But as the late and sorely missed Lance Hosey wrote in his book "The Shape of Green," quality and beauty matter when it comes to sustainability. "Long term value is impossible without sensory appeal, because if design doesn't inspire, it is destined to be discarded. 'In the end,' writes Senegalese poet Baba Dioum, 'we conserve only what we love.' ... If it's not beautiful, it's not sustainable. Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern, it's an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet."

The responses to this tweet include, "It’s not that they need to be ugly, it’s Value Engineering that makes beauty redundant to contractors. The architect is impotent!" and, "The problem isn’t that they need to be ugly, it’s that they need to be cheap and we don’t care if they’re ugly." But cheap doesn't have to be ugly, and value engineering doesn't have to be evil.

barn from outside
The Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage in Canada.


This is one of the reasons that the work of Pat Hanson and her firm gh3* is so interesting. We previously showed how the firm built a stormwater management facility that was a jewel in the dross. Now, it has completed a bus barn, often the banalest of building types, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

The architects describe the Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage (KATG):

"Reconciling demanding technical requirements with simple and rigorous architecture, KATG elevates a conventionally utilitarian building and honours its important role within a growing, equitable, sustainable, and resilient contemporary city. Functional efficiency and high sustainability are matched by formal refinement, historic preservation, and public art, enriching both the lives of the people who work there and the wider community it serves."

These kinds of buildings usually also sit in a sea of employee parking, but temperatures in Edmonton vary from a high of 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) in summer to -40 degrees Fahrenheit—that magical temperature that is the same in F or C—in winter, so it has a lower level for the pickup truck parking.

Interior of barn


Named after Edmonton’s first female bus driver, KATG houses 300 buses, 35 maintenance bays with three undercarriage wash bays, four refuel bays, and exterior wash bays.

Bumpy art on the top


The bumpy ends of the five lightwells are public art by Berlin artist Thorsten Goldberg. The firm stated: "Depicting mountainous locations along the same latitude, the topographical relief sculptures provide a contrast to the flat prairie landscape while connecting Edmonton to other northern cities around the world."

offices and atrium


The administration wing doesn't look like your usual response to a government proposal call for a building to house bureaucrats and workers.

lobby ceiling


"Inside, the building is powerfully pure and monochromatic. Employees enter through a generous lower-level congregating area, and up to a day-lit central atrium via a sculptural stair. The facility is designed to optimize the maneuvering, storage, and maintenance of the bus fleet and to promote
overlap and exchange between blue- and white-collar personnel, in an almost political gesture of collegiality represented through architecture."

car wash bay


"In contrast to the conventional garage, the bus station interiors are bright white, helping to facilitate both wellness and cleanliness. Such bold and precise architecture, executed at all scales, offers dignity and respect to Edmonton’s transit employees and pride in its fleet."

gabion walls covering equipment


They even build these gabion walls to hide the usual ugly mechanical equipment that surrounds this kind of building. In an article titled "Infrastructure should be more than functional. It should be beautiful," Ottawa architect Toon Dreessen explained why we should design and build our public realm with more care.

"All too often, our physical infrastructure is designed to function for the short term. Sidewalks fail, roads are quickly potholed and poorly detailed concrete cracks, breaks and becomes an eyesore. When well-designed infrastructure becomes a place for beauty and quality, it enhances our built environment and creates a canvas for art and creative expression. We can leave a better legacy for future generations by ensuring that what we build today remembers the people who will be paying for it. We need to combine the political will to enforce existing legislation with a public demand for more beautiful places, and think smarter about how we plan, design and build the infrastructure we need in our communities."
Nick Grant

Nick Grant

Another commenter to that tweet about the signal box said, "Two of the worst words in the English language are ‘value’ and ‘engineering’. Responsible for so much dispiriting design." But this is not necessarily true. Infrastructure doesn't have to be cheap and ugly. As we learned from engineer Nick Grant, value engineering doesn't have to be a dirty word; you just have to get in there at the beginning and all work together to get simplicity, practicality, proportion, and elegance, as demonstrated once again by Pat Hanson and gh3*.

View Article Sources
  1. "Kathleen Andrews Transit Garage / gh3*." ArchDaily.

  2. Press Kit provided to Treehugger