Past, Present and Future Converge to Ride the Rapids at Transit Facility
For centuries, the west Michigan river rapids slowed the salmon for the spears of the Ottawa tribe. They marked the site of Ottawa villages, where beaver, mink, marten and muskrat were trapped for the fur trade and transported by canoes that traversed the state’s longest river. They helped speed the progress of a city bearing their name. Then, slowed and finally stopped by that same progress, the grand rapids disappeared, existing only in name.
Now the rapids have returned. Reincarnated in steel and fabric and polycarbonate, they serve another civilization with another form of transportation.
Past, present and future converge in architect Progressive AE’s design of The Rapid Central Station bus terminal for the Interurban Transit Partnership in Grand Rapids. Constructed on a reclaimed brownfield site after extensive remediation, the terminal is the first U.S. transportation facility to receive LEED® certification. The complex, opened in June 2004, combines its station with a canopied platform symbolic of yesterday’s swirling rapids.
The station building, equipped with highly sophisticated electronic security, integrates many green, environmentally friendly features in its 51,000 square feet. Huge bands of low-E glass flood both levels with natural light, shaded from direct sunlight by deep, dramatic overhangs. In the lobby and waiting area, recycled glass aggregates form the terrazzo floors. The structure also incorporates recycled steel and concrete, plus state-of-the-art heating and ventilating systems.
Capping Progressive’s green design is a roof covered with a carpet of low-maintenance sedum that requires only minor irrigation and fertilization to continuously replenish itself. The architect says this is the country’s only transit facility to incorporate the benefits of a green roof, an environmental concept as old as ancient Mesopotamia, common in Europe and increasingly prevalent in U.S. green building design.
The benefits of the station’s single-layer “extensive” green roof are many. A major one is stormwater management much needed in crowded urban settings, reducing runoff and pollution. Another is energy efficiency gained with reduced heating and cooling loads for the building.
Strong horizontal planes mark the station’s design, a sharp contrast yet perfect complement to the platform, where “the rapids” once again create an unparalleled landmark.
Here a single, undulating, multilevel canopy soars and sweeps, capturing yesterday’s speed, thrill and dynamics of “riding the rapids” for today’s travelers. It covers the platform’s pavement, designed as a winding river of blue tile, complete with symbolic sandbars. And against the night sky, a dynamic programmed fiber- optic sequence flows colors from one end of the canopy to the other, creating an earth-bound aurora borealis to complement the rapids.
“We wanted a public gathering place for the city, a place to enliven people. We owed customers a place that is pleasant, safe and convenient, yet we wanted to transcend all that with a place that touches the spirit and builds loyalty to public transportation,” explains senior architect James Vander Molen, AIA, of Progressive AE. That meant a place without the depressing darkness common to many bus stations. His challenge was creating all this for such a large area, covering 1.25 acres with bays for 17 buses.
Vander Molen says the client wanted to make those who use public transportation say “Wow! They did this for me!” and those who don’t yet say “Maybe I should think about this.”
It was important to his client that patrons maintain a visual connection to the light from the sky. And the fumes created by the buses had to be addressed.
Vander Molen exchanged an initial concept of several small island canopies for a single 100-foot-wide, 600-foot-long, twotiered structure. The sprawling canopy achieves the architect’s goals with a unconventional mix of materials.
To filter light and create visual waves, Vander Molen wanted tension fabric. However, this is typically used in a tent configuration, and he needed a linear configuration to mimic the river’s rapids. Taiyo Birdair Corporation of Amherst, New York, customcreated a Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric with tension strength of 15,000 psi for the canopy’s surface. The fabric was specially patterned, cut and woven to suit his design. The canopy’s height ranges from 14 feet to 45 feet.
Vander Molen separated the two-tiered fabric waves with clerestory space to project light into the platform and help play the curves against one another. He knew exactly what he wanted to glaze the clerestory: translucent polycarbonate.
“Not fiberglass because it’s too opaque. Not glass because its transparency would have baked the interior, and creating curves with it would have been outrageously expensive. The translucent polycarbonate is far superior; it’s light yet strong and I knew it would be perfect for this,” the architect says.
He wanted structural 25mm clear multiwall polycarbonate glazing. Duo-Gard engineers designed a new custom interlocking aluminum framing system for the glazing to allow curving at the top and bottom of the panels, which are all 4 feet wide, ranging in height from 6 inches to 14 feet. The panels had to be mounted on the inside after the fabric was in place, requiring a special steel tab system that attached to the canopy’s steel tube structure.
Air flow and bus exhaust fumes had to be considered. Vander Molen wanted louvers in the clerestory to vent the fumes, but he didn’t like the look of metal. Miller suggested a better concept: “I knew we could design a louver system of polycarbonate that would functionally solve the exhaust issue without compromising the visual integrity of the clerestory system.” Miller worked with Duo-Gard engineer Shawn Tucker to design a series of 3 ˝-foot-wide sections with 6-inch-long stationary louvers in 16mm clear triplewall polycarbonate.
“In the daytime, the sunbeams refracted by the glazing cells provide light and a look that’s refreshing,” says Vander Molen. “At night, the fiber optics are spectacular as they interact with the prismatic cells of the polycarbonate panels. This was a perfect fit of product to design.”
He says the space beneath the canopy provides a pleasant area of relief for patrons who sit and wait for the buses. Landscape islands feature skeletal metal “trees” with living, twining vines of clematis, Boston ivy and morning glories to create greenery. Ground covers, hedges, junipers, azaleas and rhododendrons provide seasonal beauty among the benches and information kiosks.
“The client wanted a waiting environment that refreshes the soul as it conveys a spirit of excitement and efficiency today and a sense of what the future of public transportation can be,” Vander Molen says. That future may well include commuter light-rail plus an interstate rail link; the canopy and platform were designed to accommodate this potential. There’s no doubt Progressive’s design achieved its goals. The project has won awards from local and state AIA chapters, as well as the Engineering Society of Detroit.
Public response has been dramatic, adds Vander Molen: “Quite simply, people love the canopy.”
And perhaps when the buses are silent and the wind whistles softly, today’s fast-paced travelers may take time to imagine the rush of the vanished rapids and the glint of the sun on the oncewild river.