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Architecture Students Apply Creativity to Fargo Bus Shelters

Posted: Feb 17, 2005

In wintertime Fargo, the wind slices out of the northwest almost constantly. Snow and sleet ride the wind horizontally and below-zero temps add bite. Transit riders here know bus shelters aren't just about convenience and comfort, they're about survival.

Most of Fargo's bus shelters are unheated plastic and steel structures. They're durable and functional – but not much else. Last fall at North Dakota State University, Jill Hough was working on surveys to determine the demand for enhanced bus service on campus. Each time she passed those shelters, she knew there was much more potential. Hough is on the staff of the University's Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, an interdisciplinary unit dedicated to addressing transportation issues in the region. She directs the institute's two-year-old Small Urban & Rural Transit Center, a program that focuses on enhancing mobility for people living on the region's farms and in smaller towns and cities.

Hough approached architecture instructor Shannon McDonald and proposed inviting students to design the bus shelters.

"We thought it would be great if we could develop some state-of-the-art shelters that really reflected well on NDSU," says Hough. The students accepted the challenge. Later, when Hough's burgeoning program received a federal grant for bus facilities, the students were already at work on the designs. The federal investment guarantees that at least one of the new shelters will be built.

"A little tiny project like a bus shelter may not seem very interesting," McDonald says. "But it allows us to go into an extreme level of detail. We had only six weeks to work on the project which, in school time, is a very brief amount."

Class Is in Session

Each semester of the architecture program at North Dakota State University has a specific focus. McDonald's third-year studio course was the student's first exposure to structure.

"We began by looking at structures and their relationship to nature," McDonald says. "Designing bus stops brought our focus back to construction and to the real world."

The prospect that one or more of the designs might actually be built was a powerful motivator for students, McDonald says. "It allowed them to move through the evolution from an imaginary concept to something that might be built."

That's a sentiment echoed by students, including Chryso Onisiforou. "For the first time we would be working with a real client," says Onisiforou. "Before, we dealt with projects on a large scale. Now we would be working on a small scale. We understand what the project is to be and what its function would be."

Onisiforou, a student from the Greek island of Cyprus, was one of the few in the class intimately acquainted with mass transit. "I have no car and take the bus a lot. I see all the different people on the bus and at the stops and see a different perspective than some of the other students."

"The first thing that caught my attention was all of these different people who come together, but have to share the same space," she recalls. "That became the basis of my design. What is it in our nature that makes us all the same?"

Jennifer Burke's backgroundis more typical. She grew up on a ranch near Bowman in Western North Dakota. Her first exposure to transit was riding the school bus to the one-room school house where she attended elementary school. She and her design partner, Mark Schlanser, carefully studied bus stops, buses and passengers.

"We wanted to keep the parts that worked well and focus on the parts that didn't," she recalls. "This project was very different in that it was so realistic. With the seed of potential that this project may be built, we learned so much more."

The architecture students seized upon the notion that this was not merely an idle exercise. In the end, something lasting would be built. It was a chance to make an impact on the campus that would last beyond the student's years.

"That fact that this might be built definitely makes you take an early lead in the design," says Daniel McGinnis, a student from Yankton, S.D. "Most students took this to a very professional level, knowing that there's going to be a panel reviewing your project. You want them to understand that you are serious about the project."

"Our goal was to create something different, a notable landmark," McGinnis says. "We were to reinvent the archetypal bus stop."

Some of the students took a more academic approach, while other - likely those who had experience riding buses- put themselves in the shoes of passengers and tried to meet their specific needs.

"It was clear which students came at this project purely from an architectural perspective and which students combined that with the perspective of a regular user," notes Bruce Fuchs, transit program manager for the North Dakota Department of Transportation. "The best designs considered safety, functionality and maintenance as well as innovation."

"The more simplistic, practical designs came from regular transit users. They seemed to understand the functionality factor; the placement of the shelter in relation to visually seeing the bus arriving and departing was critical, but it was interesting to me that this point was missed by a few groups," says Julie Bommelman, transit administrator for the City of Fargo.

And the Winner Is...

Fuchs, Bommelman and Hough served on the panel that evaluated the students' efforts and selected the top designs. Other members of the panel included Gary Smith, chair of the construction management department at NDSU; Wade Kline, a community planner with the Fargo Moorhead Council of Governments; Mark Shaul, a local architect; and Tim Lee, Chief of Police at North Dakota State: and Gary Hegland and Del Peterson, researchers with the Small Urban & Rural Transit Center.

"The technology suggestions were outstanding," Bommelman says. "The GPS tracking and real-time bus locations were great ideas that we would love to implement someday, if our budget will allow."

Similarly, Fuchs noted innovations that could improve transit in throughout North Dakota. "The competition brought to the table some innovations that address some of the design challenges of putting up a shelter in North Dakota as opposed to Florida. Here you have to deal with the cold and the wind." He was particularly impressed with Burke and Schlanser's idea of using steam to heat the benches in the shelter.

"I understand more clearly how students perceive transit and what we may want to target for improvements in our system. This particular generation is much more savvy and their expectations are higher. We want to make sure we do not overlook what would interest them," notes Bommelman.

Burke and Schlanser's first-place design included a familiar rectangular shape, but incorporated the steam-heated stainless steel seating, a real-time map showing bus routes and bus locations projected on to the shelter's glass walls. Louvers in the glass roof limited sun exposure during Fargo's hot summers. Accessibility for people with disabilitieswas a key component.

"This project was all about the details," Burke says.

McGinnis's second-place design took its initial design cues from an excavator bucket that had been converted into a bus stop in Norway. As his design evolved, he realized it was taking the stylized shape of a bison, the University mascot. He dubbed the shelter the Bison Stop. The design calls for bright aluminum and copper cladding and large windows. Amenities include a spacious interior with indoor/outdoor bench seating, a comfortable table and chairs, a computer kiosk, scrolling message center, voice automated announcements, a vending area and a video display.

"The bus shelter project was very helpful. For urban design, an understanding of mass transit is huge," says McGinnis.

Onisiforou's design did not place in the competition but was frequently cited by members of the judging panel for its creativity and striking appearance. "The supporting elements that penetrate the roof represent the ideal of humanity in different stages of development. Everything is so flat here that you feel the sky very heavy on your shoulders. The structure gives a contrast to that and creates an uplifting feeling," says Onisforou.

Other designs incorporated alternative energy sources and echoed design elements from dwellings once used by the Native Americans in the region. One featured a spiral design while another featured a coffee shop. One entrant, entitled Reaching out for Humanity, was in the shape of a giant hand.

"We tried to get students to push the envelope," says McDonald. "Part of their responsibility to a client is to do that, but the idea of the project being constructed inhibited, in most of the students, a way-out-there project. Part of the challenge was to get students to start to learn how to juggle those responsibilities. The challenge in an architecture office is meeting reality and the client's expectation while presenting something forward-thinking and innovative."

McDonald noted that as the students developed their designs, North Dakota State was renovating a historic commercial building in downtown Fargo, about a mile from campus, as an art and architecture campus.

"The students were already hearing that parking was not going to be available, so the perception that they would be using mass transit was very helpful."

In fact, some students asked if they could design bus stops specifically for the new downtown campus and then used design elements that complemented the site and historic building. This fall when the campus opened, the circulating buses that shuttle students from the main campus were fuller than planners anticipated.

Coming to a Corner Near You

Plans continue for some of the student designs to be built. Hough says cost estimates for several of the designs have been developed by Joanna Johnson, a student from the University's construction management department. Construction is expected in the coming year.

"With the project actually going into production, hopefully with the students' participation, they will be able to understand the full architectural cycle," McDonald says. "That will be very, very helpful to them. It will help these students decide if they're really in the right profession."

And sometime soon, when a group of North Dakota State students are huddled around their warm seats waiting for a campus bus in the cold Fargo winter, they'll have one of their own, and the Small Urban & Rural Transit Center to thank.

Published in the Community Transportation Magazine
Feb. 17, 2005

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