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Water is Life

Advanced water treatment plant gives water a public face with a modern design aesthetic.

By Henry Burke

“Water is life.” The proud slogan of DC Water, the District of Columbia Water and Sewage Facility, may seem fairly obvious at first. Everyone knows that water is a vital resource, but few take the time to appreciate just what that means. On a micro level, each of us needs clean, fresh water to survive. On a macro level, the delivery of clean water and evacuation and treatment of dirty water is one of the most important features of human society.

In spite of its importance, water is a very easy thing to take for granted. When the tap is turned on, we expect water to come out. But as recent drought conditions in California have so clearly highlighted, water management isn’t simple. As populations grow and water resources become increasingly stretched, major metropolitan areas rely on complex systems to ensure safe water and sanitation for their citizens. Wastewater treatment plants are a big part of those strategies.

In the nation’s capital, DC Water shoulders a big part of that water management strategy. It receives and treats wastewater collected from the Washington, D.C., sewer system, as well as from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. More than 330 million gallons of raw sewage flow into DC Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant from area jurisdictions each day. The plant discharges to the Potomac estuary, and DC Water is required to meet some of the most stringent National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System standards in the country.

“The Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant covers 150 acres on the bank of the Potomac River on the southernmost tip of the District of Columbia,” says Randy A. Morrison, project manager with Fairfax, Virginia–based Samaha, the design firm tasked with giving a facelift to the DC Water Treatment Plant. “This project was deemed a ‘gateway’ project by D.C. regulatory agencies due to its high visibility upon entry to the nation’s capital. Samaha worked closely with the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the D.C. Office of Planning during the design process.”

There has been a smooth working relationship between Samaha and DC Water for quite some time, and that familiarity came through in this very collaborative project. “Samaha has been providing DC Water with architectural design services for more than ten years, at Blue Plains and other DC Water sites around the District,” Morrison says.

While the facility’s main role is a very functional one and its primary focus is treating the District’s wastewater, Samaha was brought on to explore another dimension of the building’s expression. It needed to interact with the community to better inform and educate local residents about the importance of the work that is done there.

“One primary goal of the project was to represent the face of DC Water and Blue Plains to the public,” Morrison says. “The building serves as the primary entry point for all visitors to the plant. The visitor center includes interpretive exhibits that educate the public about water treatment and DC Water’s role as a steward of natural resources.”

To help attract positive attention to the facility and public interest in what the organization does, the building needed to look the part. The building needed to reflect the aspirational spirit of DC Water, and metal helped achieve the desired look. The project utilized CENTRIA Formawall® Dimension Series® insulated core metal wall panels and Profile Series Exposed Fastener Profiles BR5-36. Custom colors were used on both products.

“The custom color panels that CENTRIA was able to provide enabled the architecture to incorporate DC Water’s official branding color scheme,” Morrison explains. “The metal panels also provide a sleek, modern design aesthetic that contrasts successfully with the brick patterns we borrowed from some of the historic Art Deco buildings on the site. DC Water wanted this building to project an eye to the future with a nod to the past.”

With conservation at the core of its mission, DC Water also wanted its wastewater treatment plant to embody its commitment to the environment. The highly recycled and recyclable nature of metal is part of the eco-friendly statement made by the building. “DC Water wanted this building to illustrate sustainability through architectural example,” Morrison explains. “The project incorporates a vegetated roof, solar panels, and other green design features.”

One of the largest, most advanced wastewater treatment facilities in the world, the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant is a point of pride for the District. The design team is pleased that it has been so well received in the community. “We have received nothing but positive feedback on this project,” Morrison says.

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