A/D/O by MINI | Architecture and the Electric Vehicle

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Architecture

Architecture and the Electric Vehicle

From charging stations that function as social hubs to homes that envelop your car, how dramatically will EVs change our built environment?

Experts have long been predicting the death of the gas station. When electric cars go mainstream, it is imagined that people will be able to charge their vehicles at home, at work or when they are parked up on the street, using charging ports integrated into bollards and streetlights. There’s even the idea that, one day, inductive charging pads in the road will power up your car while you’re stuck at the stoplights.

However this infrastructure is nowhere near ready. According to research from the International Energy Agency, the number of electric vehicles on the roads surpassed five million in 2018, yet the number of publicly available charging points was just over half a million, and a fair number of these are located in filling stations. So it’s unlikely we’ll see this building typology disappear any time soon.

The big challenge for the filling station, of course, is that there is no quick fix when it comes to refueling electric cars. A full charge typically takes 30 minutes with a supercharger, and without it can take around five hours, which is far longer than any sane person wants to spend at a BP or Shell garage. But what if the filling station had a lot more to offer than just coffee and fast food? Maybe there’s an opportunity here for a new type of architecture?

“A car charging station must provide an answer for what drivers will do while they are waiting for their cars to be ready to return to the road,” said architect Kyle Graham. As part of a team at Ennead Architects in New York, Graham developed the concept for the Charging Tower, a multi-story charging hub designed to take the place of inner-city gas stations.

Originally developed for Shanghai, Ennead’s design centers around the idea that drivers might want to leave their car charging while they experience the city. Not only could local shops and restaurants benefit from this captive audience, Graham suggests, but museums and cultural venues too. “As drivers wait, they will look to be entertained, fed and engaged – tasks that gas stations are ill-suited to fulfilling,” he said. “This provides an incredible opportunity to rethink the modern-day filling station as a social hub that is rife with commercial and cultural opportunity.”

This idea makes perfect sense in the city, but problems arise when you try to apply it to roadside gas stations, as Copenhagen studio COBE did with its charging stations for energy providers Clever and E.ON, currently being rolled out across Scandinavia.

The answer, explains studio founder Dan Stubbergaard, is to make the charging stations experiences in themselves. His design is for sculptural wooden “trees”, set amongst planting, play spaces and scenic seating areas. There are even plans to add a yoga space in one. The structures are also designed to be eco-friendly – they can easily be taken apart and reassembled in a new location, or recycled after use.

“We left all our knowledge of car aesthetics and highway architecture behind us in this project and created something completely different,” explained Stubbergaard. “We said it's not about only recharging your car, it’s also about recharging yourself.”

Stubbergaard recently took his own family on a driving holiday to Italy in an electric car. He learned that charging has already become a social activity for electric vehicle owners, even though the uninspiring architecture of the average service station does little to facilitate it. The architect is now exploring more ways for his charging stations to foster conversation and interaction. “This social space is needed,” he said. It is not difficult to imagine these new waystations developing into destinations in their own right, in the same way that Las Vegas evolved from a cluster of casinos into a major city.

The idea that electric vehicle charging stations could fuel tourism is one that urban design studio WXY has been investigating. The New York-based studio has designed a “green tourism” app that promotes electric vehicle rental in the Hudson Valley and Catskills mountains through travel packages and deals. The concept has proved so popular that the state is installing charging ports at 10 new locations in the region.

According to WXY managing principal Adam Lubinsky, one of the most exciting things that electric vehicles offer is their ability to function as batteries for buildings. This opens up a realm of possibilities in tourism, with the idea that your car could provide power to, for instance, a remote cabin in the middle of a forest. But it also raises questions about the future relationship between your car and your home, particularly if you add autonomous driving technology into the equation.

“If you don’t have to drive the car, then it can be outfitted more as an office or entertainment space for example,” said Lubinsky. “As a result, the EV car could theoretically be integrated into the architectural programming of the home, and something that is used after commuting is completed.”

Automotive companies have already cottoned onto the idea – there are several concepts flying around that see cars functioning as an extra room in the home. With seats that can be rotated to face one another, these spaces could serve a range of uses.

As autonomous technologies become more sophisticated, there is also a chance that electric vehicles could replace some existing building typologies. Copenhagen-based research studio Space10 has developed a concept that sees small vehicles take on seven different functions. The designs include a single hotel room, a mobile clinic and a farm on wheels, all controlled via a digital app.

The idea may seem far-fetched, but it is based entirely around technologies that already exist. Space10’s creative director Bas van de Poel believes these technologies could have a profound impact on urban environments. “If you look at a city like LA, a big chunk of this city is dedicated to parking lots,” he explained. “But with these autonomous vehicle scenarios, you can park all of your fleet outside the city and free up this parking space for other purposes.” It could mean more space for housing, or maybe even urban agriculture.

Space10’s concept is purely speculative, but it opens up a whole new set of questions. For instance, if the car became a hotel room, does it become more preferable for a long-distance journey than a plane ride? “These ripple effects are quite difficult to predict,” added Van de Poel, “but they will have a huge impact on everyday life.” It’s hard to argue with him.

Architecture is not the only design discipline that will need to morph itself to accommodate electric vehicles. Infrastructure, branding, UX design, and other methods of transport will all undergo an overhaul, as the EV gains dominance and continues to impact daily life.

This series of articles exploring the impact of electric-vehicle technology was created to celebrate the launch of the MINI Cooper SE.

Text by Amy Frearson.

Images of COBE's Ultra-Fast Charging Station by Rasmus Hjortshøj.

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