black and white sketch of building structure with drawing hand
The calibre and scope of projects submitted through the design competition herald in the future of the highway charging experience.

With just a few days before the Design Awards winners are announced on February 1, two preeminent Canadian architects and jury members discuss what the best concepts tell us about the future of electric road trips

At this stage of the world’s transition to electrification, almost anything is possible in terms of what charging infrastructure of the future will look, feel and act like.

It’s on this blank canvas that Electric Autonomy Canada, in partnership with Parkland Corp., launched Canada’s first Design Awards for the electric fuelling station of the future last August.

Five months and over 100 entries from around the world later and, on February 1, we will get some answers as to what that future of charging holds. A 10-person jury panel chose the designs that best capture what purpose-built EV refuelling stations can look like.

Ahead of the announcement, Electric Autonomy Canada sat down with two leading members of the jury panel. The exclusive interview explores their insights and predictions about reimagining design for the transition to electrified transportation.

“I think what drew so many designers is the shared interest of developing a less carbon dependent future.”

Bruce Kuwabara, Founding Partner KPMB Architects and Design Awards jurist

“The competition had tremendous global interest,” says Bruce Kuwabara, founding partner of KPMB Architects in Toronto and Design Awards jury member. “I think what drew so many designers is the shared interest of developing a less carbon dependent future.”

A global call to action

The awards challenge was this: design the fuelling station of the future for Canada. Designers must take a perfunctory necessity of a combustion engine vehicle — pumping gas — and reimagine it as an enjoyable and core part of a journey by electric vehicle.

Headshot of Bruce Kuwabara
Bruce Kuwabara, founding partner of KPMB Architects.

“The designers understood the different duration of time and how that time would be used to recharge the people as opposed to vehicles. Everyone in the competition expanded that to create places of rest,” says Kuwabara.

“It’s about human experience and it’s about a connection to nature — and, by the way, it’s a charging station.”

Claire Weisz is an Alberta-born architect and urban designer. She is principal-in-charge at WXY Studio in New York and member of the Design Awards jury. For Weisz, the collision between form, function and future infrastructure that the competition encapsulates is an inevitable evolution given today’s climate.

“Through this pandemic, to me, the whole competition was just so timely for reasons that may not have been predicted at the beginning,” says Weisz.

“Before the pandemic there was an assumption that you would travel and there was an assumption about the reasons you would travel. I think that with a climate crisis, with the leaps in acceptance of electrical as being a good thing for all countries and with this awareness of how our social ties — our connections to places — are becoming frayed. Travelling is now something you have to think through before you do it. Once you get out of your car, you have to be somewhere in order for people to feel like it was worth it.”

Charging vehicles, restoring community

Participants imagined the charging stations of the future in all shapes and sizes. There are a variety of configurations, shapes and prominence in the landscape. Some designs accounted for individual vehicles, others for micro-mobility and a few for heavy-duty transport or public transit. The buildings incorporate engineered timber, concrete, steel. Many included sustainable features like rainwater collection and solar panels to help power the commercial facilities.

“There are pavilions and freestanding buildings and some are multi-story. Some are circular, some are grids and some are linear,” says Kuwabara. “But they will take their place in architectural history.”

Still, there was one common thread throughout every design: turning the act of charging into a reason to build community.

“The electric charging station is not only about the customer experience, but the social and cultural experience.”

Claire Weisz, principal-in-charge WXY Studio and Design Awards jurist

“I think the nice thing about competitions is that they also raise consciousness,” says Weisz. “The electric charging station is not only about the customer experience, but the social and cultural experience.”

An electric connection

So what should that meeting point where functionality is the catalyst for gathering and community look like? Depends who is designing, but the touchstone of the future of design, Kuwabara and Weisz say, seems to be inclusivity.

“There was one theme of kind of ‘under one roof,’ that was that was pretty prevalent,” says Kuwabara. “The paradigm has shifted, not just in terms of electric, but in terms of accessibility. There’s a much greater demand for making environments where everybody can enjoy exactly the same connection. There’s a convergence of, and a shift in, societal needs — what people want. We’re not looking for the same things as we were looking for 25 years ago, that’s for sure.”

headshot of Claire Weisz
Claire Weisz, Principal-in-charge at WXY Studio. Photo: Sioux Nesi

The instinct among the designers to leverage the fuelling station of the future as a communal space speaks to architecture filling a psychological need.

“A charging station could be the faster charge or servicing, or, it could be a social space to connect to other people,” says Weisz. “I think that’s really what the next generation is looking for and I would say, from an intergenerational point of view, all people as they age need it more and more. This could be a real mixing of people.”

A design to last

The signal from awards entrants is that the motivation behind design has firmly entered a new era. Whether it’s due to a COVID-epoch or an evolution in architectural priorities, the electric fuelling station of the future will need to imbue a timelessness to ensure its relevance 25 or more years into the future.

Kuwabara describes the next-generation creativity the Design Awards harnessed as, “kind of a slice into a moment…a complete shift in values representing ushering in a whole new modern way of life.”

It’s the intersection of these issues that makes the Design Awards relevant. And across all the sectors, not just transportation or architecture, says Weisz.

It’s also what makes judging the entries such a complex undertaking. These decisions are not just about one competition, or one winner or one design — it’s feedback about standards that will dictate the future.

“You have an opportunity with the fact that you don’t have the same toxic environment you’re charging in [as gas stations] to actually have a different message about what the value of these places are,” says Weisz.

“Juries are an amazing opportunity when they’re about problems that are not just in an architect’s bailiwick or an engineer’s or a car manufacturer’s mandate. When they’re a shared problem, you get the opportunity to talk to people on all sides of this issue. It’s exciting to think about ‘what’s the next step?'”

The winners of the Design Awards will be announced February 1, 2022. Registration for the live event and reveal is here.