When architecture firm ZGF reached out to Landscape Forms’ Studio 431 for budgeting and engineering consultation on Montgomery County’s upcoming US 29 bus rapid transit project in Montgomery County, Maryland, they knew Studio 431 had the expertise to navigate the complexities of the public transportation arena. Studio 431 has engineered and manufactured many custom transit stations, including projects for TriMet, Portland Oregon’s transit agency. TriMet officials recommended ZGF reach out to Studio 431 for expertise.
The project is Montgomery County’s first foray into BRT. “BRT give riders the amenities, speed, and comfort of a light rail experience but with greater versatility and much lower installation costs,” explains Studio 431’s Darin Piippo. The County’s goals for the project called for the stations to be uniquely branded, accessible, safe and comfortable, all while offering a positive life cycle investment. The project was custom in every sense of the word, as each of the 17 station sites had unique elevations, grades, and dimensions, which all needed to be considered when engineering the individual station elements. The high degree of customization required close collaboration among ZGF, Montgomery County Department of Transportation, Studio 431, general contractor Concrete General, and engineering firm RK&K to meet the County’s goals and project schedule.
The station elements are modular, scalable, and share a design language, but vary in size and the number of components. Stations range in size from 24 to 75-foot long. Some have one overhead shelter, others three or four. Each station includes a marker that clearly identifies the station location and lights to signal arriving buses. “Every station has a common design, a repetition of canopies and signage. We didn’t want monolithic structures, but something with a rhythm and relationship to each other,” says ZGF project architect Chris Somma.
When Montgomery County officials enlisted the input of residents living along the BRT corridor for their views on how the bus system could reflect the community, residents noted the County’s connections to nature and the many outdoor opportunities it offered. Their input is reflected in ZGF’s design. “We sought to represent the various landscapes around the County,” says Somma. “We landed on an expression of the County’s rolling hillsides. The station shelters are reminiscent of tree canopies, with the lower structure branching out to hold the canopies. ZGF also introduced elements that related to the county’s natural resources. Granite on the benches and station markers pay homage to the county’s stone quarries, which supplied the stone for many of the Smithsonian buildings lining the National Mall.
The Flash BRT Stations are the first transit shelters in the U.S. to use cross-laminated timber, a structural and renewable resource, in its roof construction. The wood roof panels add a warm, inviting feel to transit design which often have a cold, industrial feel and reinforce ZGF’s nature-inspired design. Perforated stainless steel columns and benches add “a bit of a texture and a more organic, less prescribed pattern,” says Somma.
Safety and comfort are paramount in public transportation, so lighting was a critical element in the design of the stations. ZGF relied on Landscape Forms’ lighting expertise to integrate lighting into many of the stations’ components, including backlighting the structure’s columns.
“This was a complex project, and Studio 431 did a great job troubleshooting issues that couldn’t be solved unless they were the ones building the products.”
– Chris Somma, ZGF Project Architect
“Studio 431’s engineering knowledge helped tremendously,” says Somma. “They finalized tube and column sizing. They worked extensively on drainage solutions. They understood the goals of the County, they were transparent with decisions, and they added value. And, at the end of the day, they delivered our design.”
The project required a close working relationship with the stakeholders. Studio 431 stepped in to lead the weekly team meetings and shepherd the project through the many twists and turns and compromises that occurred along the way. “Montgomery County recognized this was its first BRT project and they needed to rely on a number of partners to make it happen. Involvement from the get-go with the different stakeholders is unusual in our business,” said Concrete General project manager Chris Kirsch. “There were lessons learned and issues raised during the project, but we worked through them all.”
Concrete General relied on Studio 431 for many of the things they’d learned from their portfolio of custom projects. “From Day 1, their understanding of the job and the client’s goals were clear,” says Kirsch.
“We couldn’t have pulled off this project without Studio 431.”
– Chris Kirch, Concrete General Project Manager
One of Studio 431’s mantras has always been to engineer and manufacture products with the end user and installer in mind. That approach is important to a general contractor, whose hope, says Kirsch, “is never to have to reinstall any components.”
“Studio 431 thinks about how to engineer products so they can be shipped, installed, and maintained while also maintaining the original design intent,” says Landscape Forms’ Matt Begeman, Studio 431’s Senior Project Manager throughout the project.
Designing for ease of installation and maintenance required a reasonable kit of parts, something that was difficult to achieve given the high level of customization for each of the 17 stations. ZGF’s Somma credits Studio 431 with defining the kit of parts and eventually narrowing the options to a handful of sizes.
Chris Kirsch notes that maintenance is a major consideration for transportation departments, and he appreciated how the Studio 431 team thought through a station design in which parts, not an entire station, could be replaced if needed. Studio 431 created tutorials and shared tips with the general contractor and installation teams on the process of installing the many components for each of the stations. “Studio 431’s knowledge of the installation process proved valuable to us and was integral in our success,” says Kirsch.
Studio 431’s many in-house capabilities were all enlisted for this project, and its level of expertise noted by the other stakeholders. “To work with one company offering engineering, estimating, purchasing, and manufacturing all coming from one place and with the ability to work with wood, welding, and powder coat in a well-equipped shop was amazing. Every one of Studio 431’s departments is a well-oiled machine, right down to its packaging team.”
Studio 431’s Darin Piippo sums up the project and the teamwork that made it a success. “We had the right people in the right seats on the bus, all travelling in the same direction.”
“The collaboration among the stakeholders was great. It always felt like a partnership.”
– Darin Piippo, Studio 431 Market Specialist