Another Way To Improve EV Charging Stations: Architecture

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When it comes to improving EV charging stations, how well they work gets most of the attention. A station could have the ugliest stalls possible, but if it works, that’s what matters the most. Other convenience and comfort factors, like pull-thru stalls, access to bathrooms and food/drink, and shade canopies come in a close second. But, there’s a factor I hadn’t considered much until I came across this YouTube video: architecture. And, by architecture, I’m not talking about things like software and charging hardware. I’m literally talking about the built environment.

At present, the architecture of EV charging stations basically sucks. It’s often located in places like the middle of a Walmart parking lot, or even at the back. They often don’t have any shade, and they don’t look pretty (with the possible exception of the chargers themselves. The cabinet and other electrical equipment is often hidden behind an ugly sheet-metal wall, or just left out in the open.

Compared to gas stations, EV charging stations are generally pretty unrefined. Gas stations and truck stops have been developing and competing on the market for almost a century, and they’re the product of many lessons learned. People want shade and protection from rain and snow. They want at least some welcoming landscaping near the street. There should also be easy to access amenities and the overall environment should feel safe.

But, cramming EV charging stations into a typical gas station isn’t a great fit. EV charging takes longer than filling up a gas tank, so the amenities and location does need to be different in key ways to make the station attractive. The biggest one I can think of is probably better amenities (meals vs snacks, a nice place to sit and walk around). But, some of the lessons from gas stations will apply, and it’s going to take time to determine which of them will apply and which will fail us.

In the video, Stewart Hicks explains that this matters now because we need to make the overall EV driving experience attractive to potential buyers. If they see a really cool hangout from the road when they drive by it, that’s a plus. If EV charging looks dreary and maybe even dangerous, that’s going to hold EV adoption back.

After going through some of the basics of EV charging, he gives some suggestions from an architectural and design perspective that could improve the overall experience.

First off, he points out that gas stations are pretty different underground from EV charging stations. Instead of a few wired, gas stations have big underground tanks. This leads economically-efficient gas station design towards compactness and closeness to the little convenience store. EV charging stations, on the other hand, allow some more flexibility in design, allowing station designers more leeway to prioritize aesthetics (even if only a little).

A long time ago, gas stations were a lot like EV charging stations today, and from my experience he’s right to call them utilitarian, machine-focused enterprises. Older defunct gas stations in my hometown tended to just have a few pumps in the open air next to an ugly cinderblock building, but even with the lowest prices in town, these stations still failed. The other human considerations simply weren’t considered as they should have, and companies that did it right thrived.

The video then explains that there’s an architectural term for repeatable designs that work: building type, or typology. If we look at today’s successful gas stations, we see the canopy, the pumps, the small side building, and a big sign with gas prices.

As a side note, I’ve seen variants of this that failed. For example, a Walmart gas station in Silver City, New Mexico used to be located right next to a KFC restaurant. The overall layout lead people to naturally believe that the KFC was the gas station’s convenience store, so people would go in to use the restroom. But, the store’s owner and immature assistant managers were angered by all this restroom use by people who weren’t paying customers. So, they rudely demanded 50 cents from people for using the restroom. The store went out of business.

That’s the power of architecture. We get so used to these building typologies and set our expectations based on them. If they’re common, we’ll make assumptions based on them. But, it’s possible to make creative changes that live up to proven architectural themes. Canopies can be different, buildings can be different (or better), and they can even look like works of art.

EV charging is going to be pretty different, so the typology is still being established. Big signs with electricity prices are probably not needed, because the car’s navigation or an app helps you find the station and its prices. Driving around and hoping for a charge on a road trip is a surefire way to get stranded in 2023. There’s also no need for an attendant, as payment usually happens with an app or via an automatic deduction from your debit or credit card.

So, there are definitely opportunities for experimentation and even creativity at this point in the EV adoption process. The video shows some creative ways people have played on the basic theme to see if they can improve upon it. It’s even possible to make them look good and contribute to the overall look of the area.

A competition was held for architects to design creative and desirable EV charging stations. The results in the video were pretty nice, even if some of them were a little avant-garde. Creative amenities, including workout rooms and other nice things, are now being considered. Outdoor recreation can even be integrated into the experience to make it healthier and happier. Solar panels are often a nice way to add a green look to the experience.

This will matter more when there are stations competing all over. Today, many places only have one charging station, so people don’t have a choice. But, when people can choose whether to go to the nice charging station and the ugly and bad one, the better stations are probably going to win out. Even more importantly, whole towns might get skipped over if they don’t have a nice charging station.

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.

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