Electric Oasis: Turning Mundane into Marvelous

The electric vehicle revolution is ramping up, so what better time than now to reimagine charging stations? One small startup’s prize-winning concept shows us a singularly creative possibility.

By Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor

Electric Oasis features graceful steel canopies with fine mesh that offers shade and filters light. CREDIT: Level Studio

With electric vehicles (EVs) poised to flood the car-buying market, more charging stations are popping up, and conventional gas stations and even retail stores are adding charging capacity. A recent study by Wood Mackenzie (https://tinyurl.com/public-ev-charging-market) predicts the number of Level 2 charging ports in the U.S. and Canada will increase thirtyfold by 2050, and the entire charging infrastructure may soon be expedited by the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act.

Architectural designer Lexi White and her colleagues, architects Jeffrey Lee and Christopher Taurasi, founding partners of Level Studio Architecture, are seizing the moment, mixing engineering with art and design in the form of a charging station. Their concept, Electric Oasis, is the winner of the American Institute of Steel Construction’s 2023 Forge Prize.

CREDIT: Level Studio

From dreary errand to destination experience

It takes about seven minutes to fill up a gas tank, and it’s nobody’s favorite task. “Our primary goal with Electric Oasis was to figure out how to transform the typical gas station experience,” White said. “Gas stations are kind of banal. You smell spilled gas; you don’t want to be there that long. Maybe the heat of the asphalt is reflecting back up at you. You go inside and there’s junk food, coffee, an ATM, and bathrooms. I would say it’s not the greatest experience.”

Electric Oasis gives people alternatives to simply waiting in the car while it charges (up to 4.5 hours for a Level 2 station). Its tree-like canopies made of structural steel covered with fine mesh fan out, offering shade and filtering light throughout the station’s understory of planted areas and benches. A floating walkway winds up and around the structure, offering views and a chance to stretch and exercise. Paths connect to three “resiliency hubs,” modular buildings that can house anything from small shops and concessions to a fitness room or drop-in health care clinic. The hubs’ roofs have solar panels, which in turn generate electricity for charging vehicles.

White and her colleagues impressed the Forge Prize judges, particularly Melanie Harris, national healing practice director for BSA LifeStructures. “You’ve taken something very mundane that we give not a second thought to usually and injected a certain level of magic — not just waiting for the charging, but also what you can do with that time,” she said during the team’s final presentation. “We’re all looking for efficiencies in our life these days, and the last thing we want to do is wait around and do nothing while we wait for our cars to charge.”

Lexi White, architect and founding partner, Level Studio.

Materials affect how we experience a space

“As a society, we value the visual the most, especially due to all the technology around us,” White said. “But our whole bodies, all of our senses are in contact with the materials in our environment. Sunlight hitting a certain type of material is going to reflect energy back to you. You might feel warm, or you might feel cold. That’s sensory perception. What are the sounds? In a marble hall, there’s a lot of echo hitting you. How does that affect the way you interact in the space?”

White considers the materials used in a project as a precursor to how she approaches design. Then come all the requirements and limitations. “Architecture has a million constraints on it,” she said. “You have all the codes to meet, the physics constraints, the client’s requirements. There’s just a tiny kind of window to inject design or art and aesthetics. So capitalizing on those constraints for me is where design happens.”

Competing for the Forge Prize meant designing with steel, an unfamiliar medium for White and her colleagues, who are more accustomed to working with timber structures. “We really had to expand our understanding of what goes into fabricating steel structures,” White said. “But it has amazing properties. If you break steel down into smaller pieces, it can be perceived as lightweight, airy. We also used it as a sun-shading strategy — how does that affect the light passing through it, to make a better experience on the ground? Does the canopy filter wind, and does that make a sound? We designed a ramp structure that gives a feeling of being up on an elevated, floating pathway. It winds through and up, opening up different vistas.”

Electric Oasis is highly modular, saving money and time by making it simpler to transport from the manufacturer and easier to assemble on the building site. “We came up with five different modules that are all in the same sort of family,” White said. “We designed it for variability, to avoid its feeling too standardized. We want it to give people a sense of wonder and exploration.”

While Electric Oasis is designed for arid, sunny climates, White sees it being adaptable to different regions and climate conditions. “On our selected site in California, we saw it primarily as a shading device, but those materials in an ideal world could change,” she said. “We could swap the steel mesh that shades and filters light with a tensile fabric, or something solid that allows for rainwater collection into tanks. The canopy shape really lends itself to that.”

White noted that the steel canopies could also be converted to a green armature with photovoltaics added for urban areas, like a smaller version of Singapore’s colossal steel “supertrees” — stunning vertical gardens that also generate solar power.

Nearly as interesting as what’s going on above ground in Electric Oasis is what’s planned for below. Level Studio’s idea is to make gas-contaminated soil remediation — a major block to developing on the site of former gas stations in California — a permanent part of the new structure, and a process that could theoretically begin during construction.

Not your cookie-cutter charging station: Electric Oasis, winner of the American Institute of Steel Construction’s 2023 Forge Prize. CREDIT: Level Studio

The future begins with “what if?”

On the dream New York State Thruway of the future, electric cars and trucks purr along, quiet and emissions-free — no fumes, no loud diesel engines. Still, we’re human and need rest and food on long drives, and EVs need recharging. The classic rest stop will be with us for a long time to come.

It’s fun to imagine Electric Oasis replacing cookie-cutter turnpike buildings, even if better technology eventually drops charging time to a fraction of what it is now. “I still think it’s an opportunity,” White said. “When you need 20-30 minutes at a rest stop, there’s a chance to change the road trip or commuter experience from one of being isolated and tired to one of maybe working out in a fitness area or taking an interesting walk. It’s about making public spaces more human-centric rather than removing human interaction, which is the infrastructure we have now. Maybe it’s imaginative and wishful thinking for that to happen, but I believe there’s a place for this design.”

Aspirational design will always have a place in engineering’s heart, especially when in service to people’s sense of well-being. It sparks innovation — imagination and skill, curiosity, and an interesting problem to solve. “We put a lot of work into this, and it would be great if something real comes of it, too,” White said. “With something so technical, you might not get all the way there, but you’ll get a lot farther than if you had never put it on the table.”