Car park as energy bank: Student
envisions garage of the future © June 1, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications

Fifth-year architecture studies major Brent Gardner designed a parking garage that allows a city to use electric car batteries to manage the energy grid during peak demand.

photo by Jordan Silverman, staffFifth-year architecture studies major Brent Gardner designed a parking garage that allows a city to use electric car batteries to manage the energy grid during peak demand.

During a yearlong effort to design a parking garage for the future, Brent Gardner became a believer in the electric car.

A 2012 Norwich University Master of Architecture recipient from Littleton, N.H., Gardner had always been passionate about cars. Like many people, he had given cars with electric engines little thought, discounting them as expensive and impractical. His opinion has changed, and he believes misgivings about driving range and price, as well as the influence of oil companies on national policy, can be overcome.

I didn’t want to just design a super-efficient, sustainable home. Because I’ve been doing that for three years.

Brent Gardner,
MArch graduate

“It’s doable,” said Gardner.

Gardner designed a conceptual parking garage that would be located in nearby Montpelier, Vermont, for his master’s thesis. The idea was to create something more useful than a convenient and attractive building for storing cars during work hours. His garage would be a participatory electrical storage unit that would allow the tiny capital city—located just 10 miles from Norwich’s Northfield campus—to better manage its power consumption.

“In a car’s life it is sitting 95 percent of the time,” said Gardner. “How can we use that energy when it’s just sitting there?”

In his concept, the garage will have multiple levels and room for hundreds of cars. Each space will have outlets that allow commuters to plug their vehicles into the city’s electrical grid. Montpelier would be able to draw on the charged car batteries during peak hours—10 a.m. to 3 p.m.—when it ordinarily has to seek power from sources many miles away.

Batteries would recharge as the strain on the electric grid diminishes after peak hours, preparing them for the drive home. Participants would receive payment or credit for connecting to the system, just as solar-panel array owners can “sell” power to an electric company.

“Your car, in essence, becomes a mobile energy supply,” he said.

These aren’t necessarily innovative ideas. New electric cars are being used as storage batteries for homeowners with solar panels. In California, there are parking garages developed exclusively for electric cars, said Gardner. Vermont, however, won’t see these for years. While sustainable energy usage is important to residents, the state currently has only a few charging stations for electric batteries. The infrastructure needs to be built up before it would be practical.

“The technology’s all here,” he said. “We just haven’t laid out all the cards yet.”

Project advisor Matthew Lutz, a professor in Norwich’s School of Architecture + Art, said he found it exciting that Gardner created such a forward-thinking design using technology already in existence. The project was less about energy than the “architectural consequences” of a cultural move toward the use of electric vehicles, he said.

“Brent wasn’t really developing new technology so much as showing what can be done with off-the-shelf technology,” said Lutz, who also worked with Gardner on Norwich’s successful entry in the 2013 Solar Decathlon contest.

In addition to energy management, there were other sustainable ideas incorporated into the design. These include:

  • A large garage with incentives for parking would presumably pull a lot of electric cars off the street, freeing up space for other uses.
  • The exterior would be fabricated from perforated steel and glass that incorporates solar voltaic panels.
  • The building would become a transportation hub for the city, featuring passenger service for trains and buses as well as bike rentals.
  • People could gather for events and a farmer's market at the ground level.

Gardner explored perforated surfaces on the interior, as well, utilizing the idea that electric engines require fewer fluids and chemicals than internal combustion engines, so leakage would not be a problem. Moreover, the buildings would serve as bio filters, cleaning the rainwater that falls on the structure before it is channeled back into a river that runs along the garage’s southern edge.

Gardner also envisioned the garage as two buildings set on either side of a road that would serve as a new gateway to the city. Lutz said this could be interesting, as the honeycomb-like perforated exterior would greet visitors with dramatic glimpses of the buildings’ interiors.

“You’re never really sure where the surface of the building is,” he said.

The latest electric cars themselves provided inspiration for the building design, said Gardner. He wanted to avoid using concrete, and to have the shape—a series of interconnected ramps—reflect the utility of the structure. Just as the garage pushes a new idea in energy usage, the design should take people and the architect in a new direction, he said.

“I didn’t want to just design a super-efficient, sustainable home,” he said. “Because I’ve been doing that for three years.”