Monday, September 28, 2009

A Reliable Break : Narrative

Bob and Shirley Wilkinson drive the scenic route from Northern Virginia to Charleston, South Carolina each September to visit their grandchildren. The same routine is followed every time the couple gets in the car. After 40 years of marriage, Bob knows Shirley gets anxious and needs to stretch her legs every couple of hours, as does their dog Wayne. They prefer to stop at rest areas, visitors’ centers, and state parks so the couple has a place to walk around and let Wayne run loose.

Each year the Wilkinsons look forward to stopping at the rest area and visitor’s center on the Virginia/North Carolina border on US Highway 17. Bob is always the first to shout out “Welcome to North Carolina” as he always wants to be the first to spot the state sign. As they exit for the rest area, Wayne wags his tail and waits eagerly with his front paws on the back window for the car to come to a stop and he jumps out with Shirley.

Bob takes Wayne around the site to the back deck where they can sit and watch boaters pass by on the Dismal Swamp Canal. Many of the boaters just pass by, as do the motorists, but there are always a few fishermen and families docking their boats to stretch their legs at the rest area as well. Tuna sandwiches, dill pickles, and diet sodas make up the Wilkinson’s traditional road trip diet. Bob arranges lunch on the wooden table ready to eat when Shirley comes back to join him.

Meanwhile, Shirley uses the restroom and is always pleased with her feeling of security in the building. The officer greets her with a friendly smile whenever he is at the security station. Always fresh and maintained, the restrooms are well-lit with indirect natural light during the day and automatic fixtures. Over the past few years, Shirley has become more conscious of the environment and is pleased the plumbing fixtures consume low amounts of water and that rainwater and graywater are reused on site.

Watching the boaters and listening to the faint sounds of wild birds, Bob and Wayne sit waiting for Shirley to return. After lunch, the Wilkinsons take a short stroll around the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge before returning to the building. This gives Wayne a chance to let his energy loose before the second half of the road trip begins.

The couple is always interested in the cultural happenings of the area, and they never fail to stop by the digital information center on their way back to the car. After this many years, they know the history of the area inside and out, but are always curious to know about the latest developments and activities.

A retired history teacher who has always been intrigued by architecture, Bob remembers this rest area most of all for its relationship to its surroundings. Sensitive to both boaters and motorists, the architecture gives him a unique sense of place, which he does not often have the chance to experience. Local materials and a style influenced by the coastal waterway make the facility memorable for him.

Each time the Wilkinsons leave the site, they have a better appreciation of their surroundings and a better understanding of the current conditions around them. This short, but meaningful break is important for their journey each summer as they need a chance to stretch their legs and recharge before returning to the highway.

Mountain Biking Discovery : Narrative

During college, Sam, Mike, and Brad started the tradition of mountain biking on the trails of the Blue Ridge Parkway on the second Saturday of each summer month. Although three years have passed, and life has taken them separate ways, they still manage to join together and load up the car with everything necessary for a mountainous off road adventure. Brad is now a businessman living in Charlotte, Sam lives a low-key lifestyle just west of the North Carolina border in Tennessee, and Mike works at a bike shop near the coast. These college buddies still crave adventure and are always happy to reconnect with each other and nature during their trip.

Their routine has never wavered; after a long day biking, they settle down for dinner and a few beers on the patio of an Asheville pub catching up on their lives and sharing old stories. The drive up Interstate 26 to Asheville wasn’t more than 15 miles from the trail, but right after the guys got back into the car the battery light clicked on again. Brad’s new electric SUV wasn’t going to make the trip to town so the car located the closest recharging station off of the interstate. Brad is not always the most prepared and forgot to charge the battery the night before. Earlier, he told Sam and Mike not to worry about the blinking battery light, as they were all excited to hit the trails. They pulled off the road right into a recharging station as soon as they saw the rest area sign. These signs were familiar, of course, but they had never thought to stop to use the facilities.

The off ramp seemed familiar, but there was something noticeably different about the site plan when they arrived. They pulled straight into a refueling stall in front of the building. They did not have to walk across the parking lot dodging other cars or semi-trucks. While Brad plugged in the car, Mike and Sam gave him a hard time for forgetting to charge it the night before, and made their way to the restroom.

Upon entering the building, the travelers remarked that it did not feel confining and instead was as open and welcoming. Natural light filled the entry from clerestory windows and a large curtain wall. The restrooms were fresh and clean; not only from a maintenance standpoint, but also in another unexplainable way. Waterless urinals and automatic fixtures made the process quick and sanitary. On the way out, Sam caught a glimpse of a picnic arbor out a slim window in the restroom entrance. Beautiful natural vegetation filled the rather large gap between the building and the picnic arbor as if to keep them separate.

Mike and Sam found Brad in the atrium of the building downloading the latest maps and some local podcasts onto his iPhone. He was standing in front of an immense digital screen that could pull up more local information than imaginable. Just in a few short minutes of standing there, he checked Asheville’s weather to make sure a storm wasn’t brewing nearby, searched for a new pub to try, and confirmed that there was no traffic that would impede the final leg of their journey. Mike eagerly took over the touch screen after Brad had finished mapping their route and scrolled through the information on current events. Sam, who has not done much bike riding lately, sat down on a unique wooden bench to rest his legs and read about the regional history on placards lining the walls.

Music filled the lobby, but not loud enough to drown out the prattle of summer travelers making their way in and out of the building. Some stopped to check their email on small digital monitors, and others simply passed through after using the facilities.

Knowing that the SUV fully charges in about thirty minutes, Sam suggested they take a break at one of the open picnic arbors around the corner. On the way they stopped along the brick path at the vending machines. Elated that the vending machines were not stocked with Twinkies, the tired bikers each choose a frozen treat from the local Biltmore Village Creamery. The view from the arbor captured the building as well as the majestic mountains. The vending machines were camouflaged by a vertical garden, and the rest of the building made a bold statement but was situated in a natural way as if it were delicately placed on the site. Native vegetation and indigenous plants followed the contours of the brick paths mimicking the curves of the land.

Brad, Sam and Mike didn’t put much thought into analyzing their break at this rest area, but subconsciously they left with a greater recognition of the region and cultures they come in contact with during their summer bike trips.

3 Sites


Proposal Script

Recharge & Recognize

The project title Recharge & Recognize is derived from the physical actions in which motorists engage in at rest areas. Rest areas allow motorists to both mentally and physically take a break from driving or recharge, and in the case of the proposed prototypes in this project, people will be able to literally recharge their electric cars. The meaning of the verb recognize, is to detect with the senses or to be fully aware or cognizant. In this case, recognize refers to the motorist’s acknowledgment of the surroundings beyond the physical facilities. I will first introduce the history preceding today’s rest areas followed by the theoretical framework and project site.


After the introduction of the Model T in 1908, the federal government started developing highways and the national interstate system crossing the United States. This rise of the highway system and automobile during the mid-20th century spurred commercial development lining the highway. It was the age of the first major gas stations and flashy roadside diners, but it was not until 1959 that the government developed its first roadside rest area. Providing an area of respite for motorists, state governments quickly developed these sites. By 1972, approximately 1,200 rest areas had been built; today there are more than 2,500 state rest areas, but they may not all be around for much longer.

State Styles

Most state rest areas built between 1960 and 1990 consisted of a toilet building and picnic shelters. States generally used the architectural design of picnic shelters to showcase their local style and culture, but this was not always as apparent in the main toilet buildings. The upper images on the screen are picnic shelters from Oregon, New Mexico, California and Texas. Below are images of toilet buildings in Michigan, Idaho, Wisconsin and Missouri.


The state of Louisiana closed 24 of its 34 rest areas last year due to budget concerns and Virginia has followed in their footsteps this year closing 19 of its 42 stations. Virginia estimates these closings will cut $9 million of annual spending in order to bounce back from its $2.6 billion dollar budget shortfall. Other states such as Vermont, Wisconsin, Maine, Colorado, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Arizona have either closed facilities or are proposing to do so. Recently North and South Carolina have cut staffing from their facilities between one and two days a week.

All of these closings have stirred up quite a controversy from a wide array of people. One article on this issue entitled “Rest Areas, R.I.P.” by Emily Badger on Good Magazine online has received 499 responses so far, an overwhelming majority in favor of preserving the concept of rest areas.


While rest areas are on the bottom of the list of priorities for some states, they are top priority for others. Currently, Texas and Iowa have two of the most aggressive programs for redevelopment in the country. Texas uses Transportation Enhancement Funding, which allots 10% of the transport budget to surface transportation projects such as safety rest areas, bike trails, landscaping, scenic beautification and historic preservation.

Each Texas rest area is context sensitive incorporating the surrounding culture, history and geology. Sustainable design is incorporated into each building and systems such as wind turbines and rainwater cisterns are at some of their new facilities. Washington state is developing electric car recharging stations to bring its rest areas into the future. I plan to incorporate many of these same aspects into the prototype designs in this project.


The theoretical framework for this project contains three main subcategories: sense of place, vernacular architecture, and cultural geography. The history of roads and rest areas is also influential to the project. This diagram visually shows this framework and highlights the main theorists work involved in my research.

Sustainability is a major priority and concept in this project but is not in the diagram because it is an overarching value. The building will aim to be self-sufficient in a number of ways. Wind and solar energies will be examined to supply power. Sustainable materials and practices will be proposed to reduce the roadside environmental footprint. Water conserving fixtures and low-flow toilets will be located in the public restrooms. Electric car recharging stations will also be proposed for the site.

Sense of Place

“The sense of place is an experience created by the setting combined with what a person brings to it.” Fritz Steele explains that each individual’s background influences his or her thought process and experience in a place. This translates to mean that each traveler will encounter a varied sense of place in the same physical location. Research also shows that a greater short-term recognition comes from previous understanding and seeking information. Each of the prototypes will have digital displays highlighting the culture and history of the region. The possibility of large digital maps as well as interactive touch-screen displays will be explored to bring information to motorists in a new way. Travelers depend on the character of a place to create their experience. Christian Norberg-Schulz describes that it is important to orient oneself, but also to identify with the environment. The information available and architecture of the buildings will act together to help motorists identify while passing through.

Vernacular Architecture

Vernacular architecture, the second theoretical subject, is inspired by the landscape, built using local materials, respects the environment, and is not influenced by fashion. This study helps to tell the human story because throughout history, vernacular buildings have been built to directly satisfy the needs of the time. Studying the history of vernacular buildings in the three regions of North Carolina proposed for this project will give greater understanding to the lifestyles of the counties.

Henry Glassie explains that architects and designers are directly influenced by their surroundings and education merely adds another layer of knowledge to the existing. As a designer, it is apparent that each of us designs to our own capabilities influenced by our backgrounds. This is important to vernacular architecture in that regional architecture is influenced by the users’ needs as well as particular architects. The notion of boundaries is also important to stabilize social relationships and define the land.

Cultural Geography

Denis Cosgrove explains that landscapes are symbolic and each produces cultural norms and dominant values for groups in society. If society is informed by the landscape then buildings should be able to help inform society about the landscape as well. Both the natural and man-made landscape defines the appropriate behavior of the site. The combination of the man-made and natural landscapes in this project will aim to encourage curiosity of the surroundings. A quote from Karl Raitz states “The trick [for tourists] is to learn about the everyday landscapes that ‘common folk’ create…” He explains that while traveling, one must be willing to read more than the roadside historical markers and look to the landscapes created by the local people. These three subjects sense of place, vernacular architecture and cultural geography form the theoretical framework for the project.

Site Map

The three yellow dots on this map denote the three site locations for the rest area prototypes in this project. I will be developing three schematic designs in the first half of the semester based on three varying North Carolina landscapes. At the time of mid-term critiques, I will determine which site to continue developing for the final design.

3 Regions

The sites are located near Fayetteville in Cumberland County, in the Appalachian Mountains on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Buncombe County and on the Great Dismal Swamp Canal in Camden County. Each design will aspire to create a sense of place for travelers to briefly experience the culture and history of their immediate surroundings. These landscapes are each beautiful in themselves and vastly different. As you can see, the current rest area facilities do not reflect these differences and the prototypes will aim to achieve this diversity.

Piedmont Region

This site in Cumberland County is located at milepost 48 on I-95, 1-mile southeast of Fayetteville in the piedmont region of North Carolina. The facility was opened in 1981 and is 2720 heated sq ft. In 2009 a major renovation was done to add new restrooms to the facility.

Great Dismal Swamp Canal

Unique because it serves both motorists and boaters, this rest area and visitors center is in the southbound lane of US-17 one mile south of the Virginia line in Camden County. It is built on the banks of the Great Dismal Swamp Canal, and is open five days a week from 9-5. The facility opened in 1989 with major renovations in 1994 and 1996. This location will be unique catering to both canal and roadway traffic.

Blue Ridge Parkway

At milepost 10, 12 miles south of Asheville on I-26 near the Asheville Airport, this rest area is located in Henderson-Buncombe Counties. This is currently a 1,932 sq ft building opened in 1967 with renovations in 1998. The building is open 24 hours a day and staffed 18 hours per day. The location on the parkway in the Appalachian Mountains will give inspiration to this design.

Pause along the way
Embracing nature and site
Reveals the culture

This haiku embodies the spirit of this project and will guide the design process.