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Columbia Power & Water Systems — Service Center Renovation

Creating a Welcoming Front Door to the Community of Columbia

In 1966, public  utility company Columbia Power & Water Systems (CPWS) constructed a back-of-house warehouse facility in a residential neighborhood of Columbia, Tennessee, to house its material storage, construction and field services. The nondescript, low-slung brick building at the corner of Pickens Lane and Highland Avenue served as a workhorse facility not intended for public use, so function and efficiency were more important than aesthetics.


When CPWS’ downtown location was closed in 1974, the Pickens facility was commissioned for wider service, with customer interactions moved to that location. Interior accommodations—which included a lobby that was fashioned within the existing space—had to be quickly made, a parking lot and drive-thru window were added, and, as technology evolved and further services were added, new additions and modifications were implemented. Although it met the utility company’s needs at the time, the overall result was a confusing and often bland design lacking in true efficiency or any cohesive sense of aesthetics.

Company Rebranding Sets the Stage
In 2012, when CPWS launched a formal rebranding effort, designing a new Web interface and a smart, modern logo, it soon became evident that the Pickens Lane building needed a modern makeover. Following a successful renovation at Pulaski Electric System 10 years earlier, GS&P was solicited once again by the client, this time to renovate and rebrand CPWS’ physical location. General contractor R.C. Mathews was selected to provide construction services on the project.

“When the client moved up the road to CPWS, they called us for this project,” explains Patrick Gilbert, senior architect and principal-in-charge. “They told us, ‘You know what we want—let’s get started!’” 

Getting started required big-picture perspective on what was needed to bring the existing, disjointed design into holistic harmony. With that in mind, four key design goals were established: connect with the community; connect with the customer; remedy the internal circulation issues; and create “pride of place.”

“We began by looking at the building from the inside out,” says Gilbert. “We had to figure out how we could knit everything together and also determine how we could put in a circulation system—a corridor system—that made the building function from an interior perspective. Once we decided where the corridors should go, we were then able to place all the functions around that circulation system. From there, we worked out where the main entrance would be on the outside of the building and got the entrance to address the corner of Pickens and Highland.”

Main Entrance: the First Customer Experience

From the onset of the renovation, the service center’s main entrance took on critical importance. Given its inaugural function as a storage facility, the building had never boasted a dynamic entrance. The circa 1974 front entry that customers inherited was a small doorway tucked into the middle of the building’s shaded north side, hidden under a low canopy, and set immediately adjacent to—and unprotected from—the oncoming traffic exiting the drive-thru. This translated into an entrance that was not only difficult to see, but also occasionally became hazardous when confused drivers miscalculated the turn into the parking lot.

The client’s original goal was simply to make the entrance more visible and focus the attention and budget on the interior work. However, the team advised that a more significant restructuring of the front entry—inclusive of moving the actual entrance—would provide the optimum design solution.

“A customer’s first experience with a company or utility is their approach to the building,” says project designer Chris Hoal. “Moving the entrance from the side of the building to the corner facing Pickens and Highland was extremely beneficial in terms of addressing the way most people would approach the building. You can see from the ‘before’ photos how ineffective the previous entrance was. The solution we presented to the CPWS board was to flip the entrance with the drive-thru, and they ultimately embraced that shift in budget and design priorities.”

“It was the ‘aha’ moment to swap the drive-thru and the entrance,” adds Gilbert. “You swap those two things and everything makes sense.”

The design team’s concept was to punctuate the building façade with an entrance that not only made a dramatic statement, but left no doubt as to where the customer was to enter. Given the unremarkable nature of the existing building, the team explored ideas that would create what Gilbert calls a “shiny object,” that focal point to which eyes are inexorably drawn. That “object” for CPWS was achieved with a sweeping white portal that was cut into the red brick front.

“The neutral palette of the façade gave us the opportunity to make a bright, white, modern entrance that stood out in contrast to the very ordinary context of the building,” explains Hoal. “When one of the client’s primary problems was entrance importance, that bright, white moment became a strength for them.”

“We made one bold move,” Gilbert agrees. “We moved the entrance, made it shiny and white, and faced it to the corner.”

“That bold design step allows the entrance to pick up glimmers of early-morning and late-evening sunlight that would not be exhibited on the rest of the shadowed, north-facing façade,” continues Hoal. “So you get some nice, natural sunlight reflecting off that entrance.”

Also contributing to the building’s unmistakable new identity is the addition of monument signage along with the sharp, new CPWS logo, strategically placed and backlit on the build-ing’s façade.

“This facility is a front door to the Columbia, Tennessee, community,” says Gilbert, making another compelling point about the importance of the exterior to the company’s rebranding effort as well as its social connection to the area it serves. “Everyone who is new to town, who has to establish power, water or Internet service, has to interface with this building. We wanted to set the tone for a good experience from the moment you first see it.”

Putting the Customer First

Carrying that “good experience” inside to the areas where customers and staff interact also required a rethinking of the existing space. The first step was to define clearly identifiable corridors that remedied circulation issues and allowed simple, intuitive access to necessary supplies and stations. Proper programming had to be implemented to ensure that staff who needed to work together were located adjacent to one another and in the correct place in the building. Walls had to be strategically removed to create space for the newly designed lobby and customer service areas. The overriding goal was to create a space that allowed necessary room and the aesthetic ambience to engender stress-free, easily traversed, and ultimately pleasant customer transactions, not always a simple task in a setting where tensions can run high.

“Remedying the previous tight quarters was essential,” says Gilbert. “The psychology of design is intended to defuse tension in the space. Therefore, we made sure there was adequate stack space for people coming in to pay their bills so they were not on top of each other on the busiest bill-paying day of the month. We also made certain there was adequate room for everyone in an organized line inside the building so customers wouldn’t be trailing out the door, placing them in a stressful situation. That was our No. 1 priority.”

Second on the design team’s priority list was the issue of customer sight lines.

“There are two things customers do in this building: they pay bills on one side with a cashier, and, perpendicular to that, they sit down to establish service,” Gilbert explains. “Previously, the sight lines were really poor. If a customer was waiting to establish service, they couldn’t tell when the next customer service representative was available. So we made sure the sight lines were good so, as you’re waiting, you can see someone waving at you to approach the counter.

“Our No. 3 priority was the comfort and security of the customer experience. So we implemented solutions such as making the service counters an improved upon sit-down situation so they are as comfortable as possible, allowing people adequate space to open up a purse or checkbook.”

Also augmenting the end-user experience, visual separators at the customer service counter enhance customer privacy. For security reasons, glass partitions were added to the cashier windows, and glassed-in consultation rooms were created to allow stepped-up interactions to be moved to a larger space that offers both the privacy of closed doors and the security of a completely visible space.

While these changes and improvements have streamlined the process for both staff and customers, the enhanced aesthetics of the space have also contributed another element to the holistic approach of the redesign. In terms of the visual concept, the team’s goal was to play off the crisp, new CPWS logo, with its green and blue hues and sharp “electrical-to-wave” pattern, to incorporate modern branding into the look of the space. Also taken into account were the sensitivities of smartly appointing the space while keeping within a budget commensurate to a government facility. This was ably achieved with simple, modern furniture that brings in the blues and greens of the logo, the placement of an appealing wave-patterned wall behind the reception desk, and the utilization of the greens, blues and whites of the CPWS color palette on surrounding walls.

Sustainability and Economy in Even the Smallest Steps

Sustainability goals for the project were implemented in simple steps that included the reuse and rearrangement of the existing mechanical system, the recycling of exterior bricks in refashioning the front of the building, and the decision to use permeable pavement in the reconfigured parking area, allowing water runoff to seep naturally into the ground rather than flow into the city sewer system.

Whenever the repurposing of materials or the simplest of freshening solutions were applicable, the economy of the project was also assisted. For example, when fresh paint and new finishes were sufficient to improve an existing area, those modifications were applied. These types of measures ultimately helped the project come in under budget, allowing the client to increase scope in other areas where more costly fixes were unavoidable. 

Although CPWS relocated most of its employees for the renovation, including the customer service department, enough staff remained that the office had to be kept partially operational as demolition and construction commenced. To achieve this, the design team implement phased construction to maintain a certain amount of functionality.

Project Challenges

Another significant challenge lie in the discovery of certain “hidden conditions” due to the age of the building, with the confluence of the many additions and renovations over the years demanding some particularly creative design solutions. Those included working around the demolition of load-bearing walls, dealing with structural oddities thanks to the lack of a sprinkler system, and the complexity of shaping the lobby around exterior walls that had been run through the interior of the building. Additional design solutions comprised the installation of a sprinkler system, and cohering the different sections of the building into one seamless whole.

Other challenges existed outside the building. As Hoal explains: “Their parking was awkwardly organized. If you missed a parking space it was all one-way, so you had to exit their property, then drive back around to get to it. You couldn’t actually enter the parking field until you had physically driven beyond the building, which was very confusing for people, and very unnatural. So moving the parking lot to the front quadrant was a priority.”

Creating “pride of place” for employees as well as a vibrant and welcoming front door to the community of Columbia, Tennessee, the renovation of the CPWS Service Center at Pickens Lane provides a visible presence to a once nondescript building. Embodying the four key design goals in a manner that exceeded the client’s expectations, the complex renovation effort successfully resolved an awkward pedestrian entrance, improved the customer drive-thru, optimized circulation, and created an expanded, logically organized lobby that facilitates superior customer service interaction.

“With this renovation, CPWS demonstrated its commitment to put the customer first,” notes Wes Kelley, executive director of Columbia Power & Water Systems. “We are very pleased that we now have a comfortable and accessible lobby and accompanying workspaces appropriate for a dynamic community such as Columbia, Tennessee.”


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Project Info

  • Client: Columbia Power & Water Systems (CPWS)
  • Location: Columbia, TN, USA
  • Market: Corporate + Urban Design
  • Services: Architecture, Engineering, Interior Design, Civil Engineering, Structural Engineering, Environmental Graphics and Wayfinding
  • Team:
    • Patrick Gilbert, AIA, LEED AP Principal-in-Charge, Project Manager
    • Adrienne Ciuba, AIA, NCARB Project Professional, Project Coordinator
    • Christopher D. Hoal Project Designer
    • Tish Bandish
    • Eric Bearden, AIA
    • Thomas E. Bradbury
    • Pamela Bybee
    • Chandra Clonan
    • Betty J. Crawford, SEGD
    • Tracey Curray
    • Jason B. Fukuda, P.E., S.E.
    • Jason Huff, P.E., LEED AP
    • Amanda Hunter
    • Douglas E. Karaszewski, LEED AP
    • Lisa Kennedy
    • Melissa Long, EIT
    • Andrew Lyons, P.E.
    • Diane Marable
    • William C. Mays
    • Deron McIntosh, P.E.
    • Michelle Oakley, IIDA, LEED AP
    • Sydney Reddoch
    • Trey Rudolph, RLA
    • Andrew M. Stoebner, P.E.
    • Bryan A. Tharpe, P.E.
    • Rob Whitson, P.E.
    • Nicole L. Williams, SEGD
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