Lake Whitney Water Treatment Plant, New Haven, CT.

By on January 10, 2012.

In an effort to redesign the defunct ‘sand filter’ Lake Whitney Water Treatment Plant, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. (MVVA) and Steven Holl Architects collaborated to create a new state-of-the-art treatment facility while putting the sites landscape at the forefront of the design.  Their stellar creativity and environmentally sensitive design was rewarded with a 2010 ASLA Honor Award.


 via LAM


The new water treatment facility design embraces the landscape by embedding the building almost completely into the land, leaving only the “sliver” exposed.  This not only afforded the opportunity for a green roof – reducing the buildings footprint – but it also allows water from the nearby Lake Whitney to flow naturally with gravity into the plant, resulting in a more sustainable treatment process.  The marriage of structure and landscape also provided for more land – 14 acres – to become a passive, environmentally didactic, public open space.


Previously acting as an informal open space, the importance of maintaining the use and access of the site was key to MVVA’s design.  Integrating stormwater abatement processes on-site, to reduce the impact on the adjacent Mill River, was also critical in the site design and became the centerpiece of the project.  The “microcosm of a watershed” begins on the western-most “mountain” where a spiraling path through a meadow mimics travel of stormwater.  Transitioning from the “mountain” down to lower elevations moves the user through a field-like area interupted by strong lines of shrubs, similar to hedgerows in an agricultural field.  Following through an undulating landscape of hills and swales, the stormwater and user move down into a forested wetland oasis where the collection ponds create a fourth distinct landscape allowing the water to slowly percolate and return to the water table.

via MVVA

Spatial Quality

Submerging the user into the diverse landscape with a hierarchical circulation system – including both tangential and serpentine paths – creates a unique experience with each turn of the hips, head and season.  When entering the site from the primary entrance, the design intent seems a bit inverted (which I’m sure was due to the sites existing topography); beginning at the lowest elevation or “end” of the stormwater flow and moving upward to the “beginning” of the flow.  Although misunderstood at first, further exploration would reveal that this configuration establishes an exciting entry – with sounds of rushing water and densely vegetated paths – a better view of the elevation changes, providing a stronger understanding of stormwater conveyance and creating a memorable walk that will be relived once the descent back to the parking lot has begun.

via MVVA

Design Details

The large and constantly evolving native plant palette unifies the site and creates almost yearlong interest; the extreme winter weather during my visit only revealed a few hidden specimens of winterberry among the otherwise dormant deciduous species.  Benches are carefully located at comfortable intervals and at important viewpoints incorporating the surrounding, borrowed landscape.  One exciting detail was the green roof located at eye-level.  Seeing the over-flow spouts and vegetation at a low height provides a more comprehensible view of the inner workings of the roof.

via MVVA


The original intent of the facility was to allow visitors and school groups to experience the water treatment facility from within and see how their drinking water is being treated.  Unfortunately, due to the tragic events of 9/11, the facility has closed its doors to the public, accepting visitors by appointment only.  Despite this misfortune, the site itself – which is open to the public from sunrise to sunset – offers another level of education; the way nature cleanses water.  Conveniently located across the street is, the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, an experimental learning workshop for students, teachers and families.   One workshop in particular, The Water Lab,  incorporates “water tables” in which children learn about the natural mechanics – like the water cycle – and value of water.  Such close proximity of the Lake Whitney Water Treatment Facility and landscape and the Eli Whitney Museum offer a great opportunity for first-hand, hands-on education of water management.


Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Steven Holl Architects

New Haven, CT, U.S.A.

Public Landscape/Infrastructure

$3 million landscape ($5 s.f.)
$46 million, 140,000 s.f. facility (purifies 15 m. gallons of water a day)

Design Completion:

Narrative Credit:
LAM August 2011 ( vol. 101 no. 8 )