A Unique Metal Sculpture Reflects Its Water Treatment Plant Surroundings

A kinetic sculpture at a King County treatment plant is designed in all aspects to represent water and its movements.

A Unique Metal Sculpture Reflects Its Water Treatment Plant Surroundings

A kinetic sculpture entitled Water Plant functions in a landscaped reflection pool in front of the administration building at the King County’s South Wastewater Treatment Plant in Renton, Washington.

At the center is a surplus 2,400-pound stainless steel impeller from a decommissioned 36-inch centrifugal pump. Five machined stainless plates rest under the impeller and form a flowering plant’s petals. Laboratory funnels serve as the plant’s five anthers. They are secured at the ends of lever-action, stamen-like arms traced with copper tubing that transport water to the funnels. Together, the components harness the power of water, gravity and balance to produce a continuous but random discharge of water into the pool.

Collaborative process

Created in 2010, the sculpture was a two-year collaboration between artist Donald Fels, the plant team members, metal fabricator Benson Vess, and the commissioning agency, 4Culture.

Jordan Howland, manager of public art with 4Culture, coordinated a nine-member committee of citizens, art and design professionals, plant staff, and county representatives to review 13 artists’ proposals. Three were chosen for personal interviews before Fels was chosen.

Funds for the sculpture were provided through the 1% for Art Ordinance program managed by 4Culture, the cultural funding agency for King County, which incorporates the work and thinking of artists into public works projects. Design and construction of the South plant LEED Silver administration building in 2009 generated the $150,000 artwork budget.   

Fels wanted to use as much recycled and industrial surplus material as possible, make the water feature’s movement mimic natural and treatment plant systems, and suggest water in all aspects of the piece. The sculpture’s base is built from of 10 equilateral triangles, which together create a truncated icosahedron, Plato’s solid for water.

A second water feature created by Fels appears to float on the pool’s surface. It consists of a stainless steel drumlike surface with drainage holes. Called Rooftop Garden, the landscaped artwork obscures a pump and controls for the pool.  

Pool reconstruction

The South treatment plant is a 325 mgd design/115 mgd average secondary treatment facility occupying 94 acres. The site includes facilities for biosolids handling, water reuse and alternative treatment technologies. Twelve miles away is the deep-water outfall in Puget Sound. Next to the plant is a public park, Waterworks Gardens, another artist-designed project managed by 4Culture. Its wetlands treat stormwater runoff from the plant’s impervious surfaces before discharge into a creek.

The 24-by-52-foot pool where Water Plant is on display was built decades ago as a reflective pool. Over time, other features were added, such as small fountains, a deck, and a flagpole. At one point, rainbow trout were added.

Part of Fels’ commission was to redesign the 4-foot-deep pool to complement his water features. All the objects were removed except for a concrete pad now used as a pedestal for the sculpture. Pavers were added and backfilled with contrasting small stones to accentuate the gentle curves of the pool’s shoreline. Landscape improvements were made with sedums and other native plants, grasses and stones.

The sculpture is the centerpiece of attention at the plant and serves as a gathering spot for tours, which are a key component of the King County Wastewater Treatment Division’s outreach programs. Typically, more than 900 students and visitors tour the site each year.


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