San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Digital Arts Wall

Artfully Sustainable

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is a new model for civic buildings: transparent, sustainable, and art-filled. A new digital display wall invites the public in to experience it.

The new 13-story, 275,000-square-foot headquarters of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is considered the greenest office building in North America. The LEED Platinum-designed building by KMD Architects consumes 32% less energy and 60% less water than a traditional building of its size, thanks to natural light harvesting, a solar array, wind turbines, and a rainwater harvesting system.

Artwork also sets the building apart. In a model that seeks to engage stakeholders by immersing them in local art, it houses more than 350 illustrations, paintings, and photographs by Bay Area artists.

In the lobby, a dramatic interactive display bridges the two experiences—inviting the public to engage with its sustainable features as well as its art. Four feet tall and more than 58 feet long with a resolution 24,000 pixels wide, the seamless, curved “Digital Arts Wall” is a real-time dashboard for building performance, an interactive educational tool, and a digital canvas for interactive art.

Obscura Digital was tasked with creating something that would be beautiful as well as sustainable in terms of energy use, resolution, and technology, says Marta Salas-Porras, Creative Director.

Obscura designed and engineered four custom interactive experiences with high-resolution data, graphic visualizations, an interactive platform, and ambient music. Media Stream creates the effect of water flowing across the screen, telling the story of SFPUC’s history, staff, and natural resources. An interactive art mode provides a revolving showcase of digital artwork. Snowfall to Outfall uses animation, photos, video, and pop-up text to explain how the public utility system delivers water and hydroelectric power to the Bay area. “And Dashboard is a real-time control panel showing the building’s water, wastewater, and power performance as well as data on local weather, mass transit, and other news,” says Salas-Porras.

The content is displayed on a four-units-tall by 40-units-wide array from Christie MicroTiles, chosen because of the minimal seams between tiles, ease of installation on the lobby’s curved wall, and image contrast and brightness. A custom content management system allows SFPUC to upload new content easily.

The display’s sheer size, as well as the intricacy of the data, posed some technical challenges, says Maria Walcutt, Obscura’s Project Manager. Among them were its unusual aspect ratio, calibrating the motion-tracking system to adjust to varying daylight conditions, positioning motion-tracking sensors to meet ADA height requirements, and collecting and formatting a wide range of datasets for the Dashboard module.

“These live datasets come from a variety of sensors around the Bay Area. The challenge was to collect them all and translate them into key, meaningful facts that viewers could understand quickly,” explains Walcutt.

SFPUC couldn’t be happier with the result, a living and flexible display that allows it to tell multiple, richly layered stories about the agency and its Bay Area resources. “It’s a major focal point and always leaves our visitors amazed,” says Tyrone Jue, Director of Communications. “They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This is worth at least 10,000 words on a bad day.”

--By Louis M. Brill, eg magazine No. 04, 2012


Client:  San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

Location:  San Francisco

Opened:  June 2012

Project Area:  4- by 58-feet

Design and Engineering:  Obscura Digital

Display:  Christie MicroTiles

Consultants:  rp Visual Solutions (superstructure)

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