March 30 2011 12:00 AM

How designers made Planet Machine habitable by humans


Enter the Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America’s new headquarters in downtown Lansing and you walk into a naked tug of war between a 20th-century power plant and a modern office building.

“It was sometimes challenging to get humans to fit into this building,” Ripley Rasmus admitted.

For the principal designer of the Ottawa Power Station/Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America redevelopment, the job of turning a looming hulk into a living landmark was impossible to resist.

“You give to the building and it gives you so much back,” he said.

Somehow, the design team had to preserve the plant’s historic grandeur while packing it with airy, modern offices, adding on a second building and making it all environmentally sustainable.

Sometimes these priorities pulled together. Sometimes they didn’t.

“It provided some great office space and some challenging office space,” Rasmus said.

As senior vice president of St. Louis-based HOK, the world’s fourth largest architectural firm, Rasmus has designed big projects from office towers in Riyadh and Lisbon International Airport to the innovative Edificio Malecon building, credited with reinvigorating a troubled neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro.

He marveled at the power plant from up close when he designed the expansion of the Lansing Center, across the Grand River, in the 1990s.

“You don’t find many people poetically interpreting the value of energy,” Rasmus said. “It’s a very poetic building.”

To his eye, the only structure in  the world that rivals the Ottawa station is London’s Bankside Power Station, now the Tate Modern art museum. But the Tate is a dun-colored, spiky fortress, in stark contrast to the Ottawa station’s dynamic forms and colors.

“The whole world ran on coal for a many, many years, so there are quite a few great power plants out there, but nothing quite like this one,” Rasmus said.

Poetic or not, the Ottawa plant might as well have been Planet Machine when it went on line in 1939. In a brochure from the period, the Lansing Board of Water & Light boasted that the plant was so extensively automated a handful of workers could run it.

About 15 architects, interior designers and advance strategists from HOK worked on the plans, along with 50 consultants from specialized fields from utilities to landscaping.

There were frequent huddles with the client, Accident Fund, and state and federal historic preservationists.

Steve Reynolds, Accident Fund’s point man for the project, was on the project team almost from the start, eagle-eyeing for cost overruns and “scope creep.”

“We made it clear that this is not a monument for HOK,” Reynolds said. “We have a deal, a budget and a schedule, and you have to stick to that.”

As they set about slicing a slab of building into nine floors, the design team capitalized on the plant’s cathedral-like windows.

“The fact that there was so much glass made it possible to locate floors fairly effectively inside the building,” Rasmus said.

But the windows sparked one of many rounds of talks with the State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service, guardians of the Ottawa station’s status on the National Register of Historic Places and the tax credits that go with it.

The rusting steel-framed windows were woefully inefficient. In a hall full of boilers and turbines, conserving heat wasn’t a priority.

Tinted windows would change the historic look. But without them, sunlight would bake the upper floors and air conditioning would have to be cranked up, threatening another cherished goal of the project: LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certification.

Gavin Gardi, sustainability expert at the Christman Co., said that being green was part of “an integrated design process.” He expects the project to be certified LEED silver.

“All the designers, the contractor and owner are there right from the beginning, working together to come up with a holistic solution,” Gardi said. “At each stage, we take out the LEED checklist.”

To reconcile historic preservation with sustainability, the team installed high performance glass that appears clear but absorbs light. The glass was perfected only in the past 10 years.

But there was still a major snag. The third and fourth floors, where the plant’s coal bunker used to be, were windowless dungeons.

In the only major change to the plant’s shell, the designers decided to cut five large new windows into the east face. It was time to talk to the U.S. Department of Interior — keeper of the National Register of Historic Places — again. The power station was placed on the list in 2008.

“When you add windows, that raises the temperature in the historic review process considerably,” Ron Staley, historic preservation expert at the Christman Co., said dryly.

The preservation poobahs agreed to the new windows, but only if they wouldn’t imitate the old ones. Under historic preservation principles, a building’s “story” — what was done and when — should be clear to the observer.

Another hot spot of design conflict was the magnificent Hall of Turbines, on the north and west sides of the plant, with its gleaming ceramic walls. That’s where the tug of war between office building and museum was felt most keenly.

“How do you use that space productively, from a developer’s standpoint, but retain the look of a turbine hall?” Staley asked.

The design team’s solution was bold. They suspended the third floor from the fourth, leaving a dramatic space between the edge of the floor and the exterior wall.

“Somebody walking through there realizes it’s one big space,” Staley said. The suspended floor also treats traffic and pedestrians on Grand Avenue to unbroken window lines.

Even when sliced into nine floors, the old plant bequeathed dramatically tall ceilings to its new tenants. The sustainability strand of the design tapestry threatened to unravel.

“The space is so voluminous that getting comfort temperatures would be extremely difficult with a typical system that blows air down from the top,” Gardi said.

The solution was to cram all the power, heating and cooling ducts and other utility spaghetti under each floor, mapped carefully by computer. Instead of blasting heat and light over large areas, workers will control temperature and light for their own spaces.

Everywhere you look, the give and take between the project’s “energy model” and historic look is evident.

Bare masonry alternates with insulated and covered stretches of wall.

If cutting new windows into the old plant is the “second biggest red flag” a designer could raise with historic preservationists, as Staley phrased it, what is the biggest?

The design team was about to find out.

Incredibly, the power station wasn’t enough to house Accident Fund’s growing workforce. Another whole building was needed.

“Adding on to a historic building is one of the most challenging design opportunities there are,” Staley said.

The team spent months discussing various plans.

One was to “extrude” the building, in Staley’s words, by expanding it to the north, but matching the original design. A second tower was considered, and so was a sprawling wrap around the base of the plant.

Building new to match old sounds logical, but it’s among the most heinous sins in the church of historic preservation.

Rasmus advised Christman and Accident Fund to be “sympathetic” to the older building when it came to vertical and horizontal sweep, alignment, and scale, but “not to copy the thing.”

“The Department of Interior likes it when you don’t copy what’s next door,” Rasmus said. “They believe these kinds of buildings are living parts of the evolving city.”

His team came up with a glassy, modern annex that pays homage to the old plant, but makes its own quiet statement.

“Our intention was to make a counterpoint, so we didn’t confuse our moment in history with the building’s moment,” Rasmus said.

Viewed from the north, the annex blends with the broad reddish bottom layer of the plant. From all other sides, it hovers like a transparent ghost, ceding the spotlight to its towering neighbor.

Six catwalks floating in a glassy membrane connect the two buildings, enhancing the impression that the annex is a fresh spirit, or perhaps a second thought, issuing from the re-animated plant.

The annex also expresses Rasmus’ own passion for the big red flame.

“If you look carefully, the new building is in the shape of a C,” Rasmus said. “If you’re inside, you’re looking at and embracing the building in its complete setting.”

The trees and grass planted along the river and grassy strip on Grand Avenue finish the job by surrounding the rugged plant with a civilizing river park.

“It’s part of the dialogue of this building with the city and the river,” Rasmus said.

Even with the tough eye of a preservationist, Staley was stunned by the airy annex, forgetting the other plans he’d seen.

“You see it now and say, ‘What else would it have been?’” he said.

Look more closely at the entrance and annex, and you’ll see dozens of design touches that link it with the old plant. The dark masonry at the base of the annex is a shadowy homage to the vivid masonry pattern of the power plant. The paving stones in front of the grand entrance do the same, only underfoot.

Many of the touches are almost subliminal, but Rasmus said they were deliberate. Inside the annex, turnbuckles (metal support rods) were left visible, even though they are usually hidden, to link the new building with the old.

In the plant itself, reminders of history are everywhere.

“There’s not a floor you walk through on the building where you don’t read a piece of the industrial fabric,” Staley said.

Gardi, the sustainability guru, said the project demonstrated a “synergy” between being green and being historic that goes beyond installing high performance windows.

“The greenest building is the one that’s already built,” Gardi said. “Just re-using that beautiful building, not just in materials and embodied energy, but also the skills and craftsmanship — it’s respecting the culture and history.”

Everyone involved in the project, Gardi most of all, is proud that 96 percent of the materials taken off site, including the parking deck over Grand River, was hauled off to be crushed, melted or re-used in some way.

History enthusiasts are just as ecstatic over the design. Staley loves the historical “nuggets” left exposed in the plant, from the huge crane, once used to service the turbines, to the hand window cranks in the Hall of Turbines and innumerable beams and bolts. When the Accident Fund employees move in, “meet me under the big red ingot” will be a common coffee break invitation.

“There are a lot of unique things about the project,” Staley said. “I’ve never restored a bridge crane to stay in as an artifact of a building.”

The plant’s south lobby was a major restoration project by itself, a museum of Art Deco fixtures, curvaceous steel banisters and elaborate trim work.

“That little lobby space is the jewel of the necklace,” Staley said.

It’s a cliché, but it has to be said: They don’t build them like this anymore. The power plant’s big-shouldered profile is etched in bronze on six massive metal doors, crowned by copper-plated electric zaps.

“You think of a power plant as something very massive,” Staley said. “But those original entry doors were built like a Swiss watch. The machine screws that held those doors together are like jeweler’s screws. What will stick in my memory of this project forever is those doors.”

Steve Reynolds of the Accident Fund predicted that the coolness factor, including mind-boggling views of the surrounding city or the old plant, will be a “powerful talent attraction and retention tool.”

In February, Rasmus toured every inch of the building and felt as if he had walked into his own drawings.

“Nothing was poorly executed, nothing out of place, or inappropriately applied,” he said. “They just did a fantastic job of executing this.”

It took a lot of trouble to tame the flame, but Rasmus predicted that the Ottawa Street Power Station would richly reward the city for the love and attention lavished upon it.

“Was it ever meant for people? No, not really,” he said. “But it’s a beautiful landmark that marks the city, the river and their history. Whatever its use, it’s a powerful, poetic thing.”