March 26 2009 12:00 AM

A look at Chrstman Co.s renovaton of the Ottawa Power Station.


Imagine a surgeon shearing off the top of a man’s head, reaching down through his neck and performing a skeleton transplant, while the patient is awake and reading a book.

Now imagine the patient is 190 feet tall, and you will have some idea of the engineering feat going on in downtown Lansing.

The former Ottawa Power Station is in the most sensitive phase of its epic makeover from coalfired power plant to the world headquarters of the Accident Fund insurance company.

As demolition crews scoop tons of steel and concrete junk from inside the city’s iconic Art Deco masterpiece, workers are threading a new steel skeleton through holes in the roof. This week, floors are beginning to form at the bottom of the building.

Each morning, sunbeams pour through the plant’s huge east windows into clouds of dust and sparks. Lansing’s Christman Co. is leading a small army of sub-contractors at the crowded site. About 70 workers were scattered through the plant last week, and that number will swell to 200 in mid-summer as work intensifies.

“We’re going into the toughest part,” Christman CEO Steve Roznowski said. “Building a new steel frame inside an existing envelope — I still want to see that happen.”

Christman has handled big and intricate projects across the country, from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to the Michigan State Capitol renovation in the 1990s, but Roznowski said he’s never seen anything like the Ottawa project.

“Everything here is on a big scale, and very complex in terms of engineering,” he said. “There aren’t too many cases in the world of a power plant being turned into an office building.”

Steel girders and beams criss-cross the plant’s interior vertically, horizontally and diagonally. The tinkertoy clutter makes it harder to get work done, or even to appreciate the view, but the work can’t be rushed.

All the beams are color coded, so workers know which ones to remove, and when to remove them. Beams color-coded in red will stay. The ones marked in yellow will be taken out, but not until the floor below them is in place.

“We’re in between structural systems,” Roznowski said. “There’s a lot of careful engineering and sequencing.”

Ottawa Project Manager Chad Teeples has worked in the construction business since he was 14. He’s spent the last 13 years with Christman, and has always dreamed of a project like this.

“The grandeur and size alone are unique, but there’s also the adaptive re-use,” Teeples said.

There’s another complication. Although the Ottawa plant was decommissioned in 1992, BWL is still using it as a water chiller, until a new chiller under construction in the Capitol Complex is finished this fall.

“The employees are running into all kinds of noise and demolition, but they’ve been a great partner in letting us work around them,” Teeples said.

You’re a lot of trouble, big orange flame, but you’re worth it.

Back in 1939, the Ottawa plant rose from the riverfront with mighty Art Deco shoulders and an intricate skin of multi-colored bricks designed to say “power,” yet still look smashing in a downtown commercial and business district. The building proved to be so beautiful the city couldn’t bear to part with it.

A complex set of public and private initiatives, tax incentives and land deals led to the surprise 2007 announcement that Accident Fund would restore the plant and use it to anchor a seven-acre riverfront campus.

In November 2008, the plant was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, paving the way for more tax credits.

Designers had to think hard to meet the criteria for historic
designation. In the airy Hall of Turbines on the plant’s west side, the
view will be open from the second to fourth floors. (The main part of
the plant will be divided into nine floors.) “The third floor will
actually be hung from the fourth floor, so we can pull it away from the
wall,” Teeples said. That way, passersby on Grand Avenue will see the
hall’s huge windows, each one modeled after the building’s stepup
profile, uninterrupted by floor lines.

In another nod to the
plant’s history, workers will slide an old ceiling-mounted crane, used
to service the turbines, to the north end of the hall. There they will
weld it in place as a reminder of the plant’s first life.

Signs of
activity are exploding outside the plant, too. In October 2008, the
neighboring Grand Building was demolished to make way for a new
101,000-squarefoot addition, to be built just north of the Ottawa

At the plant itself, work began on the parapet, the
castle-like part of the wall that extended above the ceiling. Thousands
of bricks and large white slabs of masonry came down and a
bristle-block platform for workers was fitted on top. Holes about 30
feet wide were cut in the ceiling so cranes could drop new steel

One crane was assembled last fall; another will join
it in three weeks.

Teeples said his crew will save about 80 percent of
the original bricks, find matches for the missing ones, and put the
parapet back up in original order, with a stable new roof that will
line up with the top of the wall.

Work also begins this month on
restoration of the Ottawa Plant’s artful masonry design, which shades
from black to red to orange to yellow as the building narrows upward into a stylized flame. Foundation work on the neighboring addition also begins this month.

next steps are set to follow quickly. The cavernous parking ramp over
Grand River, which now blots out the Ottawa Station’s west face, will
be removed this summer. The chiller units weighing on the plant’s west
side will go down this fall. A river walk next to the plant will be
finished in fall 2010, and the whole complex is scheduled to be
occupied in early 2011.

In spite of all the refitting, Teeple said, the
building will retain its basic structural scheme: a steel-framed
building with a masonry envelope. The biggest change to the shell will
be replacing the huge windows, mainly out of concern for energy
efficiency. The
builders will seek a yet undetermined level of LEED, orLeadership in
Energy Efficient Design, certification.

So far, Roznowski said, the
budget is holding up, but one more round of contractor bids — about 25
percent of the project — still has to go out. They involve such items
as interior partitions and electrical work.

“When we get those bids
out, and we know our numbers are holding up, that will be a big
relief,” Roznowski said.

Despite the economic downturn, Roznowski
insisted that the project is going “full steam ahead.”

were fortunate enough to have our plans and our finances in place right
before the economy went to hell,” he said. “It almost convinces me of
divine providence. If this process had started as little as two months
earlier, I don’t think we’d be here.”

Besides, Roznowski said, so much
work has been done by now that there is strong incentive to overcome
any unforeseen problems.

“We’re almost too far in to chicken out at
this point,” he said.