WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A BUILDING WITH A LEGACY IS STILL STRUCTURALLY SOUND, BUT FUNCTIONALLY OBSOLETE?
For a 1925 brick steam plant at Amherst College, that question escalated for decades. The structure, designed by respected Gilded Age firm of McKim, Mead & White, was taken out of commission in the 1960s, when a new gas and oil-fired plant was constructed to heat the campus. It became an underutilized garage / storage facility for buildings and grounds crew.
Enter Cambridge’s Bruner/Cott Architects. Amherst’s Director of Design and Construction, Tom Davies, admired the firm’s award-winning conversion of a former factory complex into a new facility for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2012 the college approached the firm about a possible reconceptualization of the steam plant as a place for students to organize events and programming. Bruner/Cott saw powerful potential in the high-ceilinged red brick building. The Powerhouse concept was born.
A small but complicated project. Bruner/Cott Principal Simeon Bruner explains that the process took about a year and a half. The key to success was finding the duality between historic and modern uses. Existing infrastructure was lacking. “Nothing was relevant to what we were doing. It was unheated, except for the thousands of BTUs escaping from the heating plant. There was no wiring, just a self-contained industrial building.”
With an infrared ceiling heating system and insulating glass windows, there was no need to insulate the multi-wythe brick walls with their thermal mass radiating stored heat. In summer, cooling the space is as easy as opening windows and the retractable glass garage door that were installed to blur the lines between exterior and interior. A new patio serves as a gathering place for students in summer months, as well as an overflow area for crowded events.
“By opening to the patio outside, we were able to make it an indoor/outdoor gathering space. We put back windows similar to those that were there,” explains Bruner. Reclaimed brick distinctively toothed in, adds to its historic character.
Reconfiguring the space called for some large-scale structural changes as well. Five of six original columns supporting the ceiling were eliminated. The attic formerly housed roughly 650 tons of coal, but no longer had to bear that load. Columns were converted into trusses, opening the first floor to space that would allow occupants to move freely.
With the addition of state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, students are able to use the space for performances, parties and dances, yoga classes and food truck nights. A unique union of old and new will serve the campus for decades, if not centuries, to come.
“When you look at the building, you still recognize it. When you’re inside it, it’s no longer contained, but open. The hand of the original architect shows through,” Bruner says of the challenges of knitting past and present into one structure.” ~ Katherine Flynn, Assistant Editor, Preservation Magazine