A Celebration of Infrastructure

The new Power Center for the University of Cincinnati (UC) demonstrates that utilitarian infrastructure can be transformed into an elegant and intriguing work of architecture that celebrates its functional purpose. The central plant facility also exemplifies the vital and key role infrastructure plays in institutional growth and sustainability.

Strategically located on a prominent site between the university’s main campus and its academic medical center campus, the Power Center serves both campuses and strongly defines the interface of campus and community. Bold rooftop cooling towers sheathed in a diaphanous veil of shimmering stainless steel and a glass north face of the building make engineering visible in a heroic and poetic expression. Horizontal elements, an undulating brick façade, and brick boiler houses mitigate the scale of the large plant in the context of its neighborhood.

Cambridge Seven Associates (C7A), urban planners and architects of Cambridge, MA, served as design architect for the $105-million project, which was executed in two phases. C7A worked under contract to prime engineers M·Engineering, Inc. of Westerville, OH, for the major, second-phase expansion.

Ronald Kull, AIA, associate vice president and university architect for UC, noted,“A great deal of attention was paid to the scale, texture, and materials of the plant in relation to the phases of the project and to the context of the community. Horizontal elements reduce the vertical height. The use of brick with striations relates to the brick neighborhood and creates a sense of continuity that makes the phased additions appear as one plant. Decorative elements and lighting make the cooling towers appear lighter. The building is opened at the north end to make the equipment inside visible. We relied on Cambridge Seven Associates’ design capabilities to understand how to use these elements.”

“The University of Cincinnati has an established reputation for signature architecture, and the new Power Plant fits in that group. Even a utility infrastructure project had to measure up to the rest of the quality buildings we have,” he continued.

Scale and Identity
The first phase of the University Power Center was completed in 1993. The massing of C7A’s design was influenced by the dimensions of the boiler equipment. Three individual boiler“houses” are sheathed with frameless metal panels and standing-seam metal roofs. Facing the community, the scale of the houses fits appropriately with buildings across the street. Support spaces and a 150-ft.-high stack are clad in iron-spot brick articulated with red and black bands, continuing the brick vocabulary of the neighborhood.

The second phase of the Power Center, completed in 2005, consists of chiller and cooling tower capacity necessary to produce 19,000 tons of chilled water and includes the large cooling towers and chilled water connections to the campus. The expansion also incorporates a new 49-MW co-generation plant accommodating two combustion turbine generators with heat recovery boilers and a steam turbine generator, as well as major campus electrical service rearrangements by M-Engineering, Inc., including connections to the campus.

The design concept of the expansion places twelve cooling towers in a single row on top of the chiller building and existing boiler plant. They are screened with large-scaled, 4-ft.-wide stainless steel louvers designed to unify the overall building massing of the addition and existing boiler plant while transforming the building’s image to one of lightness and transparency. An undulating brick wall reduces the scale on the large, linear building. The north wall has a glazed façade, making engineering and equipment visible and juxtaposing the transparency of the glass with the solidity of the brick.

Charles Redmon, FAIA, principal of C7A, described the design challenges. “What do you do with 40-ft.-high stack of 12 cooling towers on a building 350 ft. in length? It was a bold step to put the cooling towers on the roof. But we screened these towers with a diaphanous veil of stainless steel louvers. The shimmering quality of the metal and the curved surface creates the effect of a sheer curtain. At night, with a floating cloud of steam rising from the top, the plant has a mysterious, ethereal quality. In contrast, the red brick continues the industrial vocabulary of the first phase of the project in a machined and orderly way.”

University Planning and Community Process
The new Power Plant was the result of the university’s long-term planning effort to meet growth and consolidate utility connections. A utilities master plan was coupled with a physical master plan to determine the university’s infrastructure capabilities to service current needs and to plan for future growth.

UC had been served by two power plants, one in the (south)west quadrant of the campus, and one in the (north)east medical campus quadrant. The overall study recommended one primary plant, implemented in two phases, and identified the university-owned site at the juncture of the two campuses as the consolidated location. Strategically positioned as a link serving both campuses, the new utility plant sits on the highest ridge of the campuses. The existing east campus plant is used as a couplet for the new central plant. Connections allow UC to ship chilled water and steam back and forth, depending on demand, as well as protect against unforeseen emergencies or critical needs. And, like many large institutions facing demands and costs of utilities, co-generation capabilities planned for in the second phase allow the university to off-load and shed operating costs; in effect, underwriting the capital program.

“The [planning] process precipitated a long engagement with the community. Together we examined what needs could be fulfilled through the project and what the university could offer the community in terms of assistance with its business district stabilization. The design took into consideration the issues of scale, noise, and identity. The community ultimately accepted the project, with the process resulting in more meaningful dialogue between the university and the neighborhood council, and the creation of the first neighborhood development corporation supported by the university,” stated Kull.

Charles Redmon also reflected on the process. “We did a number of studies in which it became very clear that a major issue was the massive scale of the building. We had to think through the best strategy for dealing with what is like a beached cruise ship, and used design elements to match the neighborhood. The project looks like it belongs.”

The university is continuing to implement long-term plans for the area, including the restructuring of the north area and its intersection in order to create what Kull termed a “greater sense of place.”

Utilities and Co-Generation Capabilities
M-Engineering, Inc. undertook the engineering design of the new Power Plant expansion and its successful connections throughout the campus, providing full mechanical, electrical, fire protection, and structural systems design.

Based on a feasibility study in 2000 and other project developments on campus, M·Engineering, Inc. proceeded with the design and construction of the new 19,000-ton chiller plant, operational in the spring of 2003, and the 49-MW co-generation plant, completed and commissioned in May 2004. The electric generation capability of the co-generation plant is accomplished through two 13.5-MW combustion turbines, one 20-MW steam turbine, and one 2-MW “black start” generator.

Electric utility service was relocated to the new central plant and redistributed through the campus system. Power is distributed to the east and west campuses and the central utility plant through 15-kV service switchgear located on the first floor of the plant, and 15-kV distribution switchgear located on the mezzanine of the second phase central utility plant. This switchgear also interconnects four Cinergy utility feeders with the university’s generating capacity to allow parallel and two-way power flow with the utility.

M-Engineering, Inc. also installed heat recovery steam generators for up to 240,000 lbs/hr. of steam for use in the university’s steam distribution system. Three existing chillers from the west campus plant were relocated, and four new chillers installed. The project also included the installation of 4,000 ft. of 3-in. main chilled water distribution piping to connect the new chiller plant to the campus distribution system.

Daniel I. Schoenberger, PE of M-Engineering summarized, “With today’s rising economic pressures facing university and colleges, the need to provide reliable, efficient, and economical utility services is of growing concern. This project represents to a bold step allowing the University of Cincinnati to control their own destiny in providing these services with a flexible utility infrastructure.”