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Wednesday, November 24,2010

Deco after dark

Ottawa Power Station tries on its new evening gown

by Lawrence Cosentino
Pointing and gaping at the emerging charms of the Ottawa Power Station, now nearing the end of its renovation into the world headquarters of the Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America, has been a favorite exercise in downtown Lansing for the past two years.

So far, ogling Ottawa has been a daytime sport. The once-rusty windows gleam in great crystalline sheets and the walls burn with orange and yellow flame. The new strip of lawn on Grand Avenue is bright green and the erectorset turbine crane gantry looming over the main entrance is bright red.


But Grand Avenue motorists and River Walk pedestrians glimpsed a new dimension to the project this month, as workers tested a $225,000 exterior lighting system that will drape the former plant’s rugged shoulders in soft, luminous folds. The testing is expected to continue for a few weeks.


One of those spectators was architect Paul Jacob, who led the design and planning team for the Christman Co., the project’s lead contractor.


“I’ve gone across the river and seen this building come alive at night and glow,” Jacob said. “What it’s doing visually to that part of the city is dramatic.”


All buildings, Jacob said, change character when the sun goes down. After dark, the muscular Ottawa plant will show a softer side.


“When day turns to night, the lighting will change the perception from this massive brick building into one that’s very light and airy and graceful,” Jacob said.


The lighting accents the vertical thrust of the 1939 Art Deco building, with its step-up form and black-to-orange-to-yellow masonry meant to evoke a giant flame rising over the river.


The lights are most dramatic on the building’s massive east and west faces. When the system is fully operational in the spring, slim pillars of light will beam upward from the ground, where the building is broadest, echoed by another bank of vertical beams at the topmost, narrowest slab.


By day or night, the plant’s east and west walls are the most conspicuous, but the lighting design doesn’t stop there.


“This is a four-sided building,” Jacob said. “We also have the skyline sides — the north and south ends that aspire to the sky.”


These will be lit from top to bottom, partly because the Ottawa plant’s windows are shaped like the plant’s slim silhouette. At night, the windows, lit from within, and the north and south faces, lit from outside, will sound towering variations on the same theme.


To Jacob, the design “seemed to express the very essence of the building, what it was trying to aspire to.”


He said the overall effect will be enhanced by the glassy new annex to the north of the former power plant.


“You have a glowing, transparent glass box, so light next to the massive brick tower, a horizontal jewel next to the vertical orientation of the power plant,” he said.


But there’s an environmental price for looking that good.


Christman Co. and the Accident Fund will apply for LEED, or Leadership in Energy Efficient Design certification, for the Ottawa/Accident Fund project, but nobody expects the project to earn any points for those extra towers of light.


“The LEED people would prefer we
didn’t light the building at all,” Jacob said. “The concept of using
energy to light the exterior of a building, in some ways, runs
antithetical to what they’re trying to accomplish with good
energy-efficient building.”


In
the LEED certification scheme, exterior lighting is part of a complex
point system that credits builders for a wide range of sustainable
practices, from recycling building materials to using energy-efficient
lighting.


There is a
LEED credit for reducing light pollution, but the Ottawa project isn’t
going for it, according Gavin Gardi, sustainability programs manager for
the Christman Co., the project’s lead contractor. Gardi is the LEED
project administrator for the Ottawa refit. He said the credits for
reducing light pollution are “very stringent,” and only 5 percent of
projects seeking LEED certification get them.


However, the lights at the former Ottawa plant are heavily shielded and pinpointed to minimize light pollution.


“We tried to follow the intent of the credits, understanding that we probably wouldn’t get them,” Gardi said.


For
hardware, the design team chose high-pressure sodium and metal halide
bulbs, which equal or exceed LED lights as the most efficient type
available.


“They’re
more for the yellow glow,” Ottawa project director Chad Teeples said.
“LED lights are too intensely white for the purpose.”


Teeples
estimated that the exterior lighting would cost $1,400 per year. Gardi
said the exterior lighting will probably amount to “less than 1 percent”
of the building’s total light bill.


“That’s a really big building with a lot of interior lights,” Gardi said.


Steve
Reynolds, vice president of strategic planning at Accident Fund, said
the company is “comfortable with both the cost and maintenance
requirements for this important contributor to the success of our
downtown campus.”


It’s
not yet known what level of LEED certification the Ottawa project will
seek, but Gardi said the massive building is a special case compared to
Christman’s downtown Lansing offices, also a historic refit, and the
first triple platinum LEEDcertified building in the world.


“It’s
a give and take, like everything else,” Gardi said. “In this case, the
decision was made to light the exterior of the building due to its
historic nature and its grandeur.”


In
Jacob’s view, the building deserves to be iconic by night as well as by
day. “It sends a message in terms of the stature that building holds in
the community,” he said.


A strong night presence, Jacob said, will make the building a “fulcrum” of downtown activity, and Gardi agreed.


“Part
of the benefit of having a landmark downtown building is to get people
participating downtown after dark,” Gardi said. “A little energy
expended is well worth it.”

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