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Campus Cool: East Regional Chilled Water Plant by Leers Weinzapfel Associates

Architect of the Year shortlist: material articularion and creative detailing dresses up a university chilled water plant

The Ohio State University, in the heart of the Midwest US, stretches out over the Ohio River in Columbus, Ohio. With more than 65,000 students, the school represents a major brain trust and cultural anchor for the region. The ubiquitous red brick of the mostly mundane university buildings dresses the campus in the school’s colours, while delivering the practical modest livery expected of a Midwest institution. This is the context that Leers Weinzapfel Associates had to work with when asked to design a utility building for the university.

Boston-based Leers Weinzapfel has made a name for itself as a go-to for producing architecturally considered buildings for less than glamorous programmes. Specifically, campus utility buildings and courthouses, two programmes that require nearly opposite considerations. Led by Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzapfel, the firm also consults in masterplanning and materials engineering, two fields that play a major role in its architecture practice. 

‘Our focus has always been on building in the ensemble, the urban ensemble, the campus ensemble. We see architecture as a social art at that scale. What makes it specific though for each building, each piece of the fabric, is the material interpretation’, explains Leers. ‘That is what makes it particular and place specific. We may start with some general ideas about how it lives in its place, serves the larger public, or how it engages the social fabric, but what makes it particular to place is always the material. That leads us to investigating what is the most engaging, sensuous and beautifully detailed material for that circumstance.’

Siteplan

Siteplan

For the Ohio State project – the East Regional Chilled Water Plant – the firm was tasked with placing a completely utilitarian building on a highly trafficked, visible site at the east end of campus. The university was not interested in a flamboyant ‘signature’ building, rather a respectful structure to disguise its back of house. While the mechanical systems of the chiller plant allow for a certain degree of flexibility in placement and orientation, their size and spatial requirements are non-negotiable. This became the genesis of one of the early architectural decisions on the project. To align the building with its neighbours, and save a public facing lawn, its footprint was reduced as much as possible. To achieve this a full one-third of the building was sunken below grade. This lower level also connects the project to a vast tunnel system which delivers the plant’s conditioned water to the surrounding campus. This marriage of formal and spatial moves with practical utility is continued throughout the project. 

‘These buildings often have significant engineering requirements. Having a sense of these and the importance of them, and being able to wrangle them to make the best impact on a particular site, is what clients are hoping for. It is a very interesting dialogue between campus planning and engineering’, says Weinzapfel. ‘It can be very rewarding, because from the beginning we are never sure what is going to be the best solution. It is not that there is just an engineering box that we clothe in elegant materials. It is really developing the massing and site to have a dialogue on campus.’

‘It has become more popular to expose the inner workings of these types of buildings, the orderly, yet complex web of blue, red, green and yellow pipes’

Above ground, the remaining two-thirds of the building are divided into a lower glass volume, which defines the main interior space, and an upper scrimmed exterior space, where the two large cooling towers continuously hum. From the exterior, besides that low hum, it is unclear what exactly the building contains. Besides a nondescript door at the rear there are no immediately apparent entries to the building. The large high-impact resistant translucent ceramic fritted glass shares a pattern with the aluminium panels that enclose the upper half. Hiding the building’s function was not a foregone conclusion though. While the university asked that the interior be hidden, it has become more popular of late to expose the inner workings of these types of buildings, the orderly, yet complex web of blue, red, green and yellow pipes, pumps and valves can produce Pompidou-esque theatrics.  

Leers points out the challenge of placing utilities in often highly public spaces: ‘Campuses find themselves with these huge pieces of equipment in the centre of campus, and they don’t know exactly what to do with them. We have a saying, “too big to hide, better make it beautiful” … The clients want to be good citizens. They want the buildings to contribute as they are so permanent. So the initial impetus for making them beautiful often comes from clients who understand it will be to their detriment if they come out awful in the middle of campus.’

Groundfloorplan

Groundfloorplan

Ground floor plan - click to expand

‘There is a continuum of our thinking about design on campuses and how a new incursion will strengthen what is nascent in a particular place’, Weinzapfel says. ‘And then how to make a final decision about materials that emerge through the design in terms of colour and texture, whether it is glass, steel, metal or wood. At the outset of every project we are not committed to a particular material. It evolves from analysis of the siting and the setting, and how the particular content of the programme can best be expressed.’

The upper level, a large square volume, completes the building’s camouflage. Painted a deep red, mimicking the brick of so many of the campus buildings, perforated aluminium panels rise to the height of the adjacent buildings. By overhanging the base by 10 feet, this volume is also responsible for holding the line of facades that defines the campus edge. Unfortunately, with this overhang comes a missed opportunity. While busy pavements pass the building, a buffer of river stone gravel surrounds its base, preventing pedestrians from occupying the space below the overhang. Though this decision was explained as a way of keeping the condensation, which sometimes drips from the cooling towers, from falling on passers-by, it seems that something could have been done to take advantage of one of the project’s largest architectural moves.

The visual effect of the project is a structure that, although quite different from its surroundings in function and form, blends in surprisingly well. Additionally, due to its placement in a gap in the campus public face, the building visually blocks an unsightly spalling concrete car park. 

‘Projects like the water plant don’t allow for a great deal of architectural expression, but they do allow for some material articulation and creative detailing’

The only time the project steps far out of the visual language of the campus is at night. As the interior of the building must always be lit for security reasons, the lower glass volume is illuminated throughout the night. The warm glow from the interior ghosts the project’s large steel structure onto the glass, hinting that the building’s interior might not contain typical or predictable levels.

After entering the building, the layout quickly becomes clear – the interior is, for the most part, one space. The hum heard outside the building rises in volume as rows of machines, the chillers themselves, fill the expanse. In the large space, a mezzanine level is filled with the types of control panels and gauges to be expected in such a technical programme. While most of the space is tightly filled with large mechanisms, a sizeable clearing allows for big vehicles to pull in to the building to deliver heavy equipment. An overhead gantry crane can reach almost anywhere in the space as well, streamlining maintenance and delivery of equipment. These features are favourites of the engineers that work in the building. 

While projects like the water plant don’t allow for a great deal of architectural expression, they do allow for some material articulation and creative detailing. This plays out in large frosted and fritted glass panes, and the upper level’s perforated panelling. Both the fritting and the perforations come in two sizes. The patterning on the glass provides visual screening, while the perforations are carefully calibrated to a more specific use. Between the two sizes of perforation and staggered gaps between panels, the upper enclosure is 50 per cent void, a requirement of the cooling towers. Like the patterning throughout the project, materials, connections, structure and lighting are all meticulously detailed. This achieves a refined aesthetic while maintaining an industrial utility. Perhaps the most interesting instance of this intersection is the large vehicle door which leads into the main space of the building. Made of the same large glass panels, and integrated into the facade, the door is hardly noticeable. 

Section

Section

Section - click to expand

This approach to materials and detailing is more than simply a design strategy, it is a whole process of research and development that permeates the firm’s work. As with the Regional Chilled Water Plant, this is often most apparent in highly articulated skin systems. Yet their research goes much deeper. One of the main investigations is into the architectural and structural uses of engineered wood. Their research also encompasses campus and urban planning and infrastructure as well as sustainable design. This wide range of expertise can be found in each of the practice’s projects, from highly determined infrastructural buildings to highly programmed courthouses. 

‘These are at the ends of the spectrum, from the unprecedented zone to the over-precedented zone. On the courthouse end we are heavy with Neoclassical traditions, and our clients, the judges, are initially expecting that.’ But Leers has other ideas about how courts should be built. ‘For us what is exciting is that we are embodying one of the three pillars of the democratic system. It is that excitement about making a place that is good for democracy, a real contribution to citizenry. Yet it comes down to a lot of the same things; how do you use light, materials, how do you make spaces that are good for the urban fabric, but also make people feel they are going to get a fair deal, that they are not going to be oppressed. There needs to be an uplifting sense that they are taking part in democracy. That is behind the ideas, but the means are often the same.’

‘Few practices have made a point of designing for such particular programmes with such architectural intent’

And it is in the design of courthouses that the office’s full range becomes clear. In many ways the opposite of the utilitarian campus buildings, the complex programmatic and political constraints make court design a field that few firms venture into. The office uses full-scale prototyping of courtrooms, and has a deep understanding of the particular needs of the justice system. Yet, Leers Weinzapfel has not only designed courthouses. Principals Andrea Leers and Josiah Stevenson teach and advise students and cities around the world in the process. 

Despite their differences, projects such as the water plant and courthouses do share something; in that few practices have made a point of designing for such particular programmes with such architectural intent. Along with these very specific programmes, all of Leers Weinzapfel’s work follows a measured approach. Through research and planning, at both macro and micro levels, the firm has carved out a niche and filled it with thoughtful structures and spaces.

East Regional Chilled Water Plant  

Architect: Leers Weinzapfel Associates

Project team: Jane Weinzapfel, Andrea P Leers, Joseph Raia, Chien Hung-Yang, Juliet Chun

Photographs: Brad Feinknopf/OTTO and Leonardo Carrizo 

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