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Beacon Institute Adaptive Reuse Goes Solar

Credits: ©2010 Eco-Structure / David Sokol

Beacon, N.Y., a one-time industrial hub perched on the Hudson River, is hedging its future on the buildings of its past. The slow yet steady revitalization of the city—formerly a major center of brickworks and the hat-making capital of the United States—included the opening of Dia:Beacon in 2003, a conversion of a 300,000-square-foot Nabisco carton-making and printing plant into the home of the Dia Art Foundation’s permanent collection. Meanwhile, Beacon’s namesake former high school has been refashioned into a complex of artist studios, and a group of residents is restoring the 78-year-old Mount Beacon Fire Tower overlooking the Hudson Valley. The Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries is another linchpin in Beacon’s reinvention. To create a campus on the waterfront peninsula of Denning’s Point, the not-for-profit environmental research organization also engaged in adaptive reuse. Building the institute’s facility, a 4,500-square-foot building known as the Center for Environmental Innovation and Education (CEIE), involved stripping a 19th-century masonry structure to its bare essentials and reconstructing and expanding it to LEED-Platinum green building standards.


Beacon Institute South Side

On the south elevation both provides an arcade for the entry and houses two 30-tube solar evacuated collector panels. ©2010 Eco-Structure Magazine

Gensler has overseen the project since then-Gov. George Pataki proposed the creation of the institute in 2000. Shortly thereafter, when the architects began grappling with the renovation of the Denning’s Point building specifically, they ran the risk of ruin.

Oliver Schaper, Gensler senior associate, recalls his first encounter with the building, after using a machete to see past the second-growth forest enshrouding it. “It was a brick shell, and the roof deck had multiple holes in it thanks to fallen branches from a nearby cottonwood tree,” he recalls. Originally it housed a coal-fired generator for Denning’s Point Brick Works, a manufacturing operation that encompassed the northernmost linear mile of the peninsula. Some time after the brickworks was shuttered, a new occupant used the building for light industrial purposes, carving a series of garage doors into the western elevation.

The architects tended to the components of the original structure that could be saved. To rebuild untenable portions of the three-brick-thick walls, Schaper and his colleagues tapped a supplier of recycled brick—whose delivery unwittingly included one pallet of building blocks made at Denning’s Point. Precast concrete matching the original bluestone windowsills were substituted for existing pine lintels. And wherever one of the building’s six original pine trusses showed rot, new timber was inserted. “Old-growth wood is three times stronger than wood today. You couldn’t recreate it, having to use glulam or some composite engineered product,” Schaper says, explaining why the trusses were replaced in sections rather than entirely.

The western elevation proved more resistant to piecework. The timber lintels framing the vehicle-size openings balanced precariously, so that even the slightest change could cause collapse. Therefore the entire wall was constructed from scratch, using concrete masonry units and a single-layer brick curtainwall; all demolition material was recycled.

Gensler recreated the original window openings throughout the building’s vintage volume, and attached aluminum stock to off-the-shelf double-glazed and argon-filled aluminum windows to look like the many-mullioned steel lights of yore. “Like with wood,” Schaper says, “brick from 100 years ago is much denser and harder than brick today.” Even so, upon furring out interior walls, the design team specified 4 inches of mineral wool insulation that exceeds code minimums.

To accommodate CEIE’s mechanical systems, Schaper designed a steel-frame, cedar plank–clad addition topped by an intensive green roof, which meets the old generator building at a right angle. It also serves as the CEIE’s front door. A galvanized steel armature mounted to the southern elevation of this new wing effects an arcade for the entry sequence and holds two 30-tube solar evacuated collector panels that provide all of the center’s domestic hot water during the summer and more moderate weeks of spring and autumn. In winter, the evacuated tubes get a boost from the geothermal system made up of 10 closed loops that reside in the addition’s basement alongside the pair of tanks that services three composting toilets.

These systems enter the generator building via a “pinch point” and occupy an 8-foot-wide mechanical mezzanine whose dropped ceiling demarcates a conference room; the building foundation was reinforced at this point to shoulder the additional weight. Another alteration made to the old building in order to accept new technologies is the trio of natural ventilation towers that pierce the Galvalume standing-seam roof. Schaper points out the ring of thin-tube radiators ringing the interior of each tower: They provide a necessary heat sink for the solar system, and the increased temperature induces a stacking effect that enhances ventilation through the building volumes.

The redesign of the CEIE represents the best of both worlds. Gensler treated a vernacular building much like a landmark, but took liberties to improve building performance that would be excluded by official protections. The result gracefully combines historical sympathy, physical comfort, and energy efficiency, and sets a high bar for the conversion of the nearby Noesting Pin Ticket building into the 27,000-square-foot Center for Advanced Environmental Research by Croxton Collaborative Architects, the institute’s upcoming project and the next milestone in Beacon’s enlightened rebirth.

David Sokol writes about design and architecture from Beacon, N.Y.

Relevant books:
Handbook of Sustainable Refurbishment Vol 1
Preservation Yellow Pages by NTHP

Green Restorations: Sustainable Building and Historic Homes