The General Electric (GE) Company has a long history of technological innovation. GE Energy is considered a global leader in the field of renewable energy systems, including wind and solar power as well as “smart grid” technology. To maintain its competitive advantage, the Renewable Energy Business, a subdivision of GE Energy, needed to consolidate and expand its offices into one centralized location, complete with a world-class headquarters for 650 employees. It also required an inviting grand entrance to prominently display the Renewable Energy Business’ technologies and products.
To accomplish these tasks, GE Energy and its plant engineering team evaluated several options, including the construction of a new building. Through a master planning study with EYP Architecture & Engineering of Albany, N.Y., GE Energy ultimately chose to adaptively reuse Building 53 — a 100-year-old building within the historic Schenectady, N.Y. plant, itself home to many technological advancements and inventions throughout the past century. When the project began, Building 53 was used only for document storage and processing, except for a critical computer server on the fifth floor. Completed in late 2009, the new Building 53 not only meets the clients’ goals, but has already garnered accolades for its bold architectural aesthetic set against the background of neighboring utilitarian facilities.
Goals and challenges
Building 53 exemplifies the innovative spirit of GE. This five-story reinforced concrete structure was constructed in 1909, is more than 600 feet long, and includes more than 200,000 square feet of floor space. It was a rather daring building for its time, especially given that reinforced concrete buildings were in their infancy in the early 1900s. Even the exterior walls and architectural elements such as window mullions and cornices are reinforced concrete. As such, transforming Building 53 from an almost-vacant and aesthetically non-descript industrial building into a technologically advanced office and research facility was not without significant engineering challenges.
Simply analyzing the building proved to be somewhat challenging, since Building 53 was designed and detailed differently than what is required by current codes. Published in 1909, the Cyclopedia of Civil Engineering reported in Volume IV, Page 218 states, “the failure of a (concrete) beam by actual shear is almost unknown. . . It seems impracticable to develop a rational formula for the amount of resistance furnished by these diagonal (shear reinforcement) bars, unless we make assumptions which are doubtful and which therefore vitiate the reliability of the whole calculation. Therefore the rules which have been suggested for this form of failure are wholly empirical.”
Further complicating matters was that two bays of the building would be removed to make room for the atrium. After evaluating the detailing and observing that the building had performed exceptionally well in the past (even when subjected to heavy storage loads) and determining that the effect of removing two bays of the building had very little impact on the overall structural system, it was concluded that the building could adequately support the significantly lower office live loads, even with the two bays removed. The relatively close spacing of the existing column grid was conducive to office occupancy, but the conference areas were located within an addition to the north, a single-story wing constructed of traditional framing of open web bar joists and perimeter steel beams with just a hint of structural light-gage framing at the entrance canopies.
Tolerances — All building systems were inadequate, so the building was stripped down to bare concrete. Next, the two bays were removed to construct the new atrium. At this point, LeChase Construction Services, the construction manager from Rochester, N.Y., realized that the building was not constructed to the same tolerances as modern buildings, so the building was laser scanned to obtain an accurate three-dimensional image of the building. The results were surprising. The elevation of the ground floor varied by almost a foot, so getting a reference elevation was challenging. The other floors also varied in elevation, each by a couple of inches. Further, the exterior walls were out of plumb by more than six inches in some areas, and these same walls varied from the theoretical edge of the building by nearly six inches in each direction. To remedy these issues, raised flooring was added to each floor, simultaneously addressing the variations in the floor and allowing GE significant flexibility in laying out office areas. Also, a structural light-gage sub-frame was installed along the entire surface of the building’s exterior to provide a plumb and straight substrate for the nearly two acres of insulated metal wall panels.
Foundations — Located adjacent to the Mohawk River, the plant is within a flood plain with very poor subgrade conditions. The existing building is founded on tapered concrete-filled pipe piles that are only 20 feet long, while the new atrium and the north addition are founded on augered displacement piles 16 inches in diameter and 40 feet long. Some variation of a drilled pile was the only feasible foundation type for the additions; spread footings would have excessive settlements relative to the existing pile-supported building, and driven piles could have caused objectionable vibrations to the building, particularly to the computer server on the fifth floor. Augered displacement piles were ultimately selected over small-diameter caissons, primarily for expediency — each pile was drilled, reinforced, and grouted within about five minutes. An added benefit of this type of pile is that installation results in essentially no spoils. Rather than removing a shaft of soil and replacing that void with concrete like a caisson, the drilling motion actually compacts the soil around the shaft, effectively improving the subgrade.
Installation of the piles was not without some challenges. Over time, other buildings that surrounded Building 53 have been dismantled down to the foundations, several of which interfered with the new work. Thankfully, these abandoned pile caps had significant excess capacity and were in serviceable condition, so they were incorporated into the new work. Given the fast pace at which the piles were being installed, the structural framing for the north addition (the decision to expand the size of the north addition was made after pile installation began) had to be redesigned in just a couple of days, and the new foundation system took advantage of all of the piles already installed so that nothing was lost. It was also necessary to work around abandoned, but uncharted foundations, including a buried equipment pad 40 feet long by 15 feet wide by 4 feet thick.
|After: The north façade of GE Building 53, unveiled in the fall of 2009.
|Before: The 100-year-old GE Building 53 prior to its transforming renovation.
Courtesy of EYP Architects & Engineering, P.C.
Architecture — The atrium, perhaps Building 53’s greatest architectural statement, presented an extreme engineering challenge — 65-foot-tall unbraced columns supporting a cantilevering sunshade that takes reference in form to wind turbine blade technology. The exposed steel columns are fabricated from W24s with 15-inch channels welded to each flange. The steel fabricator ordered full-length W24s directly from the steel mill, eliminating the need for costly splices. Through a collaborative design process with the architects, these columns evolved from purely structural members into significant architectural elements intended to compliment the industrial heritage of GE. Interestingly, these columns are specifically located away from the corners of the atrium so that visitors can have unobstructed views of the entire plant. This also gives the impression that the sunshade is floating overhead. Large tubes, dubbed “hanging columns” by the construction management team, were hung from roof steel to frame out the corners and to provide vertical support for the sunshade. The frame for the sunshade is a tube constructed of a 12-inch channel with a 1/4-inch plate, giving the corners a crisp, sharp edge. The sunshade was completely prefabricated in 20- and 40-foot-long units, with special detailing at the intersections of connecting units for strips of LED lighting. The units’ width was set at 12 feet, the maximum width that can be shipped without the need for extra-wide shipping permits. Although a 12-foot cantilever may sound large, it looks quite small when set against the building, and helps to address pedestrian scale to the atrium. Slender tubes provide lateral support for the curtain wall, but these girts were designed to mimic the curtain wall framing, thus effectively hiding them from view. From within the atrium, visitors can peer through a curved glass partition wall into the Global Wind Monitoring Center, where GE staff monitor, in real-time, approximately 13,675 wind turbines throughout the world.
Recently, Building 53 became the first adaptive reuse project in the area to achieve LEED Silver certification from the United States Green Building Council, underscoring GE’s commitment to sustainability and the environment. The project includes on-site photovoltaic panel arrays that provide electricity to the building and demonstrate the products and engineering capabilities of the Renewable Energy Business’ Solar Energy Division. A one-tenth scale model of a wind turbine produced by the Wind Energy Group is the centerpiece of the atrium. To the north of Building 53, a full-scale turbine blade is displayed adjacent to the photovoltaic panel arrays in a serene, sculpture-park-like setting for hands-on viewing of PV panels and the wind turbine blade as well as quiet reflection on GE Building 53.
Thanks to the progressive thinking of GE Energy, Building 53 has regained its former glory and can now proudly serve GE for at least another 100 years. Vice President of the Renewable Energy Business Victor Abate stated: “The rebirth of Building 53 as our Renewable Energy Global Headquarters is an important symbol of the rapid growth and success of our renewable energy business, particularly in the wind sector. Building 53 captures the spirit of our renewable energy business, which is committed to developing and delivering cleaner and more efficient energy solutions for our customers worldwide.”
Spotlight: EYP Architecture & Engineering P.C.
Q&A with the structural engineer and architect
JG: What was most interesting thing about this project that inspired you during the design process?
MK: Working very closely with the architects, especially with respect to the atrium framing, where we inspired each other to blur the boundaries between architecture and structure.
MO: The team was excited about the potential of revitalizing a 100-year-old infrastructure into a state-of-the-art corporate headquarters.
JG: What was the first task you needed to do to get started?
MK: Review available record drawings to determine the load-carrying capacity of the building.
JG: What was the most challenging aspect of the structural design? How was it solved?
MK: The architects wanted the corners of the atrium to be free of columns so that the sunshield would appear to be floating overhead. To support the sunshade and to provide structure at the corners of the atrium space, tube columns (dubbed “hanging columns” by the Construction Manager) were hung from the roof framing, ending at the sunshield, about 14 feet above the ground floor.
MO: Close collaboration was required for the design and placement of the steel columns in the atrium. In order to accentuate the verticality of the atrium space and minimize horizontal bracing, architects and engineers closely collaborated in the development of each other’s details.
JG: What was the most unique problem to solve on the project? How was it solved?
MO: The most unique challenge was adapting to the inconsistencies and variations of the existing concrete structure. This was addressed by completing a three dimensional survey of all horizontal and vertical surfaces to serve as a template for building sections.
MK: The tolerances of the existing building were significant – the ground floor varied in elevation by over 12 inches, exterior walls were out of plumb by 6 inches, and the actual edge of building varied from the theoretical edge by 6 inches in each direction.
JG: What lessons did you learn from this project that you will apply towards future projects?
MO: The importance of completing a three dimensional survey of the existing building early in design to document the variations that may be present.
MK: Yes, an accurate survey of an existing building is essential.
JG: Did this project have owner-required sustainable design goals?
MK: Yes, the client desired a LEED Silver certification for the building.
JG: What sustainable aspects were pursued by the team to achieve the LEED rating?
MO: The new structural steel and portions of the concrete structure that were removed both applied toward the Material and Resources credit for the LEED Certification. The steel was documented as recycled material and the concrete floor was ground on site and used to fill in an abandoned utility tunnel.
MK: Structural steel was chosen because of its high recycled content. Furthermore, adaptive reuse of the building is more environmentally friendly than construction of a new building.
JG: Is there anything you’d like to discuss regarding your role or the architectural challenges of this project?
MO: The client envisioned the atrium to be a symbolic and dramatic entrance to the building. From within, the exposed atrium structure was designed to appear as a strong vertical foreground supporting the expansive glazed skin. Working side by side — literally and figuratively — with the structural engineers allowed us to develop detailing which made the structure and glazed skin virtually become one.
Firm Facts: EYP Architecture & Engineering P.C.
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Mark C. Kanonik, P.E., LEED AP, is a senior structural engineer with EYP Architecture & Engineering P.C. He is based in the Albany, N.Y., office and has more than 20 years of experience in historic preservation and adaptive reuse and is a former adjunct professor of architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. He can be reached at 518-431-3406 or email@example.com. Moumita Ganguly, LEED AP, is a structural designer at the same firm and can be reached at 407-208-9386 or firstname.lastname@example.org.