Repurposing a Power House

The Chester Power Station, located outside Philadelphia, began the 20th century as an electricity generating plant that represented progress and ended it as a smoke-puffing eyesore and an image of economic decline. It stood empty and forgotten for years.

That image changed when Preferred Real Estate Investments (PREI), Conshohocken, Pa., decided to give the building a purpose. It purchased the power plant from Philadelphia Electric Co. (PECO), a unit of Exelon Energy Delivery, for $1 under a provision that it would take on the interior environmental cleanup as the new owner. The company reconstructed the building to house offices, renaming it the Wharf at Rivertown, which would offer all the glamour and modernity the site formerly lacked. Synergy Inc., an incentive-compensation software developer, moved in to fill nearly half the building’s available space and helped launch the revitalization along the Delaware Riverfront.

Robert Ford Electric Co., Bryn Mawr, Pa., provided most of the building’s interior power, including fire alarm; secondary distribution; lighting; powered devices; and heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) power connections. A & E Construction Managers, Upper Darby, Pa., was the general contractor.

The 1919 generating plant was constructed to represent the grandeur of its day with Gothic architecture and Tuscan columns and cornices. It provided power to industries that supplied the Allied Powers during World War I and continued supplying power in Pennsylvania until 1982 when PECO moved to nuclear plants.

The building was unique. Large derricks projected out over slips in the river on each side; giant cranes lifted coal off barges and dumped it into small train cars. The train cars shuttled coal to chutes to feed the boilers, which fired the generators and created electrical power.

The plant comprised three buildings—the Switch House, Turbine Hall and the Boiler House—all of which were restored for office use. The Boiler House now is a six-story office building constructed from the original four-story frame with two more stories added on top.

Most memorable, however, is Turbine Hall, a four-story space that once housed giant turbines. Today, it holds multi-purpose meeting, concert and party areas with extensive classic revival detail. Synergy took over 178,000 square feet of the building as its headquarters, a space that encompasses nearly half the building. Nearly 700 Synergy employees now work in the facility.

Hillier Architecture’s associate principal Sonja Bijelic recalled her first impression of the vacant plant, when she walked into the open area that housed five giant power turbines. “It was magnificent,” she said. Hillier was handed the challenge of transforming a power station into office space for Synergy. The offices needed to be a special place to work, Bijelic said, while remaining functional.

Reconstruction began in 2002 with demolition of all power generating equipment, including boilers, turbines and switchgear. There also was significant structural demolition. Contractors gutted the Boiler House before constructing a new structural system that created multiple floors of meeting space for Synergy. Other tenants would be leasing the Switch House.

“With any historic renovation, the challenge is putting in a new system within an existing structure while maintaining its historic value,” said Jody Arena, vice president of construction for the general contractor A & E Construction.

“The biggest challenge for us was to recognize the previous use in an appropriate way and still create something functional,” Bijelic said. “Your creative vision had to be really clear. It was amazing.”

Clean up and build in

Robert Ford Electric project leaders knew that the facility would be a challenge. “When we walked in, the building had been abandoned 10 years,” said David Pascoe, vice president of project management, Robert Ford. “It was a mammoth cleanup.”

Oil pollution and asbestos were immediate issues. It took six months to complete the environmental cleanup in 2002, and in mid 2003, construction began.

Robert Ford needed to bring high-tech amenities and preserve the lower-tech history. In some cases, the company needed to place the old and new side by side. Robert Ford started by stringing a temporary service to provide power.

After completing the temporary service, workers came back to bring in permanent power, said Stuart Ford, vice president and general counsel. There already was some degree of power in the building. However, the large switchgear that had once served its purpose was removed, so Robert Ford began at square one.

Fourteen boilers, smoke stacks, two large coal bins and five turbines came out of the building.

Turn over without turbines

The focal point for this project, both electrically and structurally, was Turbine Hall. Once the turbines were removed, the power plant’s crane remained and would serve a purpose throughout construction. The crane was used both for demolition and renovation, Bijelic said.

“The crane was very instrumental in construction. I don’t know what we’d have done without it,” she said.

The room, about 300 feet long, had a vaulted ceiling about 85 feet high. Robert Ford’s task was to hang a truss theatrical lighting system above the hall. Using a design devised by A & E Construction superintendent Neil Clerkin, contractors erected the scaffolding on top of the crane, which took about a week, Arena recalled. Then the company had the scaffolding inspected for safety.

The crane was outfitted with pulleys and winches to lift the truss system 85 feet into the air. It took Robert Ford’s men and selected subcontractors four to five weeks on the ceiling to erect the truss system. Working in a suspended space that high created an unusual safety issue for Robert Ford workers. The company hired a safety consultant who remained on-site to provide retrieval support and fall protection if needed, said president Robert Ford. There was a crawl space available above the 100-foot area. It could be used, though concerns about weak plaster in the area kept the excitement level high, Ford said.

The existing Turbine Hall ceiling now has large trusses spanning 96 feet at the center. The truss is a lightweight aluminum system holding the track lighting, speakers, wiring and AV projections that covered about 80 percent of the hall. There are numerous attachment points to the truss using aircraft cable to prevent side-sway.

 “They certainly did a good job and met the needs of the project,” Arena said of Robert Ford. “They did a wonderful job with the truss system installation. It was a huge challenge to fulfill lighting requirements and still preserve the existing ceiling.”

When the lighting system was completed, the crane was fixed permanently there for its historic appeal. “It’s quite visible and obvious. Really, it’s a piece of sculpture,” Bijelic said.

Robert Ford installed Lutron automated screens on the hall windows to allow dimming in the hall when needed. There were several dimming systems in other parts of the facility, all by Lutron, but the main one, Ford said, was the theater lights for Turbine Hall.

The new project also included 10-by-12 foot spaces between the Switch House and Turbine Hall basements to allow a wide breezeway into each building. There, Robert Ford installed decorative wall washers, up lighting and a cube-shaped track with track head lights. In the basement, workers constructed a 6,000-square-foot cafeteria with a kitchen plus a 1,500-square-foot fitness center in which they installed General Electric 120-volt outlets for treadmills and other exercise equipment.

Powering and lighting the future

Robert Ford also provided the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) infrastructure and altogether ran more than 100,000 feet of conduit and cable and installed 18 electric closets. According to Pascoe, Robert Ford workers ran approximately 30 three-phase, 277/480-volt feeders, ranging in size from 200 amperes to 800 amperes from the main switchgear to numerous electrical closets, many through 6- to 8-foot-thick walls.

Robert Ford electricians installed customized lighting along hallways and for office spaces and installed the generator for the UPS system and four major electrical closets to support it.

The project’s historic tax credits required specifics such as historically appropriate lighting fixtures. Not all the lighting was new; about 20 existing large bronze light fixtures were preserved and reinstalled.

“It was a complex installation,” said Larry Manigly, vice president of construction for Robert Ford, made more complex by its high ceilings and floors that were two feet thick.

Robert Ford had 30 men on the project during peak. Ultimately, the renovation was completed on schedule. “The company is fortunate to have over 10 suppliers who regularly provide the equipment, fixtures, devices and materials and specialty items,” Pascoe said.

The entire rehabilitation cost $80 million.

“Because of the complexity and size of the project, each of our prime sources were used. We maintain a close relationship with all of them and are able to receive excellent service because of our financial strength and prompt payment program,” Ford said.

Although the project came to them with certain plans and specifications, Robert Ford modified the relevant documents and became the engineer of record.

“When we come into a project, we often provide either value engineering or design/build services,” Ford said. “[Here,] we offered value engineering and, eventually, engineering of record. We have an expertise in finding new ways to provide electrical services in such a way that costs can be minimized,” he said.   EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at


About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at .

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