The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

From coal to cool: New MSU STEM building re-purposes 1947 power plant

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor



EAST LANSING - The nation's move toward greener sources of energy is leading to the shutdown and decomissioning of coal-fired power plants all over the nation.

The fate of the old power plants, almost universally, is a date with a wrecking crew. After all, what can you do with decades-old, grimy, smelly, industrial buildings whose sole purpose was to turn the burning of coal into electrical or steam production?

They asked that question at Michigan State University - is there any way the long-shuttered Shaw Lane Power Plant could be re-purposed into a useful building? And they came up with a remarkably creative concept: adding and adapting space at the old plant at Shaw Lane and Red Cedar into the campus hub for the MSU's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curricula. 

"These coal-fired plants aren't typically renovated, there are maybe a half-dozen around the country that have been re-used while there have been hundreds that have been decommissioned and demolished over the past number of years," said Matthew Bort, senior project manager for Granger Construction, which is managing the project. "What we're doing here is a very unique, very challenging project."

The 117,000-square-foot, $100 million STEM Teaching and Learning Facility "will house undergraduate teaching laboratories, project laboratories and breakout space that will support gateway courses for biological sciences, chemistry, computer science, physics and engineering," according to MSU. The university said the facility will include modern teaching laboratories and promote interdisciplinary and collaborative opportunities for research on teaching and learning, and create a campus hub across the sciences, arts and humanities.

Work began on the project in September 2018, and is expected to wrap up by Nov. 1, 2020. Michigan State University's Planning, Design and Construction Project Manager Ken Gottschalk said "we came into the project expecting to do a significant amount of hazardous materials abatement, and there was even more than we expected as we got into the work. But generally we dealt with what you'd expect. Lots of coal dust, ash, lots of grime; we definitely gave the place a good power-washing."

The 40,000 square feet of renovated space inside the old power plant will creatively retain one of the facility's three dead boilers, which will be reused as conference space. Also being kept exposed inside the building as items marking the plant's history are a coal silo, a water tank and some piping. 

Space that's being added to the north and south sides of the old power plant are being framed with exposed "mass timber" instead of conventional steel. "It was cost-neutral between using wood and steel, and using the mass timber definitely adds to the 'cool factor' of the project," Gottschalk said. 

He said during the building's planning process, Michigan-sourced timber would have been preferred, but our state doesn't produce in sufficient qualities the lumber species that would offer enough strength for the project. Instead, responsibly harvested black spruce from northern Canada that's nearing the end of its 80- to 120-year life cycle is being employed. The lumber cut from those trees is glued together to form the structural sections. Even with all the lumber, the building is still being put together with some 272 tons of steel for items like base plates, bracing rods and connection plates.

To tie everything together, Building Industry Modeling (BIM) software is being universally employed on the project. "There's definitely a learning curve with mass timber, we've never used it before," Gottschalk said. "So everything we're doing is being designed in BIM, and it helps us know where everything goes.  The wood will be exposed, so we can't be drilling holes where we don't want holes." A significant portion of the project, including restroom water closets, utility hangers and duct work, is being prefabricated offsite.

The Shaw Lane Power Plant was in service from 1947 to 1975, when almost all the major power production was transferred to the T.B. Simon Power Plant on campus. There is actually a category for the exterior design of the Shaw Plant - "Architectural Gothic." Located nearly in the shadow of Spartan Stadium, the plant's 230-foot iconic smokestack with MSC painted on it (for the former Michigan State College) was dismantled in 2011.

The completed STEM Teaching and Learning Facility will create four floors of space for MSU. The space will include conference areas, a student commons, food service, wet laboratories, offices, breakout space and a fourth floor student studio in the former power plant. 

"Sometimes we forget how many students take STEM-related classes but may not necessarily go into an aligned major. This building is designed for those introductory classes that allow ways to teach and learn differently,” said MSU Provost June Pierce Youatt. “The spaces will not look like the science laboratories of days gone by.”

Gottschalk said the project is moving along well and on schedule. "We're really pleased with the progress," he said. "Granger, the subs, the trades have all made a really good team. And we do a lot of team-building here, and that makes for a great project." Gottschalk said on a regular basis, people working on the project are recognized with a "reward for awesomeness" for going above and beyond their normal jobs. 

Granger's Bort said his basic concern about the structural aspect of the STEM project centers around what to take out, and what to put back, to help make the final product more of an asset to Michigan State University. "So there are challenges on a couple of fronts," Bort said.

"Structurally, during the demolition process, we took out a hundreds of tons of material. The sheer weight and amount of structure removed was impressive. Now, with the new structure, it's amazing how the fabricated pieces are going together, these are being put together with 1/32 tolerances. And, it's been great - we haven't had a problem." 


MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY’S 117,000 square-foot STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering Math) building features the unlikely, dramatic re-use of the  Shaw Lane Power Plant (1947) into a development that will include classroom, meeting and office space. The project includes north and south additions that are being framed with a unique “mass timber” system that will be exposed inside.


INSTALLING HANGERS in a “mass timber” ceiling of the  Michigan State University’s STEM project is Josh Bursley of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 333. He’s employed by Gunthorpe.


INSTALLING SPANNERS prior to installing duct shafts above the new south section of the Michigan State University’s STEM project are (l-r) Donald Willems III and Jerry O’Brien of Sheet Metal Workers Local 7. They’re employed by Dee Cramer. Behind them is the top of the old coal-burning Shaw Lane Power Plant, which is being re-purposed as part of the project.