The former coal-burning power plant in Beloit, Wisconsin, was a big, obtrusive obstacle between the campus of Beloit College and the scenic Rock River. The Blackhawk Generating Station had been in the city since 1908, and its tall smokestack and massive beige brick walls made it a local landmark. But after it was closed for good in 2010, the power plant mainly just stood in the way.
So when Beloit College was offered the chance to redevelop the decommissioned plant, college officials saw an opportunity to turn the building into a new campus hub. The college tapped Chicago-based Studio Gang, an architecture firm known as much for its creative skyscrapers as its penchant for adapting old, obsolete structures. The resulting design transforms the former power plant into a 120,000-square-foot student union, fitness center, and conference space that links to the riverfront.
Now known as the Beloit Powerhouse, the project is the winner of the Spaces and Places category in Fast Company‘s 2021 Innovation By Design awards.
Studio Gang adapted the coal-burning facility into a collection of discrete but linked spaces, including student club meeting rooms, a cafe, and an eight-lane swimming pool. The $38 million project also serves a variety of sports and fitness activities. A cavernous new addition houses an all-weather sports practice field and multi-purpose event space that opens up to the outside with huge hangar doors on each end. It’s a redevelopment that preserved almost the entirety of the historic power plant, including some of the large-scale equipment and infrastructure that made the power plant run.
“There were so many amazing objects within the building,” says Juliane Wolf, design principal and partner at Studio Gang. During the design process, Wolf and her team did a building walk-through with some of the college’s students to get a sense of how they envisioned their future student union. “The students put stickers on all of the pieces of equipment or structure that they really loved, and those were the ones we tried to keep and were for the most part successful.”
Levers, dials, and gauges from the plant’s control station remain on display as a quirky callback, and the inverted cone shaped hoppers that once funneled coal into the building’s bowels now house a bar and will soon hold an indoor climbing wall. In the basement, students can play table tennis next to remnants of the oversized piping system that helped spin the plant’s turbines.
“What ended up being most influential in terms of informing the design was the structure itself,” Wolf says. The innards of the building held a remarkable web of industrial beams and structures, all meant to hold the huge equipment required to process and burn coal. “It almost looks like a gigantic jungle gym inside,” Wolf says. Though some pieces of equipment were removed to make space for the student center’s amenities, much of this interior jungle gym formed the structural support for one of the project’s key design elements: an elevated running track that loops its way through the entire complex. On a jog, students can pass over social spaces, glimpse the pool through windows, pass by a gym, and look down on the turf-covered practice field.
“It was really important to us, and the college agreed, to have visual connection between all of the different activities within the building,” Wolf says. “Just because you have a lot of people in the same building doesn’t necessarily mean that they mix. That the architecture could help that interaction was really attractive.”
Though historic preservation rules limited the amount of alterations they could make, Wolf and her colleagues designed a series of windows, viewing areas, and literal punctures into the existing structure to make those visual connections. At the main building’s north end, for example, a hole was made in the wall that allows the running track to poke out into the airspace of the new practice field. “We felt it was worth doing for that quite amazing experience,” Wolf says.
Even the plant’s smokestack has been reused. Wolf explains that the space beneath it is now a conference center. A large piece of glass was placed at the ceiling where the smokestack enters the room, turning the former exhaust pipe of the factory into an unexpected skylight. “It’s a little bit more like an art installation,” she says. “It’s a smaller scale intervention, but it’s a fun way to engage with the building.”
See more from Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards. Our new book, Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform the Way We Live and Work (Abrams, 2021), is on sale now.