The original plans still existed for the building, which indicated that the building was framed with concrete and rebar. However, the project team came to discover that alternate specs were used and that some of the beams were steel with epoxy coating encased in concrete. Testing ensured that the live loads would be supported with the concrete beams removed and steel beams left intact, Perrone says.
A stairwell to the lower level is nestled beside one of the retained steel beams. The new opening was surrounded by large beeswax-sealed steel plates, which also line the stairwell.
A jumble of old pipes, original ducts and systems—some containing asbestos—had to be abated and demolished to reclaim overhead space, especially in the basement. “Most of the building had its original 1930s ductwork and the heating system was still steam,” says Scott Fitch, principal with MEP engineer ICDS of Guilford, Conn. This resulted in very low ceilings on the lower level. To open up the space, ceiling cassette-type fan coil units were used locally, minimizing the need for ductwork to heat and cool while increasing energy efficiency.
While he knew the old ducts had to come down, Mellow couldn't help but appreciate the skill shown by the original building's mechanical crew. "The ductwork design and craftsmanship was phenomenal," he says. "It kind of broke our hearts to tear some of this ductwork out because it was so well made."
The inefficient steam plant was redesigned by ICDS and retrofitted by Caliente to highly efficient condensing boilers under a separate contract, but concurrent with the other building improvements. "This not only reduced operational and maintenance costs but dramatically reduced pollution emissions in the downtown area," Fitch says.
Designers took advantage of the building's existing light wells by making many of the partitions on the lower level out of glass, so that as much natural light as possible could reflect through the student government space, math lab, writing center and conference rooms.
While the first floor space—the former loading and receiving area for postal carriers—already had high ceilings, Caliente had to remove massive catwalks that were attached to the ceiling and ran through the space. Mellow says they were an early security system for the post office, allowing security personnel to view all the goings-on from above each room—even in the bathrooms—until access was sealed some years ago.
Demolition revealed a wide variety of flooring, from terrazzo to tile to concrete. The team opted to grind all the floors to a similar terrazzo-like finish, retaining all the anomalies. "You'll see a lot of areas where there's different colored concrete," Perrone says. "We just left all that. It was part of the story we were trying to tell of the building."