Real Estate & Construction  September 24, 2010

Engines and Energy lab to grow

FORT COLLINS – The old Fort Collins power plant on North College Avenue, which found a rebirth in 1992 when Colorado State University professor Bryan Willson moved in to create the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, is about to see a new chapter in its 75-year-old history.

Discussions are being finalized with the city to expand the EECL by 50,000 square feet, with a new addition planned for the facility’s front-yard area. Willson, a mechanical engineering professor and EECL director, said the additional space is needed for classrooms, laboratories, offices and future growth.

“We started the lab in 1992 with just one professor – me – and now we have over a dozen and tons of companies working out of the facility,” he said. “So, we’ve gotten to the point where we just physically don’t have the space we need for people.”

The EECL has partnerships with such companies as Caterpillar, Cummins, Woodward, Spirae and VanDyne Superturbo. It has also spun off its own startup ventures, including Envirofit International and Solix Biofuels.

Willson said the decision whether to expand at the existing site or to relocate the EECL onto CSU-owned land or another location in the area was not an easy one. But in the end, he said it made the most sense to stay put.

“The logical answer was to stay at the current location and expand the site,” he said. “There were so many factors that favor staying in the current location, including the Rocky Mountain Innovation Institute a few blocks to the north and the new Discovery Center under construction across the street from the EECL.”

Willson said the 1935-built power plant building may be getting on in years but is still in good physical condition. “The building we have is outstanding for what we do, large and open and of very heavy construction that really works well with the equipment we have,” he said. “But it doesn’t work for housing people.”

Constraints being addressed

There are several constraints that are making staying put problematic, Willson notes. The five-acre site is hemmed in by the Poudre River on the north and railroad tracks on the south.

The multi-level addition would sit in front of and slightly to the south of the existing structure and would match it as nearly as possible in its brick exterior. Darin Atteberry, Fort Collins city manager, said negotiations between the city and the university on the expansion call for the power plant’s historic attributes to be maintained as much as possible, including moving an historic gargoyle-festooned fountain to another location on the grounds.

Atteberry said the expansion also had to be planned so as not to violate city policy forbidding new construction in the 200-foot river buffer. “We’re really looking at a building outside the 200-foot river buffer, which was a concern from day one,” he said.

Atteberry said another issue still being finalized is how to accommodate more parking for the facility. That might be accomplished on city-owned land just to the south near the city’s Northside Aztlan Recreation Center, he said.

Atteberry said new terms for the lease between the city and the university regarding the use of the power plant will also be drawn up during the finalization of the expansion plans. The current lease – CSU pays the city $1 per year for the use of the building – is in force until 2024.

Close relationship

Atteberry said the city wants to maintain a close relationship with CSU on the EECL. “I think it’s been a fantastic partnership between the engines lab and the city for many years, and we’re proud that there’s research with a global impact going on in our facility,” he said.

The EECL, part of the CSU College of Engineering’s mechanical engineering department, was ranked No. 6 by Popular Science magazine on its August list of the best national university laboratories.

Willson said while many details remain yet to be resolved, he’s feeling more confident that the project will go forward at the current site.

“We do have a plan that appears will work,” he said. “I don’t want to get too specific because there still needs to be the formal permitting by the city.”

Those specifics include an estimated cost for the expansion and a timeline for its construction.

Willson said the EECL has come a long way since 1992. “When we first moved in, if you plugged in two 1,000-watt heaters at the same time it blew every circuit in the building,” he said. “Now, it’s one of the most advanced smart-grid labs anywhere.”

Willson said he’s excited about having the EECL remain close to RMI2 and the new combined Discovery Science Center and Fort Collins Museum, which broke ground on Sept. 11 and is set to open next year across College Avenue.

“Between us and RMI2 and the Discovery Center, you’re really bringing a concentration of technical talent to the River District,” he said. “That’s pretty exciting, and I think the three of us will anchor sort of a renaissance area and innovation-oriented area.”

FORT COLLINS – The old Fort Collins power plant on North College Avenue, which found a rebirth in 1992 when Colorado State University professor Bryan Willson moved in to create the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, is about to see a new chapter in its 75-year-old history.

Discussions are being finalized with the city to expand the EECL by 50,000 square feet, with a new addition planned for the facility’s front-yard area. Willson, a mechanical engineering professor and EECL director, said the additional space is needed for classrooms, laboratories, offices and future growth.

“We started the lab in 1992 with just one…

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