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Sarasota Memorial Hospital Energy Plant

A central energy plant must peacefully coexist with the nearby community

We have to remember that there are a lot of demands on our clients, especially in healthcare. When we really understand their needs, we can figure out creative ways to meet them.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH) desperately needed a replacement patient care tower, and achieving this goal required the relocation and expansion of the central energy plant. Although commonly out of view on most campuses, the new site and expanded project scale required a central energy plant that would be highly visible to the adjacent residential community. With surrounding neighborhoods firmly against the anticipated noise from the new facility, SMH and GS&P worked to constructively engage community groups and effectively mitigate concerns. This project ultimately won an Outstanding Citizen Involvement Award from the Florida Planning and Zoning Association and is an excellent example of how a design effort can serve the needs of a client while also reinforcing credibility in the community.

Describe the scope of this project.

Matthew Harrell: Sarasota Memorial is a very large county hospital, one of the premier facilities in the state and highly ranked in the nation. The hospital has thrived and been recognized for great care in spite of physical plant facilities dating back to the 1950s. One of the main components of the project was the design of a new bed tower to replace beds and services located in the oldest sections of the building. However, that couldn’t happen unless the existing central energy plant (CEP) was relocated and expanded.

What drove the renovation/relocation of the central energy plant?

Matt: One, the hospital has an aging infrastructure, and two, it’s in the location that the new patient tower needs to be. We studied multiple locations for the CEP site and ended up locating it at the rear of the hospital across from the loading dock.

The community was very concerned about this project. Discuss some of the initial objections.

Matt: The hospital has interacted frequently with an established neighborhood advisory group for years. So from the very start, the hospital always intended to discuss the project with the advisory group to make sure everyone was ok with it. But, in this case, they decided to talk to the City of Sarasota first to make sure they had no issues with it. Unfortunately, the neighborhood heard that the hospital was submitting this to the city and assumed they were going to be excluded from the process, and they became actively and aggressively mobilized against the project. There was a lot of misinformation floating around, but, at the same time, they care about their neighborhood and were concerned.

One of the main concerns for the adjacent neighborhoods was the potential for excessive noise coming from the finished plant. How did you address this?

Matt: The hospital hired a nationally renowned acoustics expert to do baseline acoustical testing all over the neighborhood to determine the ambient noise level. Then we demonstrated the sound in an auditorium, and the neighbors felt it was too loud. So, as a separate test, we created a model of the sound by placing speakers on top of the existing parking garage and playing the sounds at the volume the CEP would make. The sound went out of these speakers and into the neighborhood so everyone could hear exactly what it would be like.

What parts of the new structure had the potential of causing the most noise?

Matt: There are two major sets of equipment. One is the emergency generators, which are basically big engines. There are five 2-megawatt generators, so that’s 10 megawatts of power being generated. The others are the cooling towers. Water flows through the cooling tower, which has 12-foot-diameter fans that are used to do a heat exchange for air conditioning the hospital. So there’s the noise of the water falling, the fans from the cooling tower, and the noise of the generators. The community was just very concerned that their quality of life would be disrupted by noise from this energy plant. A few neighborhood members were worried about coal being delivered to the “power plant,” a huge misunderstanding, as the generators are a backup system for emergencies and the hospital gets its electricity the same way everyone else in the neighborhood does, through the local utility company. They are powered by a fuel system, not coal.

Why did the community finally support the project?

Matt: At the last city commission meeting, several of the neighbors stood up and said how much credibility we had with them and how pleased they were with the process. They said that because of the effort and the involvement of the hospital and the whole design team, they trusted that the hospital was going to do the right thing.

Jeff Talka: In this case, over a two-month period, there were 19 meetings that touched on community involvement. The hospital actually hired one of the neighborhood members to represent the community. The community representative participated with the project team so that he could report back to the community and keep them informed. He came to the design team meetings, which built a lot of credibility for the hospital. We were basically scrutinized at every turn, but everyone buckled down and worked as a team. We knew that if we could work with and convince the community representative, he would carry that banner back into the community, and he did. So it’s really just a matter of getting them involved.

What adjustments to the design did you make as a result of the community’s involvement? Describe some of the modifications you made to the design as it progressed.

Jeff: Initially, the design incorporated these packaged, off-the-shelf cooling towers. In the end, we completed three iterations of the design. When the community groups opposed, due to the potential noise, we had to go to SPX Marley to design a custom cooling tower. This change actually formed a lot of the design features of the building. The parameters we gave SPX were, “Your contract is to provide a cooling tower that could accomplish the 10,000 tons of cooling as well as meet the sound ordinances.” So basically, it was a performance specification that we gave to SPX, and they provided a one of a kind turnkey option to Skanska.

Does this design set a precedent for future designs?

Matt: Absolutely. If we have a hospital that has to build a central energy plant and there is a concern about noise, we’ve solved that problem here. Not every situation or solution will be the same, but we now have specialized expertise to anticipate and solve issues like this in the future.

The Sarasota School of Design is a concept that’s widely respected in the area. What role did this concept have in the look and feel of the new structure?

Matt: There was a well-known modern architect named Paul Rudolph who did a lot of projects in Sarasota. The style is typically white and very simplistic with strong geometry. It works well in an area like Sarasota that has a lot of bright sunshine. There’s a very strong historical precedent for that style of architecture in Sarasota, and it was something that we looked at as a design driver or point of inspiration.

Are there any regulations in Sarasota about the height restrictions or even this style of architecture?

Jeff: The city required that we go to a design review committee with concept and schematic drawings, which set the height, area, and volume relationships. In essence, we had to guess how big this thing needed to be so that SPX could make the acoustics work because it was so customized. We ended up with the tallest part of the building 80 feet from the ground, which was a function of the cooling tower having enough sound attenuation to meet the noise ordinances.

Did that present a challenge?

Matt: Yes. Here you have an 80-foot building right next to the street line, which is right next to a residential neighborhood. The challenge was to sculpt the massing so that it complemented the neighborhood context. We actually stepped it down so it gets lower the closer it gets to the neighborhood. The building scale reaches more of a pedestrian level at the street as opposed to having a sheer 80-foot wall up against the curb. We were able to use technology that was driven from the needs of the cooling tower and the intake and exhaust wells to help mold the building.

The project won an Outstanding Citizen Involvement Award for its interaction with the community. We’ve won awards before, but this one is unique, isn’t it?

Matt: Yes. The Florida Planning and Zoning Association presented the award, and it was unique because of the level of community participation. By winning the approval of the community for the CEP and gaining that credibility, it eased the way for approval of the tower. We didn’t run into any of the same issues regarding the tower because of the successful working relationship on the CEP. And we’re talking about a nine-story building and a couple hundred thousand square feet of floor area. It’s a big building.

There were a lot of things that might have caused the neighborhood concern with the bed tower. But the process with the CEP had gone so smoothly that there were no objections from the city on the bed tower.

What aspect of the CEP process, design, or solution makes you the most proud?

Jeff: With Sarasota, I’m very proud of the fact that we had an extremely contentious situation and were able to work with the community and the client. It was a really, really good team, and the hospital has a group of great folks. We were able to keep the client happy and come out with a really great product that hopefully sets the bar for the bed tower project.

Matt: I’m proud of the added value we provided. I compare it to the experience of a patient in a hospital. When you go to a hospital, you expect that the doctors are going to help you. That’s a basic expectation. But it’s the other things that really set great experiences apart — how they take care of you, the level of technology, etc.

It’s the same with us. The hospital and the community expect us to be competent architects. They expect us to address the technical issues, to make sure the building is sound, and that it looks nice. But beyond that, I’m proud of the way that we’ve been able to take care of the client by essentially partnering with them through the process. We were integral to the relationship between SMH and the community. That’s some of the additional value we were able to bring.

Moving forward, what are some lessons learned from this that you might apply with other projects?

Jeff: Keep the lines of communication open. We had a great triumvirate with the owner, architect, and builder. From day one, it was always a team effort. We did a lot of pre-construction work and a lot of investigative work that really bore fruit at the end.

Matt: You’ve got to be a creative problem solver. For Sarasota, I think we really reinforced that approach. The team sought to understand where the client was coming from, and we focused on what we could do, not what we couldn’t do. Then we took extraordinary measures to do what we could to solve the problem.

Our clients ask us to jump through flaming hoops for them, and our reward is when they come back to us and ask us to jump through more flaming hoops. The best recognition you can get is for your client to come back and say, “Hey, I’ve got another really tough project. You want to come join me on it?”

That’s what I try to teach our staff here, because we’re consistently dealing with clients who have demands that are difficult to accomplish. We have to remember that there are a lot of demands on our clients, especially in healthcare. When we really understand their needs, we can figure out creative ways to meet them.


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Project Info

  • Client: Sarasota Memorial Hospital
  • Location: Sarasota, FL, USA
  • Market: Healthcare Design
  • Services: Architecture, Planning, Master Planning
  • Team:
    • Orlando Lopez-Isa, AIA, LEED AP Principal-in-Charge
    • Matthew G. Harrell, AIA, ACHA, LEED AP Project Manager
    • Jeff Talka, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP Project Professional
    • Ray A. Wong, EDAC Project Coordinator
    • James R. Kolb, RA, LEED AP Project Designer
  • Awards:

    Florida Planning and Zoning Association, Outstanding Citizen Involvement Award

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