In the past, if you lived near a power plant, you probably didn’t live in the greatest neighborhood. But things are changing. Now, two designers have proposed a new design for an apartment building that’s not just near a power plant—it is itself a power plant.
“It’s a provocative proposal for the city of Philadelphia,” says architect Scott Allen, who worked on the concept with fellow Perkins+Will designer Kristina Buller as part of an annual internal design competition. “The idea was coupling some massive energy-generating possibilities with more conventional urban development.”
The design uses a waste-to-energy model: Trash from the city would be incinerated and turned into power for multiple neighborhoods. Incineration can now be done safely, the designers say, thanks to advances in air filtration. “The air that’s produced from the power plant is significantly cleaner than EPA standards,” says Allen.
Using numbers from a study from Columbia University that considered the idea of a waste-to-energy facility in Brooklyn, the designers calculated that the plant could provide power for around 26,000 homes in addition to the entire apartment building.
“It’s not a net zero building that provides only for itself, but it’s a building that gives back in an infrastructural way—as well as a cultural way—to the surrounding area,” Allen says. It’s fundamentally different than other local power generation, like solar, because of its scale. Even when solar panels cover the entire roof of a large commercial building, they can often only provide a percentage of what that building needs.
The building would also help take care of waste in the city. "It could absorb all of the Philadelphia waste stream," Allen explains. Right now, the city already sends over 200,000 tons of waste to incineration plants, and it's looking for a way to deal with the rest of the trash.
"A residential development like this could create a symbiotic relationship—usually power plants operate on their own, but in this sense, waste from the development could actually feed the power plant," he says.
The designers also saw the building as an opportunity to bring life to an isolated part of the city. Though the building won’t be built unless someone in Philadelphia happens to be inspired by the idea, the designers found a real location where it could be sited: A huge swath of empty land next to the waterfront, with nothing but a few box stores to the south and aging factories to the north. A major highway cuts off the land from easy access.
By turning the land next to the water into a large park, Allen and Buller hoped to not only protect the area from flooding, but also create a space that would draw in visitors. A green roof on top of the building would slope down to the ground so people could also walk around on top.
"The relationship would be a little like the High Line," says Allen, referring to the elevated park opened in New York City within the last few years. "Before the High Line, the west side was more cut off from urban activity. We're trying to interject enough activity, and a large enough cultural destination, that people are moved to come and use it."