The O’Hare International Airport (ORD) Emergency & Standby Power Systems project is yet another fine example of Epstein’s ability to deliver an inspired piece of public infrastructure.

Epstein served as the architect and engineer for this project that included a two-building complex that provides back-up power to the airport, and replaced a system located within ORD’s H&R Plant that was originally installed in the 1960s. The driving force for the replacement of the old back-up power system its outdated technology: the airport couldn’t find replacement parts for much of the old equipment.

The Epstein-designed replacement features two buildings: one to house the new generators and one to house electrical switchgear, providing a more computer driven and digitally based application. It increases the existing system capacity from 8-10 megawatts to 18 megawatts, which is enough to power several thousand homes. As a result, ORD has greater system functionality and efficiency during emergencies in which normal operations have been impaired.

These new buildings were originally planned to be in the back of the airport, near the airfield and out of sight. As the project evolved, however, it became clear a larger space was needed and a prominent site just north of the H&R Plant was chosen.

With this new site, visible to all visitors exiting the airport by Terminal 3, Epstein’s architects developed a concept that compliments the main two components of the modernist H&R Plant – steel and glass. This approach ties all three buildings together, resulting in a unified look. The new generator building is clad with black aluminum fins that resemble the steel components of the H&R Plant. And the switchgear building is a glass cube made entirely out of channel glass. The design also purposely plays off of the contrast between light and dark colors, creating a pleasing finish among them. These new buildings also sit on a slightly elevated platform, which provides security for the buildings while also adding to the prominence of the structures.

The generators themselves can be likened to diesel locomotive engines as they produce power. The electrical distribution, or switchgear, dispenses the power throughout the airport. Typically, the two components exist in different rooms of the same building. Epstein’s two-building approach, along with the internal design of the buildings and systems, are part of a compartmentalized method to minimize the chances of a catastrophic event taking down the entire system.

The six generators are enormous and their building is split in two halves, with three generators in each half. Each half also houses a fuel tank, that feeds the generators with the thousands of gallons of fuel they require to continuously run at full-speed. The wall separating the two generator rooms is a two-hour fire-rated wall; it can withstand a fire burning on one side for two hours before it starts to penetrate the other side. The walls separating the generator rooms from their tank rooms have a fire-resistance rating of four hours, an increase due to the nature of the fuel inside.