Central Energy

Central Energy

Columbia, SC



Adaptive reuse of the Central Energy Facility created a new home for the Downtown Church congregation in Columbia, SC. Constructed in 1981, Central Energy provided heating and cooling to the entire South Carolina Department of Mental Health campus, a historic 181-acre property currently being redeveloped as The Bull Street District. Located on a remote corner of the site, the existing 12,731 sf Central Energy building was constructed of brick and concrete block exterior walls with a heavy interior steel structure. The modest building carried steam and cold water to the entire site through a system of underground pipes and overhead trellises, remnants of which remain throughout the grounds.

The surviving building had few features of note. Three large louvers, two doors, and one coiling delivery door were the extent of the exterior openings, allowing no light into the industrial building. Heavy machinery lined the floors, including three large boilers surrounded by steel frames supporting the blackened boiler stacks. An enclosed mechanical/electrical yard flanked the south façade of the building. A six-foot-deep concrete pit in the southwest corner was covered with a massive steel equipment mezzanine allowing for two levels of condensate pumps and compressors. The overgrown vegetation underscored the building’s historic position in the Bull Street hierarchy: it was a purely functional, utilitarian structure strategically positioned to be out of sight and out of mind.

Design for the building’s adaptive reuse includes a large open worship/venue space, with a mezzanine added to house the second level of additional program. Several existing features were adapted for contemporary use, most iconically the three large boiler stacks. Aligned with the new entrance, the intrusive steel was repurposed as the main promenade of the worship space. The original stacks extend through the roof and are uplit at night, serving as both dramatic homage to the building’s past function and an identifying feature for Downtown Church’s new home.

The equipment mezzanine and pit were transformed into a gathering area by partially infilling the concrete pit in the southwest corner. The resulting sunken zone, adjacent to the front entrance, is further defined by the existing heavy steel mezzanine. The existing exterior wall around the pit was removed and replaced with curtainwall and veiled by fritted glass. Layers of glass, mezzanine steel, and cross-bracing create a dynamic front corner on what was previously a largely anonymous façade. Three large louvers on the south elevation were replaced with large overhead glass doors, flooding the building with natural light. These doors open onto a courtyard surrounded by a modified mechanical yard latticed brick wall which extends the building’s usable footprint, including brick pavers and planters along the southern façade to shade the courtyard and interior. An indoor/outdoor stage inserted into the east facade overlooks a large green lawn, giving the building additional flexibility and expanding the venue for outdoor functions. This feature further enforces Downtown Church’s vision for the building as a community venue.

The congregation held its first worship service at Central Energy in December 2018 and quickly made use of all of its new spaces. The building fast became a popular venue for banquets and weddings and hosted scores of events throughout its first spring and summer. Users are enamored of the indoor/outdoor capabilities afforded by the roll up doors in the south elevation and the folding glass stage wall in the east elevation. Activity in and around Central Energy has reinvigorated this area of the Bull Street campus, paving the way for additional development in its southeast corner. It provides an inviting “back door” to the larger redeveloping campus.

Photography by Brian Dressler.


square feet
state and local awards


2022 Merit Award – Historic Preservation/Adaptive Reuse
AIA – Greater Columbia Section
2020 Golden Nail Award
Columbia Chamber
2019 Merit Award – Adaptive Reuse
AIA – South Carolina Chapter
2019 Preservation Award – New Construction in Historic Context
Historic Columbia