Sylvester House Renovation

Principia College

Project Background

The renovation of Sylvester House at Principia College in Elsa, Illinois, stands as a testament to preserving historical significance while embracing modern amenities. The Tudor-style cluster of cottages that make up Sylvester House was designed by Bernard Maybach in the 1930s and was an integral part of the overall master plan for Principia College, as envisioned by Maybach himself. This historically significant building required careful consideration and innovative solutions. With its heavy mass walls and the absence of advanced infrastructure, the renovation posed several challenges ranging from identifying embedded steel to integrating modern HVAC systems.

Project Deliverables

One of the notable features of Principia Sylvester House is its distinctive English Tudor-style architecture. The building stands as a testament to the design principles prevalent during the time, featuring pre-formed concrete poured walls and a robust, massive structure. However, the construction of the building, while impressive, did not anticipate the need for future renovations and modern amenities.

Updating Principia Sylvester House to meet the demands of present-day indoor comfort posed several challenges. The existing building lacked air conditioning and proper ventilation, falling short of ventilation codes and guidelines. To address this, the approach involved retrofitting the dormitory to accommodate modern heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

Mechanical & HVAC

In terms of heating, the original design employed a 2-pipe radiant-style steam system, which had been later converted to a hot water system. Due to the historical significance of the building and the challenges associated with adding additional piping, the decision was made to stick with the two-pipe system. This system utilized 2-pipe fan coil units strategically placed throughout the building for both heating and cooling purposes. However, this arrangement presented a drawback—the transition between heating and cooling was not a seamless process. During colder seasons, the HVAC system might engage the heating mode when cooling was required.

To mitigate this issue, dedicated outdoor air systems (DOAS) were installed. The DOAS served multiple purposes, including providing cooling during transitional seasons and managing dehumidification and ventilation requirements. By injecting conditioned outdoor air directly into the space, the DOAS helped maintain a comfortable and healthy indoor environment. Moreover, a supplier temperature reset system was implemented within the DOAS to optimize its performance. This system adjusted the temperature supply to provide heating or cooling as needed, depending on the specific requirements of the dormitory.

One of the significant challenges faced during the renovation involved finding a suitable solution for integrating the DOAS into the historic building. The desire was to minimize the visual impact of rooftop units or excessive equipment, taking into consideration the aesthetic concerns of both the building owner and the architect. Expanding further, older facilities often lacked utility or storage spaces, mechanical rooms, or dedicated electrical rooms. Finding suitable locations for installing the air handling units became a critical aspect of the project.

To overcome this challenge, the team decided to create larger openings into the attic space of the building. This allowed them to install the air handling units in the attic, utilizing the existing vents as intakes for the units. However, this approach also came with its own set of challenges. The DOAS chosen for the project employed an ADX-style heat pump system with electric heat coils. The ventilation was decoupled from the building’s heating water and chilled water systems to provide the flexibility to heat or cool as needed throughout the year. This decision was made to ensure that the dormitory could maintain optimal indoor air quality and comfort regardless of the season.

To facilitate the installation of the DX system in the attic, a remote condensing unit or heat pump unit was necessary. However, such systems have their limitations, including restrictions on the distance at which the heat pump or condensing unit can be located from the indoor unit to avoid refrigerant oil trapping and compressor elevation issues. Extensive efforts were made to find the best solution by engaging with multiple manufacturers. Each manufacturer was initially hesitant but, eventually, a partnership was established with TMI, representing a manufacturer called Oxygen 8, which had collaborated with Daikin to develop heat pump compressor systems integrated with built-in controls.

The DOAS system implemented in Principia Sylvester House featured a fixed plate heat exchanger, outdoor air dampers field-mounted in existing vents, a DX coil, an electric reheat coil, and a supplier temperature sensor. The manufacturer provided all the necessary dampers, parts, and control devices to ensure the system’s proper functioning. From a controls perspective, the task primarily involved connecting to the back-net connection provided on the controllers to have access to all the system’s data in the front-end owner interface.

Although the choice of the integrated compressor and packaged controls resulted in higher equipment costs initially, it proved to be a more cost-effective approach overall. Other manufacturers were not able to provide the required compressors or control capabilities for the system due to the distance between the air handler and the condensing unit. Therefore, considering the cost of temperature controls if provided separately, the decision to opt for a packaged unit with an integrated inverter-style compressor and controls was deemed more favorable. This choice led to a smoother construction process and ensured the successful implementation of the system.

Integrating the DOAS into the historic building required ingenuity to find suitable locations and creative solutions to minimize visual impact. The decision to install the air handling units in the attic and utilize existing vents as intakes presented a viable solution. The ADX-style DOAS with a remote heat pump or condensing unit was chosen to provide optimal ventilation, decoupled from the building’s heating and cooling systems. Through diligent collaboration with manufacturers, a suitable product was sourced, integrating compressors and controls into a packaged unit. This approach proved cost-effective and ensured the successful implementation of the DOAS in Principia Sylvester House.


Implementing these HVAC upgrades in Principia Sylvester House proved to be a complex task. Apart from the technical considerations, challenges arose in integrating digital controls and coordinating them with the existing campus controls provider. Additionally, the construction process required meticulous planning to ensure the smooth installation of low-voltage wiring on the concrete walls. Determining the appropriate level of control for the building’s systems was also a crucial aspect that had to be carefully considered.

Electrical & Plumbing

Several significant challenges were also encountered when upgrading the electrical and plumbing infrastructure of the dormitory.

Upgrading the electrical infrastructure was an arduous task, primarily due to the absence of wall cavities. With concrete walls throughout the dormitory, finding suitable locations for running electrical conduits proved to be a complex challenge. In addition to functionality, efforts were made to ensure that the aesthetics of the building were not compromised. The team worked diligently to determine the best possible routes for running the electrical conduits, striving for a visually pleasing result.

The plumbing systems of Principia Sylvester House underwent extensive renovations. While a few small toilet rooms had been previously updated within the past two decades, the entire plumbing infrastructure was upgraded to meet modern standards. This included revamping toilet rooms and showers and providing more contemporary amenities for the dormitory’s residents.

Upgrading the electrical and plumbing infrastructure presented numerous challenges during the renovation of Principia Sylvester House. The absence of wall cavities and the need to maintain aesthetic integrity made running electrical conduits a complex task. However, careful planning and consideration allowed for a successful upgrade of the dormitory’s electrical system. The plumbing systems were also thoroughly renovated to provide modern amenities throughout Principia Sylvester House.


The Sylvester House also faced issues with outdated lighting fixtures and inadequate emergency egress lighting. To address this, they decided to upgrade their emergency lighting system by integrating it within the fixtures and removing unsightly wall-mounted emergency lights. They also sought a centralized emergency lighting inverter location for the entire building or individual electrical panels serving each wing.

Expanding the scope, our lighting team upgraded all the lighting from older incandescent fixtures to energy-efficient LED lights throughout most of the building. Private dorm rooms and common areas received upgraded controls with occupancy sensing for energy savings and dimming capabilities for user control and reduced light levels.

The project encountered a challenge due to the building’s concrete construction, making new wiring installation difficult. To overcome this, our team sourced specific products that could utilize the existing wiring infrastructure and provide compatibility with the new LED fixtures. This allowed us to achieve the desired control features, such as occupancy sensing and dimming, without the need for new wiring.

For the emergency egress lighting, our team avoided rerouting existing branch wiring by installing smaller emergency lighting inverters at each electrical panel location. This minimized rework and provided emergency capabilities without requiring extensive rewiring throughout the building’s existing conditions.

Additionally, the upgrades extended to the exterior lighting of the house. In recognition of security and egress concerns, our team ensured that the exterior fixtures were integrated into the emergency battery inverter system.

Overall, their comprehensive upgrades addressed the issues of outdated lighting fixtures and inadequate emergency egress lighting, providing better illumination, energy efficiency, and improved control capabilities, while overcoming challenges posed by the building’s concrete construction.

Cost Effectiveness

The project faced a significant challenge when the contractor bid the project before the engineering design phase was completed. This presented difficulties across various aspects of the design, but it posed a particularly challenging situation for the lighting design. The estimate provided by the contractor for the lighting aspect of the project was very low. To update the budget and meet the requirements, a cost-effective lighting design was created, considering fixtures suitable for common areas like dorms. The selected LED fixtures had to be compatible with specific controls to avoid additional wiring. Retrofit LED lamps were suggested for existing decorative chandeliers to maintain their charm while integrating new technology and reducing the frequency of bulb changes.


In conclusion, the renovation of Sylvester House at Principia College exemplifies the harmonious blending of historical preservation and modern functionality. By leveraging innovative strategies, such as the use of dedicated outdoor air systems and creative spatial utilization, the project succeeded in upgrading the building’s infrastructure. The integration of advanced HVAC systems, electrical upgrades, and plumbing renovations all played vital roles in enhancing the dormitory’s livability and energy efficiency. Through meticulous coordination and a commitment to maintaining the historical integrity of the structure, the project stands as a testament to successful preservation and modernization practices.

Architect Of Record

Fox Architects

Construction Cost



27,000 sq. ft.

Market Sector

College & University

Year Completed




Our Services
McClure Electrical services
McClure Fire Safety services
McClure Lighting services
McClure Mechanical services
McClure Plumbing services

Keith Esarey, P.E.