Landmark Decisions: Engineering Choices at the Hotel del Coronado

As engineers, we enjoy looking at mechanical and electrical systems. But we realize that most people outside the industry don’t share this enthusiasm. That’s why we strive to make the systems we design as unobtrusive as possible. This is especially critical when the systems are housed in restored landmarks where historic décor is the primary focus.

In a past issue of Connections, we discussed the challenges associated with the renovation of the Herald-Examiner building in Los Angeles, a city landmark. More recently we worked on a national landmark – the lobby of Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. Tim Tyrrell, Syska’s project manager for both buildings, tells us that “The Del” (as it’s called by locals) posed even greater challenges than the Herald-Examiner did.

Background

Syska designed mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems for the hotel’s two-story, 7,000-square-foot lobby, which was constructed in 1888. Its restoration, led by hospitality design firm WATG, refreshed and enhanced the Victorian décor, using original finishes and materials. WATG also expanded the lobby by incorporating an adjacent office space, renovated the vintage “birdcage” elevator, and restored the stained-glass “Coronation Window.”
The goal, says WATG, was to ensure that “the charm of the old” was “cherished, reimagined, and celebrated in a modern, fresh, luxurious manner.”

Behind the Scenes

Tim points out that The Del is older than the Herald-Examiner building, which was completed in 1914. And unlike that structure, The Del’s lobby never had any kind of HVAC system. That made the engineering design even more difficult. “We had to figure out where to place the units without affecting any of the historic elements,” says Tim. “We had to get really creative.”

Working closely with WATG, Syska decided to make indentations in the walls for returned air but ensured that the indentations blended seamlessly into the coffered wall design. According to Tim, the resulting indentations are inconspicuous. “Passing by, you would have zero clue that they’re operating pieces of the wall,” he notes.

The air handling and conditioning units that supply the air are also unobtrusive; they’re in the basement. And they often operate in economizer mode. For most of the year, the lobby ventilation comes from 100% outside air.

Unlike the HVAC, electrical infrastructure was in place when Syska came on board. The problem was, as Tim explains, that the panels and conduit poles were extremely old, necessitating a complete overhaul.

To complicate matters, the front porch was undergoing a simultaneous renovation. This meant that Syska had to coordinate with a completely different design team. The two areas shared systems in many cases, and Syska also added louvers to the front porch to support the historic appearance. Pandemic shutdowns, ironically, helped the situation. The hotel was closed for three months in 2020, which gave the teams free rein in the area and facilitated collaboration.

Results

“Aesthetically, it’s just beautiful,” says Tim. “We take pride in this outcome because our systems are mostly invisible. There’s no disruption to the historic appearance.”

He’s now looking forward to future projects at The Del, all of which will again involve renovation and preservation. The sooner they start, the better: Tim moved from Los Angeles to Dallas toward the end of the project, and he’s tempted by commercials promoting travel to California. The Del, he reports, is in every one of them.

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