Ambler Boiler House transformed from industrial icon to symbol of sustainable design

The Ambler Boiler House is just steps away from Ambler's SEPTA regional rail station. | Photo from Heckendorn Shiles ArchitectsFor generations, the towering Keasbey & Mattison smokestack on the Ambler Boiler House has been an icon in the town of Ambler. Built in 1897, the smokestack was initially a symbol of the town’s booming industry. By the 1970s, it spoke to a depressed economy. Today, the spire represents a shift to an eco-friendly future: the space is now a 48,000-square-foot, LEED Platinum office building. That’s especially good news for Ambler, considering Keasbey & Mattison was in the business of producing asbestos products.

“Ambler was a bit of a company town, and you still see some other brick structures that have a similar history,” says Mitch Shiles, a principal with Heckendorn Shiles Architects, the firm that transformed the space. Like the asbestos plant founders, the building’s current owners, Summit Realty, were drawn to the location in part because of the easy train access. The building is a short walk to Ambler’s SEPTA regional rail station. Transit-oriented development is a big benefit in the quest for LEED Platinum certification, the highest mark in energy-efficient design.

Some industrial aspects of the original building, like raw brick and exposed steel trusses, were included in the new design. | Photo from Heckendorn Shiles ArchitectsTransformation from EPA-certified brownfield to LEED Platinum building of course meant much more than building near a train station. “There was a significant clean-up,” says Nissa Eisenberg, project manager for the Boiler House rehab. “The property was really abandoned and deserted until about 2008.”

Other challenges involved reusing as many materials as possible – another tenet of LEED design. “We were trying, as sensibly as possible, to make this an office building, which it was not,” Shiles says. This included cutting away part of the floor to create an open atrium, letting in more light. But some industrial aspects, like raw brick and exposed steel trusses, remain. Another original element incorporated into the LEED design: huge windows that once provided ventilation and light. The old windows were replaced with special “low-emissivity” glass that lets daylight in but keeps heat out.

The Boiler House also boasts 50 geothermal wells that reach 400 feet into the earth, heating and cooling the building. Innovative aspects like those make the site stand out, giving new meaning to that old symbolic smokestack. 

To learn more about the building, visit summitrealtyadvisors.com/ambler-boiler-house

BRIAN RADEMAEKERS is a writer, homebrewer and gardener living in the Philadelphia area.