When faced with a daunting task – say, designing and delivering a million square foot campus on an extremely tight timeframe during a pandemic while reimagining the future of work – it’s best to eliminate the word “impossible” from conversation.

There was much we didn’t know in February of 2020 when we began working together on the new East Coast headquarters for Centene, a major insurance company with a growing footprint in the Southeast. We knew early on that this project and this team would be special, but we owe much of our success to the high expectations that we set early regarding respect, communication, and team buy-in. Along the way, we were committed to:

Eliminating the typical knee-jerk reaction to “impossible.”

Our project team’s goal from the beginning has been to deliver, together. Beyond things or ideas that truly violated the laws of physics or time, we agreed to assume that everything was possible, and proceed accordingly. Delivering a project of this quality, size, and speed would not have been possible without stretching ourselves to think beyond traditional limits and capacity; our attitude made it so.

Altering the cadence of the traditional design phases.

If we’d tried to adhere to the usual sequential phases of schematic design, design development, construction documents, and construction administration, we’d have spent much of our design time waiting for information. Instead, we designed for ideas developing in tandem. Our confidence and trust in each other were the most important elements in setting sail; we were all working towards the same vision, and envisioned the project as preparing a meal together. If we knew one team would be serving up a steak, another team could work on a plan to serve red wine to accompany it – even if the steak hadn’t been purchased yet. We challenged typical schedules from the jump, which allowed us to be less focused on milestones and deliverables and more focused on pure exploration as we built something together.

Listening to, respecting, and valuing every team member.

We needed to establish a safe environment for risk taking from Day One. Too often when we get a group of designers, consultants, and contractors together, people spend most of the time defending their ideas. We decided collectively that challenges to our ideas would be a healthy part of the process, so we listened closely and validated ideas together. Nobody ever said, “that’s not my area of expertise,” which allowed an attitude of collaboration and humility to prevail. The process was organic and inclusive from our earliest meetings, when we threw blocks on the table and encouraged everyone – especially the client team – to move them around and talk about possibilities for the campus layout. The approach was, “You can trust our expertise, but let’s take everything for a test drive and check it out together.”

Executing decisions with confidence

Being able to move the project along expediently required a deep understanding of the client’s vision and goals, and that understanding is rooted in deep listening. We also had to walk a fine line between testing boundaries and avoiding rabbit holes. When a team is up against a tight deadline, it’s important to avoid frivolous pursuits that might drain energy. Eliminating non-viable options as quickly as possible helped the team greatly narrow the viable options presented to the client, allowing for swifter decision making. The fact that the design team never missed a deadline also set a high bar for the entire team. Nobody wanted to be the one to break the streak, and everyone took pride in doing their part to deliver.

Maintaining flexibility – in the design and the process.

We were reminded at every stage of the process that the best-laid plans may need to change due to circumstances beyond our control. Our 30-month time frame played out against the backdrop of a global pandemic, requiring a series of pivots. We adjusted to virtual meetings and remote work, and then pivoted to a new campus vision when it was clear that the pandemic would change the nature of the workplace altogether. The ways in which people work are now being constantly being evaluated and redesigned, and thus the project will evolve further in the wake of Centene’s decision to transition permanently to greater remote work options and sell the campus. However, the flexibility of space will allow an easy transition to other tenants seeking an innovative and adaptable workplace. Flexibility in our design approach as well as flexibility in accommodating evolving conditions gave us the confidence to move quickly and modulate along with the project.

The diametrically opposite needs of meeting expectations for delivering a world-class design and meeting an “impossible” schedule are usually in direct conflict. We are extremely proud of what this extended team- LS3P, Rafco, Clayco, LandDesign, Uzun+Case, Syska Hennessy, and others- has been able to accomplish together. Our successes would not have been possible without stellar attitudes, top-notch expertise, a commitment to exceeding expectations, and real trust in each other, and after our hard work together over the last two and a half years, we have a better understanding of what’s truly possible.

About Tobias and Nathan

Tobias Rafael is President of Rafco, a real estate development project management and consulting firm / property management firm in St. Louis, MO. Tobias, a native St. Louisan, believes that determination and hard work are the core components of exceptional service, and that no task is too big or too small. A graduate of Lake Forest College in Illinois with a business degree, Tobias has served as President of the company since 2000. Tobias served as the project development leader for the new Centene East Coast Headquarters campus in Charlotte, NC.


Principal Nathan Daniel, AIA, LEED AP serves as the firm’s Workplace Practice Leader. He excels developing and maintaining long, productive relationships with clients. He is responsible for the design of the overall project vision in multiple project sectors, including corporate commercial, faith, hospitality, and mixed-use developments.

Nathan’s role is one of leadership and guidance, leading the project team from visioning through project completion. He is also a mediator, helping to foster trust and respect between the stakeholders. Nathan recently oversaw the completion of the new Elevation Church global headquarters in Ballantyne, the amenities facility at Trilogy Lake Norman and AvidXchange’s new headquarters at the Music Factory just outside of uptown Charlotte.  Nathan is the Principal in Charge for the new Centene East Coast Headquarters campus in Charlotte, NC.