The Town Hall as the New Collaborative Hub

The new Centene East Coast Headquarters is designed for maximum flexibility. For individual workers, this might mean the ability to work with a team in a collaboration space in the morning, and then sit outside at a fully connected workstation for heads-down focus in the afternoon. For teams, it might mean configuring movable furnishings to create huddle space for a brainstorming session. For the company as a whole, it means providing a variety of spaces which can adapt to an array of needs, including as-yet-unforeseen events from evolving technologies to pandemics.

In determining the types and sizes of program spaces for its newest workplace, Centene wanted a large auditorium where people could gather for Town Halls, presentations, and other large group meetings. However, knowing that a traditional auditorium would only be needed sporadically, Centene challenged the design team to imagine a large-scale gathering area which would flex to become an active, welcoming workspace for daily use by all employees.

Rising to this challenge drove the team to elevate the design above the expected enclosed room with tiered seating. Rather, the Town Hall became a jewel box at a prominent corner of the building, visible from the VIP entrance at the front door. The transparency provides a view through the building from the front drive all the way to the central courtyard. The space also sits at a “knuckle” point of the building, serving as a hinge joint between amenities and major circulation routes. In addition to creating a “wow” factor upon arrival, the light, airy volume entices team members to enter, find a seat, and work alongside a prime campus view of the wooded site.

The Town Hall is also directly adjacent to the “Visitor Experience” area and is an important part of the processional sequence from entry to Centene showcase to Town Hall to amenities. The two-story volume includes a multipurpose breakout area, a balcony with standing room and a drink/counter rail, an adjustable 12-panel sliding wall which can be closed for formal events but open most of the time to encourage all day use, and a lounge zone on the fourth floor with a more casual feel.

The biophilia-inspired palette of materials further blurs the lines between the indoors and outdoors. The risers are constructed of hickory; vertical wood-look fins, powder-coated metal for durability,  reference tree trunks and have the company’s name embedded into the design. The fins are also part of the acoustical strategy, with felt between each slat to control reverberation. Light, bright acoustical panel ceiling clouds make the Town Hall feel expansive, and moss and wood tones help to ground the materials in nature. The team avoided any design elements that would overcomplicate the space. The simplicity allows greater flexibility of use and keeps the focus on the stellar view. The resulting design is formal enough to host a presentation by the CEO, but inviting enough to encourage informal use day in, day out.

The retractable risers – very unusual in this type of application- are key to the flexibility of the design. When not in use as an auditorium, a portion of the 18” stairs retract into three stages, each 4’6” high, which can accommodate flexible furnishings. Making this strategy work safely and within code requirements required custom removable railings which slot into strategically designed recesses in the flooring. The overall design involved intensive collaboration with AHJs and structural engineers; the entire Town Hall is enclosed by 2-hour rated walls to separate it from the adjacent business occupancy. The generous glazing is all 2-hour rated, and a fire shutter in front of the operable wall required careful detailing and coordination.  The storage and A/V room underneath the Town Hall also had to be rated.

Accessibility was also an important priority- not just meeting code to allow, for example, a wheelchair user to enter on the ground floor and sit in a designated spot. The team wanted people of different mobility levels to be able to access the platforms for vendor presentations, breakout sessions, or just daily work options. An accessible entrance at the third floor features a ramp built into a large solid-surface planter. The planter itself is a design element with an organic rock form and abundant greenery; the ramp enhances the space rather than just being tacked onto the design.

The structural design was perhaps the greatest challenge, as the retractable tiers are, in essence, platforms cantilevered atop other platforms. Theater-grade retractable platform systems are rare, and are often very complex systems found in large-scale civic opera houses or performance halls. The agility and collaborative nature of the entire project team made the design possible. The location of the Town Hall had been earmarked early on as part of the core and shell design, and other LS3P team members began work on the interior strategy as part of a fast-track process. As the design for the retractable tiers was underway, the team realized that the equipment would conflict with a concrete structural beam about to be poured. Because of the commitment to real-time communication, a few fast phone calls between the interiors team, the core/shell team, the structural engineers, and the owner’s representative led to an efficient and timely solution that worked for both the structure and the innovative riser design. The closeness of the team, literal and metaphorical, meant that this potential problem was resolved in a matter of days, not weeks, and the fast-track construction proceeded apace.

The hard work required for innovation, engineering, coordination, and construction will yield significant dividends. Rather than a buttoned-up, formal auditorium used once or twice a month for large meetings, the transparent and active Town Hall will see daily activity as an interactive hub for collaboration as well as a variety of events; that addition to the workplace is well worth the investment.

About Kyle

Associate Principal Kyle Emme is an integral part of the interiors team, lending his close attention to detail, wealth of creativity, and energy to all his projects. Following a complex task with minimal direction is one of Kyle’s many gifts. Kyle is a self-starter and a team player. His strong interpersonal communication skills allow him to communicate effectively with colleagues, clients, and contractors.

Kyle earned a Master of Interior Architecture and Product Design from Kansas State University; his design ethos seeks to understand occupant needs without forgetting occupant delight, molding environments that balance the everyday with the extraordinary.