As Centene’s new East Coast Headquarters campus began to take shape – entirely coincidentally, during a global pandemic – the entire team knew the campus would be something special. The 80-acre forested site offered myriad opportunities to support a work environment rooted in wellness, flexibility, productivity, and collaboration. During a time of rapid change, Centene’s leadership leaned into a new paradigm for the workplace, and the landscape was a key part of the strategy to deliver a world-class campus to attract and retain its talented staff.

The early decision to design a campus that would harmonize with the wooded site, rather than cut and fill the site to adapt to a prescribed building, allowed a much more authentic integration of architecture and landscape. To maximize these opportunities, the landscape architects at LandDesign worked side-by-side with the architects at LS3P.  The experience of walking in the woods through filtered light from the canopy inspired the notion of “working in a treehouse.” Given the uniqueness of the opportunity, the entire team was on board with raising the bar for design excellence and exploring previously untested possibilities; as a result, showstopping landscape elements complement both the modern architectural aesthetic and new ways of working for the company.

The Interplay of Architecture and Landscape

As the architecture took shape and the large campus came into clearer focus, the opportunities for exciting landscape features multiplied. Defining moments within the natural environment harmonized with the form and function of the buildings: entry features, a lake amenity, a terrace by the food hall, yoga pavilions, and enticing interstitial spaces. Central water features (which are also certified BMPs) and boulders (ultimately sourced for free from a nearby building site) help to delineate nodes within the design, and a series of bridges and pathways weave the site and building elements together. An amphitheater nestled into the empty space underneath a cantilever provides a welcoming spot, rain or shine.

Fully Functional Outdoor Work Spaces

The massive central plaza at the heart of the campus was, for the landscape architects, akin to an interior design challenge. As such, the level of detail  was an intentional architectural expression befitting a fully integrated part of the program. This outdoor plaza anchors the campus community, and functions as a seamless extension of the interior. The wireless-everywhere campus eliminates friction for employees moving between indoor and outdoor work spaces. Every detail of the infrastructure – from integrated technology to convenience power sources to bollards designed to blend in with the architecture – is custom designed for convenience and aesthetics. The flexibility to choose a work environment that best suits the task at hand, with no interruption in server or network access, allows people to move freely from conference rooms to the central courtyard while remaining connected and productive.

Continuous Access to Nature, From a Trail or From a Window

The central plaza complements another significant outdoor amenity focused on connection: a network of campus greenway trails leading around and through the forested site. The trails underscore the invaluable benefit of providing easy access to nature, whether for walking meetings, a workout integrated into the workday, or just serene distance views. The greenway access and significant amount of green space are also key components of WELL accreditation for “enhanced access to nature.”

The ”treehouse” concept extended to carefully orchestrated framed views throughout the site, and led to a dedicated tree preservation effort that required near-surgical tree tagging precision. A typical project might require three or four illustrative views from various site perspectives; the Centene design includes upwards of 125 renderings. Preserving and creating these views from every part of the campus was particularly challenging with complex infrastructure and buildings that have no “back.” Nothing on the Centene campus is hidden; instead, every element is tailored to both beauty and function. Electrical infrastructure, duct banks, benches – every element is custom design to blend in with or enhance the landscape. Big moves such as stormwater retention ponds double as amenities that enhance the site; even pump houses for the water features are nestled into the landscape and integrated with plantings.

Making the Impossible Possible

A frequent saying on the new Centene campus is “It’s not impossible – it’s just never been done before.” A groundbreaking design begins with a foundation of trust, and that trust among all entities – Centene’s leadership, the designers and consultants, and the contractor – has grown over time. The aggressive schedule required  extreme attention to detail, and with the construction underway before the design was completed, the next “hot” item on the construction schedule became an all-hands-on-deck priority. Many elements of the campus required innovation to accomplish a design that looks simple, elegant, and harmonious; nothing has been left unstudied, and nothing has been installed without continuous alignment and coordination.

The unusual level of collaboration is evident in every project phase, from the earliest virtual presentations in March of 2020 to the ongoing checks and balances which led to the highest level of quality assurance. Through the challenges of fast-track construction, monumental scale, and evolving scope, the entire team has remained steadfast in “doing the right thing, not the easy thing.”

The result is a campus which encourages movement, fluidity between work modes, and new ways of thinking about work. Rooted in nature, supported by technology, and led by a company dedicated to a new future for the workplace, Centene’s East Coast Headquarters raises the bar for what “work” looks like for a new era- and it looks great.

About Paul, Shaun, Rhett, and Kevin

Paul Koska, AIA, LEED GA

Paul Koska offers a breadth of experience in corporate office, commercial mixed-use, and wellness projects. His projects are often complex in terms of design, coordination, and mix of uses and have diverse and extensive project teams. Paul is involved from the earliest phases of project development, producing visual imagery and modeling to convey project concepts. As an integral part of a project team, he carries out the work plan of the project leader and translates design intent into construction documentation. Paul also communicates and coordinates with subconsultants and jurisdictional authorities. His energetic and positive personality bring momentum to the team’s success.

As a former member of a municipal planning and development department, Paul understands how to build a partnership to resolve issues during the review of development and construction plans.

Shaun Tooley, PLA

Shaun Tooley is a Partner and Landscape Architect who is driven to form meaningful relationships with each client he works with, a passion he shares with the studio he leads. His thorough understanding and ability to navigate complex design scenarios influences his design approach – balancing program with natural context. His expertise has directed most of his portfolio within the private sector, while also participating and advocating for community benefit such as open space systems and investment in high quality public realm. Shaun continually seeks collaboration and exploration amongst his colleagues, meaning that his door is always open – willing to share his expertise and optimism for advancing purpose and the practice with LandDesign

Rhett Crocker, PLA

Rhett Crocker is LandDesign’s current President who leads the firm’s Strategic Vision and champions our culture of innovation and collaboration. A visionary master planner with an extraordinary work ethic, his innate ability to transform complex sites into beautiful master plans is like that of a painter envisioning a landscape from memory. While his role may seem lofty to some, Rhett finds joy and fulfilment when he returns to the drawing table, sketching the foundation for the next great master planned community. His ardent belief that good ideas come from anywhere, fosters an environment where LandDesigners of all levels and disciplines can engage in the design process, sharing their unique perspectives to inform the vision of a place. Rhett’s futuristic outlook and eternal optimism are our true north, driving the firm to produce impeccable work, deliver the utmost client experience, and nurture the best talent. As a father of three, Rhett is their biggest fan and never misses an opportunity to cheer on the future members of Clemson University Athletics

Kevin Vogel, PE

Kevin Vogel is a Partner and Civil Engineer leading a studio focused on providing engineering design solutions for both public and private clients throughout the Charlotte region. As a father of five, Kevin’s ability to navigate the unpredictable and complex nature of projects involving multiple stakeholders and restrictive codes or ordinances is almost as impressive as his ability to stay engaged in his children’s activities. With all this responsibility to keep schedules, budgets, and multiple needs met, it should come as no surprise that Kevin can rock out hard on a set of drums.