Aug 18, 2017
BY: and
THEME: Point of View

Building on a Legacy in Downtown Durham

A revitalized high-rise punctuates the skyline along West Chapel Hill Street in downtown Durham. This is Legacy Tower. Our Research Triangle Park-based architecture studio recently relocated here, and in becoming the first new tenant at Legacy, we strengthen our connections with this vibrant city and embrace the proud history of the building itself. On target to be the first project in North Carolina that will achieve Fitwel certification, our new office also puts into practice our belief in the role good design can play in promoting employee health and well-being.

Downtown Durham

A welcoming, diverse, and entrepreneurial city

Our block, bounded by West Chapel Hill Street, Willard Street, Duke Street, and Jackson Street, was once the location of two stately homes built by Benjamin N. Duke. Along with his father, Washington Duke, and his brother, James B. Duke, Benjamin Duke’s business acumen and philanthropy shaped much about the city of Durham, including the world-class university and medical center that today bear their family’s name.

Historic photos of Durham reveal a long line of distinguished architecture.

Durham is also home to Durham Bulls Triple-A baseball, the American Dance Festival and other thriving arts organizations, the innovation hub of Research Triangle Park, and numerous bucolic sustainable communities—as well as many of the firm’s projects from the last three decades. The city’s remarkable energy and welcoming, diverse, and entrepreneurial community reflect Perkins+Will’s values, offering us added inspiration to build on our distinctive culture.

The firm is leasing 12,000 square feet in the 12-story Legacy Tower, built in 1965 by the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company—one of the largest and most influential African-American businesses in U.S. history—and heralded for its innovative modernist design. The building’s legacy of social and economic progress adds to its appeal for Perkins+Will, a progressive leader in corporate social responsibility.

A holistic perspective on wellness and the employee experience

The move to this storied tower does more than just change our location, of course. It brings the studio’s 55 planning and design professionals into newly designed office space with 360-degree views of downtown Durham and an open, flexible environment that can accommodate growth. The new studio will also be the first project in North Carolina to receive Fitwel certification, which recognizes building and workplace design that encourages and supports the physical, mental, and social health of employees. Fitwel certification assesses features—such as the design of stairwells and outdoor spaces, proximity to public transit and fitness facilities, indoor air quality, and healthy food standards—against criteria shown to contribute to a health-promoting environment.

Inside the Durham studio.

Our office’s open workspace plan allows energizing daylight to penetrate the entire studio. The use of sit-stand desks and the arrangement of teaming spaces within the studio create a flexible work environment that encourages activity, creativity, and collaboration. A wellness room gives employees a quiet space to relax and recharge. Storage and circulation are compactly arranged around a central core, which also serves as a gallery to showcase examples of the firm’s design work. Thoughtful selection of materials using our research-based Precautionary List ensures good indoor air quality.

Ongoing Legacy Tower renovations include the addition of a mezzanine to the lobby and several tenant amenities, including a fitness center and a café. Within the larger context of downtown, employees will enjoy a walkable and bike friendly environment that enables physical activity and helps reduce our carbon footprint.

Perkins+Will is the first U.S. company to pursue Fitwel certification for all of its North American and European offices. Our participation in the healthy building certification standard, developed by the federal General Services Administration (GSA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and adapted for private sector firms by the nonprofit Center for Active Design, again puts Perkins+Will on the forefront of evidence-based design and policy strategies, vetting new certifications that may benefit our clients while at the same time supporting our employees’ health and well-being.

Relocating the Durham office has given Perkins+Will an ideal opportunity to take a holistic perspective on wellness and the entire employee experience, creating an environment that nurtures an exchange of diverse ideas and continues the studio’s tradition of producing design that inspires.

Our Building’s History – The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Building

In the early 1960s, when Duke University sold the property it had inherited from Benjamin Duke’s estate 30 years earlier, it was purchased by North Carolina Mutual Life. Founded in 1898, the company was for decades one of the country’s largest African-American owned business despite operating in the segregated South. Welton Becket Associates of Los Angeles, which had already completed multiple iconic modernist structures throughout the country, was hired to design the building in part because of their racially equitable hiring practices. Welton Becket worked with North Carolina architect Marion Ham, who had previously worked with Edmund J. Austin in Southern Pines.

The building’s unusual façade is a stacked series of Vierendeel trusses, each composed of 47 T-shaped and I-shaped precast concrete segments held together with post-tensioning. Each truss is 21 feet high and spans 110 feet, including a 34-foot cantilever at each end.

The building was completed to much acclaim, including being named one of Forbes’ 10 Outstanding Buildings of 1966 and one of Fortune’s Top 10 Buildings of the Decade. However, sometimes bold design is a bit too bold for the harsh nature of reality: while there were no corner columns bracing in the original design—each floor was designed to be cantilevered from the center so that the corners could be glass—unexpectedly sagging floors eventually meant the corners had to be retrofitted with structural concrete.

While the change left the tower looking a bit less daring, it serves as a bit of a lesson for us—even visionary designs are subject to the laws of nature. Despite that, it doesn’t ever stop us from dreaming.

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