Embrace History: Altria Reimagined Historic Building

Historic buildings are tangible links to the past. More than 90,000 of them are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Preservation and protection of these historic sites are of utmost importance, particularly buildings that are undergoing renovation or restoration.

That requirement was at the forefront of considerations for Altria, a Fortune 200 producer and marketer of some of the world’s best-known brands, as it planned to expand its unique headquarters building in Richmond, Virginia. The structure is cited as a prototype for the modern suburban office building and has been labeled a prime example of International Style Architecture. Designed by Gordon Bunshaft, a leading American architect noted for pushing design boundaries, the facility was constructed as the headquarters for Reynolds Metals in the late 1950s. Its original campus demonstrated the creative use of aluminum in the modern construction associated with post-war America.

Previously, Altria had established a division of its corporate offices in the building, which was then owned by the University of Richmond. After ruling out locations on greenfield sites, the corporation determined the facility would be ideal as a new headquarters to unite a workforce housed in multiple locations at the time. But the changes would have to be made within the historical context of this classic structure and still meet Altria’s future needs, specifically the desire to shift toward a new working environment that spurs collaboration, emphasizes technology, and encourages innovation.

Honoring and accommodating history

Altria began by establishing a design partnership with BHDP Architecture to reassess its strategy. To align aspirations with Altria’s future direction, BHDP initiated visioning sessions with Altria executives, resulting in the theme “Reimagine our Workplace.” Information compiled from these sessions, which included leadership interviews and employee focus groups, was distilled into a success scorecard crucial for the design of the headquarters and later the evaluation of its performance. Among some of the concepts: creating an eye-catching magnet inside and out, producing an atmosphere of delight through the headquarters and establishing a connection within the building, its environment and the workforce.

During the strategic engagement, it became clear that the construction of an addition would be required, but its design could not in any way detract from the original historic building. What followed was a three-year design and construction period that led to an inspiring display of creativity and development visible inside and out.

Much of the headquarters’ iconic beauty stems from the stunning presence visible on its north and east sides. North along Forest Avenue Street, a large reflecting pool welcomes visitors and immediately attracts attention as the main entry. On West Broad Street, the view prominently showcases the architecture of the building and provides transparency into the interior courtyard. Obstruction of either of these primary views would have diminished this building’s magnificent allure and stature.

The success scorecard also enabled Altria to settle on its strategy: an addition placed on the south side of the property to ensure the historic building remained the centerpiece and focal point of the campus. The surrounding landscape, filled with impressive vistas and formal gardens of various scales, is sloped, creating an opportunity to minimize the height of the new addition. By capitalizing on this site condition, the new addition sits comfortably one level lower than the original building allowing Bunshaft’s masterpiece to take center stage.

To solve the design challenge of creating a natural relationship between the historic and the new, BHDP designed a connector to blend seamlessly into the site. Influenced by the palette of the original building, metal and glass are prominent on the addition’s exterior, allowing the façades to reflect the beauty of the trees and adjacent greenspace. The rhythm of the original building’s structural bays is replicated in the addition, creating a harmonious connection and cadence between the two structures. To complement the revolutionary sun-shading vertical louvers of the original building, the addition features high-performance glazing and interior shading providing solar control and creating a modern interpretation of minimalism.

View from the inside

By including AVUITY, a spatial utilization analytics company, at the project’s onset, the team quickly identified 14,000 square feet of underutilized space that could be redistributed to improve employees’ amenities. The interior is organized around a “Main Street” design principle with the inclusion of a fitness center, credit union, product store, salon and a micro-market. The building’s main entrance features a host station and a coffee bar that greets employees and guests, designed to create a warm and intimate environment—all of which fulfill a major element of the scorecard: “delight.”

For ultimate flexibility, the design team crafted a modular system for workstations and offices aligned with the module of the historic building. Workstation pods are the same size as collaboration areas. The same is true with equal sized huddle rooms and offices. Common areas at the vertical connection points on each side of the connector enable employees to meet in groups or work individually. The modular system design is adaptable when business needs necessitate growth and change.

The design team preserved key interior finishes honoring the historic quality of the campus by maintaining cherry panels, brick flooring, plastic laminate wall panels and striated black and white book-matched marbles. Such details might not seem important, but they weigh heavily in respecting and honoring the historic designation of this monumental building.

Accommodating business, architecture and history

Altria’s senior management has praised the team for its vision in developing the new headquarters and its design that accommodates future business change within an attractive work environment that complements and respects the historic look and feel of the campus. After a final walkthrough following the project’s completion, the group of executives agreed by simply stating: “You nailed it!”

About the Author:

Tom Arends, AIA, LEED AP is a design leader/partner at BHDP Architecture. An award-winning, international architectural firm, BHDP is recognized for innovative and inspiring solutions in architecture, planning, interior design, experiential graphic design, project management, strategic consulting, and spatial utilization analytics of sensor-based statistical data to provide more informed design solutions for our clients. BHDP serves five markets: Workplace, Higher Education, Industrial, Retail, and Discovery & Science from its offices in Cincinnati and Columbus, OH, and Charlotte and Raleigh, NC.  For more information, email tarends@bhdp.com or call (513) 271-1634.  BHDP, 302 West Third St, Suite 500, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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