Sports spectacular

New Reebok International headquarters projects an active image
August 11, 2010

Can a sleek new corporate headquarters help to enhance a corporate image? Athletic shoe and apparel manufacturer Reebok International Ltd. is convinced that it can, and offers as an example its $70 million world headquarters in Canton, Mass., 15 miles south of Boston.

The new facility consists of three four-story, 100,000-sq.-ft. office wings and a three-story, 60,000-sq.-ft. wing that contains 36,000 square feet of executive offices and a 15,000-sq.-ft. conference center.

The spirit of the building is expressed by a glass-enclosed circulation spine that connects the building elements. Because this primary conduit is at the second level, no other floor of the building is more than two floors distant. Using earth that was excavated to create the basement, the visitor entrance area was built up 15 feet above grade to meet the spine.

Reebok board Chairman Paul Fireman wanted the building "to express ideas about sports and fitness." The design response is a sloping façade that is intended to convey the image of a sports stadium. "We wanted people arriving at Reebok to feel a sense of exhilaration," says Steven McConnell, design principal with Seattle-based architect NBBJ. McConnell describes Reebok as "a client with a remarkable program and the will to take risks. They could have played it a lot safer and ended up with nothing like this."

Douglas Noonan, Reebok's director of corporate real estate and a structural engineer, and architect Edward Rybak, Reebok's manager of facilities planning and design, shepherded the project from design to completion.

Daylighting is a priority

Foremost, Reebok wanted its employees to enjoy a maximum amount of natural light. The building plan acknowledges this goal with 10-ft.-high ceilings, open plan offices for 90 percent of the employees and office wings that have a maximum width of only 80 feet.

The design was well along before the interior plan was finalized. Noonan and Rybak advocated an open plan, which received a boost when a senior company executive commented, "It's a shame that such an exciting building has such a boring, traditional office plan."

Noonan adds: "We took that as our opportunity to discuss the possibility of going with a more provocative open plan."

Workstations utilize a demountable partition system. The same system is used to create full-height work spaces, with transparent top panels that allow natural light to reach into these enclosed spaces.

Reebok employee teams work in proximity to develop new products and the strategies to market them. The completed designs are transmitted electronically to overseas manufacturing facilities.

Reebok encourages its employees to test products that are under development. In addition to a regulation-size basketball court that is the centerpiece of a 30,000-sq.-ft. fitness center, the headquarters has a small basketball floor with built-in force plates that measure the pressure exerted by players as they move across the court. In-house test facilities incorporated into the building reduce the need to test products at off-site locations.

Reebok currently has about 1,000 employees at its headquarters. They were housed in five buildings, two of which the company owned. An aggressive project delivery schedule was essential to complete the new building before it necessitated extending leases at former locations.

"It was 23 months from the time we cut the first tree on the site until Reebok began moving in," says Tom O'Connor, president of O'-Connor Constructors, a member of the Turner/O'Connor joint venture responsible for constructing the new facility.

To capture the essence of action, the building incorporates curves and angles, which created challenges not encountered in the construction of rectangular structures. Field engineers were required to establish more than 5,000 survey points to lay out the building. O'Connor was prompted to ask the architect, in jest, "What have you got against 90-degree angles?"

The active engagement of owner, designers and contractors produced project enhancements as the construction progressed. For example, the retaining wall that parallels the front of the building was initially to be a vertical, cast-in-place concrete structure. After seeing early test pours, it became apparent that a more natural material would enhance the wall's appearance. The earthwork contractor proposed building the wall with large granite blocks removed from foundations of demolished buildings. Because the blocks were already in the contractor's yard, they were used-and the project received the bonus of a $75,000 saving compared with the cost of a concrete wall. This led to another design refinement: The rock wall was angled away from the building, enabling more natural light to reach the first-floor cafeteria.

NBBJ received the design commission in September 1997, about six months after the contractor and an original architect had been hired. By the following April, working drawings that were 90 percent complete had been prepared. On this basis, the Turner/O'Connor team provided a guaranteed maximum price.

Reebok wanted to employ Boston-area firms to the greatest extent possible. But its dissatisfaction with the concept presented by the initial design firm prompted Reebok Chairman Fireman to urge opening up the architect selection process to firms beyond the Boston area. Reebok then contacted NBBJ, which had previously expressed an interest in the project. NBBJ, as well as another local firm, were each given a 11/2-day orientation covering Reebok's operations and its aspirations for its new facility.

The two firms were asked to express in their designs what they had learned about the company. Each was offered $10,000 to develop a design concept to be presented to Reebok management eight days later. Unlike the other firms that submitted design proposals, NBBJ did not interpret the concept of a corporate "campus" as implying more than one building.

McConnell notes that other architectural firms proposed the fitness center as a separate structure. "We put it at the heart of the facility, and did it in a way that employees can work out and not feel compromised," he says. "From the circulation spine, you can look into the fitness center, but you won't be close enough to see your secretary sweat."

Meeting costs slashed

Reebok's conference center incorporates sophisticated audiovisual equipment, including a $40,000 automated spotlight system that follows a presenter as he or she moves about. The company is realizing substantial savings by using this facility as the primary location for company meetings. Its twice-annual "global summits" previously brought as many as 700 company representatives to an off-site location-generally a resort located in the United States or elsewhere. Since the bulk of meeting participants are based at company headquarters, only about 150 people now need to travel to attend these meetings.

The ability to host major meetings in its own headquarters gives Reebok greater control over the environment-and a chance to impress attendees, whether they are customers, financial analysts, prospective employees or potential business partners.

Prior to the start of construction, Reebok expressed its preference for using local contractors, subcontractors and suppliers. Canton-based O'Connor, with a 1999 construction volume of about $100 million, recognized that it was not large enough to handle the project by itself. It teamed up with Turner Construction Co. to form a joint venture.

"The project couldn't have been accomplished without a tremendous team effort," O'Connor observes. He said having an NBBJ representative on site helped to coordinate operations and reduce the problems arising from the three-hour time difference between the project location and NBBJ's West Coast headquarters.

Reebok currently produces about 800 versions of athletic shoes. In today's fast-paced, style-conscious retail environment, consumers continually seek new styles. The design and production startup for a new product takes nine to 12 months, and Reebok's goal is to reduce this to six months. "If we've done this [headquarters design] correctly, we should be able to shorten our turnaroud time," Rybak says.

Although it would be possible for Reebok to lease individual wings to other companies if that became necessary, an "exit strategy" was never seriously discussed as the design evolved. "We were designing to succeed," Rybak declares.