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The Essence of Discovery

The new headquarters of a diversified media firm boldly projects the company's dynamic image.

January 01, 2004 |

The communication of ideas is the lifeblood of Discovery Communications, a media company best known for its Discovery Channel television network. Not surprisingly, the company wanted One Discovery Place, its new headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., to communicate this dynamic quality, as well as to provide an environment in which the exchange of ideas could flourish.

"It's a more open building, unlike the ribbon-window buildings that are typical in the area," says Steven Cohen, project manager with the Washington office of project architect SmithGroup, which was selected from a field of design firms that included I.M. Pei and Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates.

The structure's transparency, achieved largely through the use of clear, low e-glass, enables activities inside the building to be viewed from outside. "We wanted not only to make the building an interesting composition, but to have it enliven the area around it," Cohen adds. "Activity breeds activity — and that's a good thing."

This enlivening characteristic is not limited to daylight hours. After dark, an innovative exterior lighting system is intended "to visually convey a sense of what Discovery is about — exciting, colorful and a little mysterious," says SmithGroup project principal David King.

Discovery Communications encompasses 14 U.S. brands. In addition to the Discovery Channel, these include TLC, Animal Planet, and the Travel Channel. The building is headquarters for corporate operations and the U.S. networks. Post-production activities are conducted in a 148,000-sf renovated former department store several blocks away. The two buildings house 1,800 employees.

The building's L-shaped configuration was largely a response to Discovery's requirement to incorporate a major public courtyard. The site configuration resulted in a building with three street-facing elevations.

Another design objective was to provide visual interest at rooftop height. The designers responded with one wing of seven stories and the other of 11 stories, as well as two rooftop "hat" structures. The wings are joined by an 11-story atrium. "Many buildings in the Washington area simply rise to one height and are cut off at the top," says King. "They tend to be boxy,"

Neighborliness encouraged

Discovery wanted to foster close relationships with its neighbors in Silver Spring's newly revived downtown area. This was underscored by its decision not to include a cafeteria, fitness center, or day care center in the building — standard features in many corporate headquarters. Company officials felt that these services could be better provided by firms located nearby, according to Richard Conn, Discovery's director of facilities and real estate. The only exception is a small sandwich shop on the ground floor.

"They made that choice to get their employees out onto the street and to support the local business community," says King. "It was an enlightened decision." It also saved money, since these functions would have occupied space equivalent to approximately the area of an entire floor.

Discovery reevaluated its space requirements just before construction began and decided to add one floor to the initial plan, inserted at mid-level. Although zoning regulations would have allowed yet another floor, Discovery decided not to implement this option for its $165 million project.

Staircase with a view

Two of the building's six stairways are expressed on the exterior. One is pulled away from the building and connected to it by 30-foot-long, glass-walled bridges. It is essentially a square donut that also encloses a duct that exhausts air from the building's 800-vehicle, below-grade garage. Because the 125-foot stair tower is not contiguous to occupied space, a fire-rated enclosure was required only on the side that faces the building, allowing its three remaining sides to be completely glazed. This ability to see outside, particularly to the Sensory Garden, is intended to encourage employees to use the stairs rather than the elevators. The separation of the stair tower from the building made pressurization of the tower unnecessary.

The building's 10-ft-wide main corridor abuts exterior walls that face the garden. This placement provides views of the garden as well as activity inside the building. It also reduces the number of workstations exposed to the disruption of employee circulation. An off-center core area also contributes to the building's uninterrupted floor plates.

A big firm of small groups

Despite the company's size, Discovery employees think of themselves as part of a "small, creative, high-energy, idea-driven organization," which engenders a creative tension, says Chris Banks, of the design firm Gensler. The firm had earlier served as interior designer for the conversion of Discovery's production building and was assigned a similar role for Discovery Place.

"In my experience, there are few facilities this large [nearly 600,00 sf] that don't really have a corporate feel," says Banks, Gensler's interior design principal. While some standardization of workstation components is essential to provide relocation flexibility, "everyone wants to feel a uniqueness about who they are, both individually and as a group," she says.

Most employees have both computer terminals and TV receivers. This was taken into account in the choice of workstation components. The system selected accommodates two pieces of tabletop equipment at a uniform height, has a curved desk, and is hexagonal in plan — thereby providing greater privacy than a typical rectilinear workstation. A pole-and-beam system with overhead cables distributes power and communications services. Relocated employees can reconfigure their new workstation to their own requirements.

The generous floor-to-ceiling height (12 feet, 2 inches) was developed based on the desire for an exposed structure and to allow for the proper height of indirect pendant lighting. Ceilings in office areas were left unfinished in part because this replicated the "loft" environment liked by employees at the production facility.

Each story of the building has a bamboo-floored community center at the junction of the building wings. Pantries with coffee stations are located at the end of each wing.

A one-acre Sensory Garden occupies the south portion of the 3.5-acre triangular site. Dennis Carmichael, a principal with the Alexandria, Va., office of landscape architect EDAW, says the "sensory" nature of the garden derives from plants that appeal to particular senses — for example, herbs that excite the sense of taste, and ornamental grasses that rustle in the wind.

To make the building's north elevation more responsive to the street, Discovery commissioned a mural by Mexican artist Narcissus Quagliata. The 170-foot-wide mural is entitled "A Brushstroke of Discovery." It depicts discovery from the beginning of time through space exploration. The hand-painted images, produced in Mexico, were digitized, silk-screened onto metal panels, and coated with porcelain.

Discovery considered the installation of a wireless Internet system, but abandoned the idea due to concern about compromising communications security in its urban environment.

Consolidation of Discovery's staff is a major benefit of the new headquarters. The company was spread out over five buildings in its former Bethesda, Md., location, where the annual relocation of employees soared to as high as 120%. Since moving into the new headquarters last March, the churn rate has been in the 40% range, according to Conn. He says the use of demountable partitions has enabled relocations to be performed over a weekend at a reasonable cost.

The new building has upgraded facilities for audio-visual presentations and conferences that will accommodate as many as 220 persons. (For larger groups, the company often uses the nearby AFI Silver Theater.) Demand for the first-floor conference space has been so strong that a planner and a scheduler were hired to manage it. "It caught us completely off guard as to how popular it would become," Conn says.

Gary Pomerantz, principal in charge for project mechanical engineer Flack+Kurtz, says Discovery's HVAC system is sized to handle heat loads generated by building occupants as well as by computers and other heat-producing equipment. The electrical system has the capacity to deliver 5-6 W/sf, compared to a more typical 3-4 W/sf for offices. Extensive computer modeling was used to develop a smoke evacuation system for the 11-story atrium.

The poured, flat plate concrete building's atrium and its elaborate rooftop "hat" elements presented challenges for the structural engineers, according to Allyn Kilsheimer, principal in charge with Washington-based KTLH Engineers. He says the bridges that connect the building to the stair tower had to be engineered so that people crossing them would feel a bouncing sensation.

Bill Magruder, senior vice president with project general contractor Clark Construction Group, noted that because Discovery's leases in its previous locations expired over a period of several months, it was necessary to turn the new building over to the company in phases. "When we met the first date, there was another one right behind it."

Magruder says the project was delivered within the client's original time- and budget parameters. "That doesn't happen a lot on a project of this scope."

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