Centra at Metropark

Centra at Metropark

Centra at Metropark.
Courtesy KPF

As the 2008 economic recession descended over the United States, most of the nation’s architecture firms found their domestic work drying up with nothing new to speak of coming in the door. Such was the case at KPF, but turn things around, the firm—which is widely known for its multi-use mega projects in Asia and high-end commercial and hospitality high rises at home—did something unexpected. It answered an RFP for the rehabilitation of an office park in suburban New Jersey with a relatively miniscule budget of $20 million. The client, Hampshire Real Estate Companies, is in the business of purchasing distressed properties and flipping them. What it needed was a masterplan for 750,000 square feet of future development, as well as the conversion of an aging 4-story, 80,000-square-foot building on the property into Class A office space.

KPF brought new life to this aging suburban office building by re-cladding the structure in a high performance curtain wall, cutting wells in the earth to bring daylight to the basement, and expanding the fourth floor, adding square footage and creating a sheltered entry plaza.

To win the job, KPF sent its top-tier design talent to Middlesex County, where it saw the opportunity to flex its well-developed arsenal of urban design strategies and bring them to bear on the sleepy ex-urban surrounds. The condition it found there was lackluster, to put it mildly: an L-shaped, strip-windowed box—with no clearly demarcated entry or ceremonial sense of arrival—beached beside a dreary asphalt sea of parking. However, the existing building did possess some value and the prospect of recycling the structure cut enough room in the budget (some $4.5 million in savings) to allow for big gestures elsewhere. So the architects set about the task of peeling away what was worthless, preserving the bones, and adding elements to both increase the usable space to 110,000 square feet and imbue the edifice with enough architectural value to make it a suitable gateway to the future development.

The first thing to go was the poorly performing envelope. Beneath, the team discovered a steel structure in need of reinforcement to bring it up to current code. DeSimone Consulting Engineers worked with the architects to transform the existing moment frame into a braced frame structure. The team added an elevator and a stairwell but were able to preserve 45 percent of the building core, including all of the mechanical ducting. The basement also offered the opportunity to add 20,000 square feet of office space in what was previously a mere storage area. The underground level had impressive 20-foot ceiling heights that made it suitable for Class A space. All it needed was access to daylight. In answer, the team cut out sections of the surrounding landscape to create sunken gardens acting as light wells.

New outdoor space beneath the entrance bridge (left) a detail of the dynamic column (center) and the column under construction (right).

The big design gesture came with the addition to the fourth floor. Here, KPF saw the possibility of turning the L-shaped plan into a rectangle by adding another L that would add 10,000 square feet of open-plan office space and create a sheltered plaza below, delivering that sense of arrival that was so lacking in the existing scheme. The drama of this jutting volume also gave the team the chance to develop an expressive sculptural column that would both support the addition and become an icon for the building. The “tree” column that they developed features a sturdy “trunk” and three heavy “branches” that jut out to cradle the addition. This column was prefabricated in four sections out of 1-inch-thick plate steel. Inside, it features 300,000 steel studs. The sections were welded together onsite and then injected with concrete. The addition itself is made up of full-floor trusses that span 120 feet. The trusses’ cords were modified to interact formally with the organic form of the column, which supports the entire weight of the addition.

Tishman Construction (another big player that agreed to work on this small-fry project due to the recessionary crunch) originally planned to erect the column first and then lower the addition on top of it. However, delays in the shop fabrication of the column disrupted that idea. In order to keep the project moving on schedule, the contractor erected the addition first on false-work towers, then placed the column underneath it once it became available. DiSimone had to redraw the connections between trusses and branches to make this possible.

The ground level plan (top) and four views of the finished building show the bridged entrance (above).

To cap things off, KPF re-skinned the building in a high-performance curtain wall of floor-to-ceiling glass. To keep the building on track for a Gold LEED rating, the firm clad the first three floors in black glass and the fourth floor in low-iron white fritted glass. The higher performance characteristics of the lower levels generated enough energy savings through insulation values to make room for a crystal-clear upper level that brings yet more drama to the project and an increased desirability to the sun-drenched top floor. That’s not to say that the lower floors are dark and dreary. The Viracon glass is of such a quality that when viewed from inside there is little difference between black and white in the perception of the world outside.