Armour All

Armour All

Eighteen months ago, the former Sam’s Club in south Baltimore was one of hundreds of “dead” big-box stores that were abandoned by their former operators due to poor sales.

Today, the Sam’s Club has been reborn as a bustling workplace for up to 600 employees, complete with a fitness center, auditorium, commissary, and a wide range of work settings.

Under Armour, the sports apparel giant based in Baltimore, saw opportunity where others saw misfortune. It hired Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ) to transform the vacant big-box store into a high-performance workplace for its financial and accounting, IT, supply chain, legal, and corporate real estate divisions.

The result is an adaptive reuse project that gives Under Armour 170,000 square feet of flexible workspace. Renamed Building 37, it’s the first structure to be completed
on a 50-acre waterfront campus where Under Armour plans to build a new global headquarters with up to 3.9 million square feet of space for 10,000 employees and BCJ as the master planner.

Besides addressing Under Armour’s space needs, Building 37 provides valuable lessons in ways to recycle big-box stores that are sitting vacant all around the country, such as the 154 U.S. stores Walmart closed in January.

“We really turned a sow’s ear into a silk purse,” said BCJ partner Frank Grauman, principal-in-charge of master planning for the Under Armour campus. “White elephant buildings like this are a national problem. I think a lot of communities would benefit from a solution like this.”

Grauman believes that the same design approach would work equally well for vacant big box stores in the suburbs, which tend to be surrounded by housing.  “Being near where people live,” he said, “makes it even better.”

The vacant Sam’s Club wholesale store had 130,000 square feet of space and ceiling heights ranging from 25 to 30 feet. It was sitting on a peninsula that was purchased for Under Armour’s new headquarters and offers sweeping views of the Patapsco River—a condition Sam’s Club didn’t utilize.

Under Grauman, principal-in-charge Mike Maiese, and project manager Monica Barton, BCJ made a series of design moves that transformed the building for its new use and helped it take better advantage of its waterfront setting.

First, the architects reoriented the building to the waterfront by opening up its rear wall and inserting floor-to-ceiling windows that provide framed views of the river beyond. “That was our aha moment,” Grauman said.

To help reorient the building to the water, the designers set aside a circulation zone just inside the newly glazed wall facing the river and made it all collaborative space, with sofas, chairs, and work stations not assigned to any one employee.

The architects also located all private offices near the center of the building to “democratize” the perimeter and give every employee access to natural light and views. They added a mezzanine level with 40,000 square feet of workspace but kept double-height spaces around most of the perimeter to retain a sense of openness. To avoid a claustrophobic feeling, BCJ removed the cornices, parapets, and piers, and introduced open stairways, giving the building a clean, modern look. Then, they shifted the main entrance to the building’s north side, where they used super graphics and a projecting wall to mark the arrival point.

For all its innovative ideas, Building 37 is not considered a permanent part of Under Armour’s campus. In the master plan showing the full build-out of the global headquarters, it’s nowhere to be found. Grauman said that even though the recycled building suits the company’s needs now, there likely will come a time when the land is too valuable for a two-story structure, and it will make economic sense to replace it with a larger one.