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Realogy Headquarters

Kohn Pedersen Fox
Madison, New Jersey

Office Overhaul: Kohn Pedersen Fox transforms a bunkerlike call center into an airy office park by cutting away its core and tearing down its windowless facade.

By Ronda Kaysen
April 2014
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It is hard to imagine that the glassy Realogy headquarters in Madison, New Jersey, was once a grim windowless Verizon call center. The building's stunning transformation serves as an example of the potential of sustainable design and what it can mean for the people who work in suburban office parks.

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When Hampshire Real Estate Companies bought the property at 175 Park Avenue in 2009, it was a blight on this quiet suburban neighborhood. In order to draw a top-shelf tenant, the 1970s building had to be reimagined for a 21st-century workforce that demands bright light, open floor plans, and aesthetic appeal. Hampshire enlisted New York–based Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) to reinvent the three-story building as a Class A facility that could attract a tenant like Realogy, which is the parent company of real estate firms that include Sotheby's, Century 21, and Coldwell Banker. But rather than raze the building and replace it with a state-of-the-art facility, Hampshire salvaged it, shaving time and cost off the project by avoiding, among other things, a lengthy public-approval process. "It's about getting rid of the plastic-bag mentality that you throw away a building," says Hugh H. Trumbull III, KPF design principal, "and [about] harvesting all the good parts."

Hampshire had worked with KPF before, transforming a bland office building in Iselin, New Jersey, into the award-winning Centra at Metropark, a LEED Platinum building. The developer continued its focus on sustainable design at the Madison property, which the team hopes will achieve a LEED Gold rating.

The building's biggest problem was its lack of daylight. The call center had virtually no windows, yet its bunkerlike walls were inefficient, leaking heat and air through a poorly insulated facade. To bring sunlight into the building, KPF cut out its center along the east–west axis, removing a third of its volume for an interior courtyard; visitors can access a forest-style garden, designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architect, from the lobby. The architects then reallocated that square footage to create north and south wings on the eastern side of the building, maximizing opportunities for light and views.

KPF replaced the drab brick facade with a glass curtain wall, creating an airtight, efficient enclosure that also provides workers with ample daylight. The wings are made with a darker glass that has a high-performance coating, at once reducing the sun load and allowing light to penetrate across the full floor-plate. Interior sunshades provide additional protection from glare. The lobby, meanwhile, is clad in a clear low-iron glass that from the outside offers an open sightline to a floating staircase suspended along the interior garden wall. KPF also excavated around the front and sides of the building, bringing the basement level out of darkness, a decision that maximized usable space without making the building any taller. "The real dramatic wow factor is that you had a black box, and now it is absolutely full of light," says Trumbull.

While KPF designed the core and shell as well as the lobby of the 275,000-square-foot building, New Jersey–based Kimmerle Newman Architects designed the new gym, cafeteria, conference room, and office interiors, which have an open floor plan and views of the surrounding landscape.

Suburban office parks are all but synonymous with parking lots. These massive slabs create heat islands in the summer and burden municipal stormwater systems. The Madison building had a large parking lot in the back and a driveway that wrapped around the front of the building. "The parking lot was literally a sea of asphalt, not one blade of grass," said Kevin J. Webb, a civil engineer with Langan Engineering, which worked on the redevelopment.

With the new design, parking was consolidated at the rear, sparing Park Avenue from an eyesore. Additional parking spots for compacts were added to maximize green space, and charging stations for electric vehicles were installed. To add shade, the team planted native varieties of trees in bioswales and other areas of the lot. During heavy rainfall, excess water is diverted to a detention basin, further reducing stress on downstream waterways. Three green roofs also mitigate runoff. Planted with sedum, one tops a canopy over the entrance plaza and another covers the second level of the building. A third-floor terrace overlooks the courtyard and includes a mix of native perennials and sedum planters. "This '70s-era suburban monster got changed into something a little more sensitive," says Webb.

The landscape architects had to tackle another unfortunate hallmark of suburban design: the green lawn. To conserve water and minimize maintenance and use of fertilizers, Nelson Byrd Woltz traded this feature for a landscape that echoes the site's natural surroundings. The central courtyard and exterior grounds employ native grasses, plants, and trees. The result is a soft, earthy look accented with boulders harvested from a Connecticut quarry.

Suburban office buildings have a deservedly bad reputation, immortalized in movies like the late 1990s comedy Office Space, and the acclaimed television show The Office. And 175 Park Avenue was no exception. Not only was it unsustainable, it was ugly, punitive, and unpleasant. The new design challenges the old standard by transforming a concrete fortress with light, greenery, and new places to gather.

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