Designer Forum: Flooring is a collaborative touchpoint in Norfolk Southern’s new headquarters - April 2023
By Betsy Nurse
Norfolk Southern’s new Atlanta, Georgia headquarters consolidates 3,300 employees into a vertical 750,000-square-foot campus that reimagines work. Designed by HOK with an emphasis on choice, collaboration, innovation and wellness, the building offers employees diverse workspace options and rich amenities that support Norfolk Southern’s vision, brand and desire to recruit and retain top talent. The architecture and interiors are LEED Gold certified.
THE DESIGN BRIEF
Norfolk Southern is a Fortune 500 company with a proud history and a firm eye on the future. The company’s workplace vision is simple yet powerful: “Don’t just work here, thrive here.” The subtext to that is equally compelling-when its people thrive, so too does Norfolk Southern. Based on this overarching theme, the design brief called for a building that would strengthen employee interactions, communication and collaboration and, in turn, increase the speed of innovation and decision-making.
The building would also enhance the employee experience for the staff, previously siloed in two separate locations, while simultaneously appealing to all generations and positioning the company for the future.
The largest canvases in any interior environment are the ceiling, wall and floor planes. HOK considers all three and more when developing interior architecture, but there is no denying that the materials visitors and employees interface with every day are a key component of success.
Norfolk Southern had a number of unique design challenges and driving factors in designing this space. Five specific criteria would lead the design:
• Flexibility: Employees should have dedicated personal spaces that don’t exclusively tie them to their desks.
• Collaboration: Beyond places for group meetings and teamwork, the building needed areas where people from different departments could serendipitously connect and engage.
• Technology and Innovation: Data and technology have transformed Norfolk Southern into a modern transportation and logistics firm. The new HQ must reflect this vision with campus-wide technology that supports problem-solving, freedom and collaboration.
• Wellness: The new HQ should be a place where people want to come to work, with healthy and supportive environments, amenities and LEED certification.
• Branding: Norfolk Southern’s brand and purpose should be infused throughout the space in a way that honors the company’s heritage while looking ahead.
• Timeless: Authentic materials that transcend time should be at the forefront.
With the brief as an entry point and additional insights from the client and building architect, a solution emerged that spoke to Norfolk Southern’s vision of providing a space where people could thrive and would want to work.
THE FINISHED PRODUCT
The first glimpse of Norfolk Southern’s design vision is visible before entering the building. Employees and guests pass through a lush outdoor plaza on their way to a four-story lobby with a public coffee shop.
The desire to have a continuous experience from outside into the inside is reflected through the floor-to-ceiling glass, through which the grey sandstone flooring is visible. HOK worked closely with design architect Pickard Chilton to select a through-body large-format tile that continues the appearance of the exterior paver and concrete walkways into the building, settling on Italian quarried pietra forte Fiorentina in a honed finish.
Circulation from the grand lobby to more intimate spaces like security, the coffee shop and elevators to the towers are differentiated by a change to a complementary terrazzo. These durable materials were carefully considered due to the high traffic volume in the space and in tandem with the wall, ceiling and architecture. The selections are purposefully timeless materials to avoid dating the space or reflecting the trends of the moment.
At the centerpiece of the main lobby is an awe-inspiring circular stair. The soaring staircase speaks to Norfolk Southern’s aspirational vision and emphasis on wellness. This beacon of movement and energy is clad in white Corian quartz counterpointed by warm engineered wood treads and custom natural wood cladding that integrates the rail. The choice to move to wood inside the stair was driven by the desire to create a warm and inviting experience for employees to move through the amenity spaces.
Another key design challenge was striking a thoughtful balance between celebrating Norfolk Southern’s heritage while also looking forward. The biggest nod to the company’s history is the embedding of legacy railroad logos acquired by Norfolk Southern into terrazzo floors in the building’s elevator cabs.
A five-story podium connected by this stair under the headquarters’ two workplace towers serves as a destination for employees to work and socialize. In addition to the lobby, this central space includes a full-service cafeteria, fitness center, two-story open meeting spaces, a conference center, game room, daycare center and rooftop plaza-all of which support Norfolk Southern’s desire to foster collaboration and wellbeing-designed as destinations and collision points for employees.
THE FLOORING SELECTIONS
Flooring materials for these environments are dictated by function and comprise multiple solutions, such as engineered wood in collaboration circulation spaces, carpet in meeting spaces and porcelain tile in food service areas and restrooms.
At Norfolk Southern, the food service experience comprises a servery, dining/town hall space, outdoor terraces, a game room and a 24/7 grab-n-go mercantile. The materials in these spaces are unique but correlate.
For the servery, each food station has a separate identity with unique architectural branding, logos, wall tiles and equipment. Only the flooring in the servery stays consistent and changes between circulation space and queuing lines to inform employees how to occupy the space. To help guide guests through the queues, the team selected Stoneware Artistic Design in Dark Deco from Ceramic Technics. Its varying pattern offers movement and visual interest, and its random installation yielded a scalable pattern perfect for the large space.
The dining/townhall space’s flooring, a white oak-look tile from Nydree, mimics the wood decking on the terraced rooftop to create a seamless journey between indoors and out. Meanwhile, the game room is clad in a carpet tile installation featuring selections from Flor’s Kensington collection to mimic a residential experience.
A focus on wellness and health is reflected in the indoor/outdoor fitness space available to all employees. Open ceilings, strong graphics, black rubber flooring from Pliteq and bold colors energize the weight training areas. Classrooms and yoga rooms have a warmer aesthetic with woodgrain laminated rubber flooring, Ecore’s Forest Rx in American Oak, complemented by a large-scale vinyl wallcovering in a dynamic hatched pattern.
Another amenity is a daycare with a capacity of 120 babies and toddlers. The branded “Tiny Tracks” plays on the railroad with a pattern flooring in corridors with color and branding identifying classroom entry points. Infection control in the daycare dictated the use of welded sheet vinyl flooring. And Interface’s Nora rubber flooring is color coded by classroom, coordinating with accents and millwork to enhance wayfinding for the young occupants.
With workplace, classroom or healthcare environments, the selection of flooring can be dictated by function and the most influential design driver in the space.
At Norfolk Southern, the two workplace towers extend from the collaborative and amenity-rich podium. In both towers, the wood flooring from the amenity floors repeats on the work floors, in the elevator lobbies and break areas. The decision to go with hardwood-inspired LVT in the elevator and breakroom areas was unanimous among the client and design team. The LVT the client approved, Inlet in Spindle from Shaw Contract, is so authentic in appearance that it actually became the basis of design for the engineered wood flooring, Kahrs’ Oak Nouveau White, on the amenity floors.
In the workplace activity-based environments, carpet was selected for its aesthetics, durability, sustainability story and competitive price. This was a competitively bid project for carpeting, in which a multitude of manufacturers were invited to respond, with Shaw Contract and Bentley winning different portions of the project. Both were selected based on performance, cost and aesthetic goals of the design.
Flooring is key to the design and performance of any interior environment. As designers and clients finalize selections, verify that the materials are available. My best advice after 26 years in this business is to have honest conversations between manufacturer reps, designers and subcontractors about your needs and their material lead times and availability. The worst thing to a designer is a carefully selected floor material we can’t get.
Copyright 2023 Floor Focus