It’s rare to find a company genuinely enthusiastic about getting its employees out of the office to enjoy the fresh air, soak up the sunshine, and find a peaceful equilibrium in the day, but BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee (BCBST) built its 950,000-square-foot facility with a deliberate focus on this goal. The statewide health insurer’s ingrained culture of caring for the well-being of its 3 million members extended to its 5,300 employees during the consolidation of 10 owned and leased spaces in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn.

Moving onto a hilltop campus benefitted the organization with decreased facility costs and increased efficiency, and removed employees from several outmoded buildings. “We looked at ways the facility could balance operational competitiveness with wellness,” explains Dan Jacobson, BCBST’s vice president of properties and corporate services. “We spent a lot of time and intention on creating four outdoor spaces that include three garden habitats and a central courtyard that provide variety, interest, and excitement to encourage the highest possible health of our employees.”

Durham, N.C.–based Duda/Paine Architects worked with Dallas-based HKS Architects on the project’s concept, and with Atlanta’s tvsdesign on the interior architecture and finishes. The facility consists of an eight-level parking structure and five buildings arranged like spokes on a wheel above downtown Chattanooga, on Cameron Hill. Four workspace buildings point out toward the city—and are sited to correspond to the city’s grid—and join together at a central courtyard and then connect again via covered sky bridges at the fourth levels. The fifth building, which is connected to two of the other buildings by a glass-enclosed walkway, houses amenities such as a wellness and fitness center, health clinic, and pharmacy, spaces for communal activities, and meeting rooms.

According to Turan Duda, AIA, design partner at Duda/Paine, the spaces between the buildings were as important as the buildings themselves. HGOR of Atlanta designed the central courtyard, as well as three gardens between the buildings that beckon employees outdoors. The Forest Garden is a shaded vegetated space that features a reflecting pond, while the Great Lawn Garden has a dry streambed and retention pond that collects and holds stormwater runoff from several buildings. The third garden is an employee-maintained vegetable garden peppered with herbs and medicinal plants that imparts experiential education about healthy eating and supplies food to local community kitchens. The central courtyard is a destination plaza that features a fountain and an overhead canopy for protection from the elements.

“Workplaces everywhere are going through a paradigm shift in terms of how people communicate, work, and experience the spaces,” Duda says. “Sustainable initiatives aren’t just about energy—they are also about creating well-being in the work environment. This facility adapts to that shift with welcoming open spaces and interiors with a higher percentage of collaboration spaces, views to nature, and generous daylight.”

Glazed curtainwalls and a novel approach to structural bay depths enhance daylight penetration and views. Rather than typical four-column-bay floor plates and a central elevator core, the team supported the floors on three rows of columns and moved the elevators and restrooms to the ends of each floor. Private offices were zoned to align with the elevator cores.

Nancy Cartledge, AIA, principal at tvsdesign, says that the solution achieves daylight access through the center of the floor plates and views from multiple vantage points. “By working together very early in the process, we were able to consider exactly how it would all fit together down to the furnishings. The 20 office floor plates have unique build-outs but the universal zoning concept is very modular, which provides flexibility for future reconfigurations and reduces materials use,” Cartledge says.

Low-E, 1-inch-thick glazing and fritted glass on the windows that begins 7 feet above the viewing plane and extends to the ceiling, along with a series of horizontal louvers, help reduce glare and minimize heat gain. Raised floors with underfloor air distribution provide employees with individual control of heat and air for increased comfort. An HVAC system with high-efficiency heat pumps, efficient cooling towers, and variable speed fans help conserve energy. With abundant daylighting and efficient features, the campus is saving 20 percent in utility costs, or $265,000 annually compared to buildings designed for minimum code standards.

The $248-million BCBST campus earned LEED Gold certification and came in under budget. Ralph DiNola, Assoc. AIA and principal at Portland, Ore.–based Green Building Services, who provided LEED project management and energy modeling on the campus, says that the facility raised the bar for the state of Tennessee. “BCBST proves that it’s possible to build a significant project, achieve a high level of sustainability and still remain within budget. This project was really a catalyst for the green-building movement in Chattanooga.”

Now, BCBST is working on its corporate sustainability plan. “We are reaping the benefits of our decisions and want to continue to increase that value,” says BCBST’s Jacobson.

KJ Fields writes about sustainability and design from Portland, Ore.