Designing to Context

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island Headquarters
Providence, Rhode Island

Providence is a beautiful city—big, but not overwhelming; historic, but increasingly modern; progressive, but true to its roots. When SMMA was commissioned by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island, one of the largest employers in the state, to design its new 327,000-square-foot headquarters, in the heart of Providence’s Capital Center Improvement District, the defining characteristics of this “Beehive of Industry” were among the driving factors influencing our design thinking. 

We sought to create a functional, unique space that would enhance, and not dominate, the City’s skyline—a building that would confidently reside between two new residential mixed-use towers and the City’s Waterplace Park, without overpowering neighboring buildings, the rejuvenated riverfront, or the nearby Neoclassical Rhode Island State House complex.

The SMMA design team faced two immediate challenges: Building above an existing underground garage, and creating a new, 21st century identity for the client—one reflecting the vision and business ideals of BCBSRI. Their desired image: a vibrant, transparent, productive, and practical organization, whose 1,100 employees could finally work collaboratively together in one place after years of being scattered across multiple locations. The client desired not only a sustainable design, they needed to demonstratebeyond LEED certificationa measurable return on any green investment. They also needed to express the company’s health and wellness culture as a unifying element, part of a long-term strategy to boost employee recruitment, retention, and productivity.

Contextually Speaking

The building massing incorporates several elements to sculpt and layer its appearance. Four distinct “fronts” were designed to respond to its neighborhood context. Precast concrete pilasters create strong vertical plies on the end elevations of the building, and the curved and fluid form of the north and south glass curtain wall animate the building with variable light and sky reflection, and reduce the apparent massing when viewed against the adjacent buildings. The edges appear to float freely, enhancing the building’s prominence in the skyline, and we integrated setbacks into our design, to maintain view corridors for the neighboring buildings. Green vegetated roofs provide additional dimension to the structure, while reducing heat island effect and mitigating stormwater runoff.

Inside, the design provides open office floors that benefit from abundant natural light—over 90% of workspaces enjoy outside views through the floor-to-ceiling glass curtain wall facades.

Everything in Its Right Place

Productivity is fostered by a streamlined, flexible, and logical organization of core functions, which reduced the overall square-footage requirements by over 10%. An operable glass cafeteria wall opens to outdoor patio space, for training and social use. Throughout the building, there are impromptu meeting and collaboration spaces, including the ground-floor café, fitness center, lobby, and dining room.

Green Design for "The Blues"

We designed BCBSRI’s headquarters to reduce energy use by more than 21% over code, as verified by a third-party review of the building’s systems. Primary savings are realized by a reduction in burned fossil fuels through daylighting design, the innovative use of lighting, and the decreased reliance on HVAC systems, due to building envelope technology and interior layout.

Daylight reaches 75% of interior spaces, and employees are able to control glare and increase thermal comfort via operable window shades. Water savings are projected to be 31% over the conventional building; rainwater is captured and recycled for use in cooling towers, preventing stormwater intrusion into the adjacent Providence River.

Structural Significance

The preferred location for the new Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters was a site on which the foundation for a 10-story building had already been constructed. When the plans for that building fell through and the site became available, BCBSRI was interested, although it needed at least 13 stories to meet its programming requirements.

The SMMA Structural Engineering Team was given the challenge to develop a scenario in which a new 13-story structure could be safely built on the existing foundation. SMMA creatively responded by finding ways to distribute the loads of the new building so that the existing capacity of the foundation was optimized and no individual column foundation was over-stressed.

To achieve maximum safety, the SMMA team incorporated strategically located braced frames, moment frames, and hat trusses into the structural design. Each element was also closely coordinated with the architectural and interior designs, so as not to inhibit the building aesthetics.

Despite being the seventh-tallest building in the City (and State), the final design exudes an understated elegance, and has proven to be a welcome addition to Providence’s architectural landscape, as well as an ideal home for BCBSRI.