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American Society of Landscape Architects


October 2004 Issue

Going with the Flow
For its new headquarters, a growing stock-trading company in South Carolina capitalizes on site hydrology.

By Allen Freeman

Going with the Flow Courtesy Seamon, Whiteside & Associates

The 23-acre landscape surrounding the headquarters of Automated Trading Desk (ATD) in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, reflects some of the building's slightly edgy design ideas. The architecture is angular and self-assured but earthy and very low-key, and there's plenty of glass through which to appreciate indoor-outdoor interplay. From within the building, your attention naturally flows to the close-in landscape and its interconnected system of stormwater ponds under mature live oaks. The site/building relationships and hydrology-related design (see "Expressing the Flow," page 178) grew out of appreciation for the preexisting site conditions and a meeting of minds among landscape architects, architects, and representatives of the high-technology company.

The employees of ATD develop computer software and employ it to glean profits from tiny fluctuations of the stock market. The company is said to generate four percent of all trading on the Nasdaq exchange, averaging 80 million shares traded daily. The old saw "time is money" holds true for ATD in milliseconds. Frenzy and stress, however, are not at all evident to a casual visitor in the nonhierarchical workplace. Responsible for the calm environment, inside and outside, were the landscape architecture firms of Nelson Byrd Woltz of Charlottesville, Virginia, and Seamon, Whiteside & Associates of Mount Pleasant, teamed with architects Helfand Myerberg Guggenheimer of New York City and McKellar & Associates of Mount Pleasant.

The long, irregular site was a leftover piece of land in Mount Pleasant, a Charleston suburb with a population of 56,000. ATD's parcel ranges north from a narrow frontage on U.S. 17, the spine of the sprawling, fast-growing municipality. The previous landowner, a commercial developer, had asked Seamon Whiteside to master plan the parcel. Seamon Whiteside first proposed a campus for a single corporate headquarters building and subsequently drew up a plan for a series of smaller companies interspersed among mature live oaks. Mount Pleasant approved that scheme, and the owner began excavating ponds for stormwater retention and moving trees from the projected building pads to buffer yards, says William Eubanks, ASLA, of Seamon Whiteside.

Meanwhile, outgrowing its offices and the space for its all-important computer equipment in a 30-year-old Mount Pleasant strip mall, ATD began searching for a new building site of three to five acres. Although the company could function almost anywhere in the world, ATD preferred to stay in the community where it started; the city was eager to keep ATD as a base for attracting additional technology firms. After considering 20 properties within Mount Pleasant, "we ended up with this property, and it's perfect," says Jorge I. Riano of ATD. "The location is perfect. The sandy soil is perfect." Soil condition was important to ATD's choice because the area is earthquake prone—a 7.6-magnitude quake devastated Charleston in 1886—and even a brief loss of electrical power would cost the firm money in lost trading time. (To withstand earthquakes, the soil under the ATD headquarters was vibro-compacted, and the building was engineered to rest on a grid of concrete beams. If an earthquake or a hurricane interrupts power, ATD has three generators that will kick in instantly; the building can operate at full tilt for seven days on 10,000 gallons of fuel stored on site.)

When Principal-in-Charge Warren T. Byrd Jr. of Nelson Byrd Woltz saw the ATD site, he was most intrigued by the 80 live oaks, with calipers of more than 24 inches, recently revealed by a clearing out of underbrush and by the stormwater pond excavations. When the design team first huddled, he recalls, the members quickly decided to interconnect the ponds. In turn, the pond system, the location of significant oaks, and the logic of setting the building back in the property determined where the building would go.

Today, a driveway (named eWall Street) off U.S. 17 sweeps north in a swaybacked S toward the far side of ATD's partially wooded parcel. After crossing a bridge over a narrow channel in the pond system, the driveway swings around to the building's north front, where a small, tree-shaded parking lot fans away from the building. Although the plan of the two-story building is evident in aerial photographs—which reveal it as three uneven spokes in an uneven pinwheel—from the ground, the structure reads as a collection of elongated, arched-roofed forms in brick, lined with rows of clerestories. The architects wanted to limit the 70,000-square-foot building to two stories so that the staff could "easily run up and down stairs to stay in one community," according to architect Margaret Helfand, the principal in charge for Helfand Myerberg Guggenheimer, so the structure needed to spread out into the landscape. The architects picked up outdoor materials and design ideas and brought them inside, the landscape architects extended the building's lines into the grounds, and the architecture's pleasantly recessive nature allowed the grounds to dominate.

One cue that Byrd and project manager/designer Kennon Williams of Nelson Byrd Woltz took from the building was a four-quadrants planting scheme. Each of four areas defined by the spokes in the pinwheel highlights a season with natives or cultural favorites of the Charleston/Mount Pleasant area. The winter quadrant, for instance, features inkberry, dwarf wax myrtle, and—for the beauty of their bark—river birch and cabbage palm. In the summer quadrant is a bosk of white-blooming crape myrtle, and the spring quadrant around the entrance comes alive in red maples and redbud.

The building's small lobby forms the pinwheel's hub. From the parking lot, walkways converge in a triangular-shaped plaza of bluestone pavers in front of the lobby entrance. A linear pattern of stone and the alignment of seven modern light standards, colloquially called "light wands," force the perspective toward a very understated front door.

A little metaphor of the site's hydrology also underscores the relationship of the building to the land: Roof water flows into a gutter, down a rain chain, and into a rock-filled dry rill next to the building along the entry plaza. Inside the lobby, a line of bluestone paving implies the rill's continuation. Beyond the lobby—outside again—the line of bluestone pavers extends to the edge of another rock-filled rill that appears and empties into a pond. As engineered, the roof water from the front of the building actually ends up in the general stormwater drainage system, as does the water that shows up in the short rill at the back-collected from different roof surfaces. Therefore, it might best be considered a work of hydrological trompe l'oeil.

Of the three built spokes in the pinwheel plan (there's room for a fourth spoke), one contains the trading floor, and another is an unbuilt shell for future expansion. The third spoke is hollowed out as a triangular-shaped atrium lined on two sides with offices and—another instance of inside-outside continuity—paved in the same pattern of bluestone employed in the entrance plaza. Along the atrium's two longer sides, planting areas recessed in the floor were at first planted in bamboo that failed to thrive. "It's a light-level thing," Byrd comments. "We knew from the start it would be a challenge, but we became enamored of bamboo in atriums that have been successful. We were looking for something linear and striking, and we wanted to avoid the typical ficus, mall-like plantings." A nursery supplier recommended a variety of bamboo tolerant to low light levels, he says, the design team experimented with it and was disappointed, and the bamboo has had to be replaced.

It's a minor glitch in a remarkably vigorous and intelligent example of give-and-take among architects and landscape architects. "The architects were sympathetic to our ideas and wanted our input," Williams says. "We worked hand-in-hand every step of the way." Helfand adds that the engagement of two architecture firms and two landscape architecture firms could have been a recipe for disaster, "but in this case, everyone was inspired by the site, by the client's vision, and by a belief that collaboration would result in something that no one of us could achieve on our own." It worked.

Whatever brought them forth, ATD's low-key site integration and design subtleties are qualities that don't seem to pop out in photographs, and that is perhaps the reason some national awards programs have overlooked ATD. State and regional landscape architecture and architecture awards jurors who have visited the project have honored it with enthusiasm. They recognize ATD as a model of environmentally conscious landscape architecture articulated in an appealing contemporary design vocabulary.

Project Credits
Owner: Automated Trading Desk. Design landscape architect: Nelson Byrd Woltz. Landscape architect/civil engineer: Seamon, Whiteside & Associates. Design architect: Helfand Myerberg Guggenheimer. Executive architect: McKellar & Associates. Mechanical/electrical engineer: Barrett, Woodyard & Associates. Structural engineer: Johnson & King. Lighting designer: PHA Lighting Design. Acoustical consultant: Cerami Associates. General contractor: Gulf Stream Construction Company.

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