Sometimes it's better for the tail to wag the dog. Merck Pharmaceuticals was building a plant in Durham, N.C., and divided the project into two parts, with the high-tech, high-security manufacturing building at the back of a rural office park site, and the offices, open office pool, cafeteria, conference rooms, and security located in the Operations Support Facility just in front. Charged with designing the 36,000-square-foot office structure, the architects of nearby firm The Freelon Group rooted their response in the character of a no-nonsense vaccine production facility, built like a big-box warehouse.

A freestanding structure attached to the warehouse, the facility would basically act as the façade of the larger building, humanizing the big-box structure and breaking down its mass. “Our clients wanted an office environment akin to the environment in the plant, so there would be no separation,” says Philip G. Freelon, head of The Freelon Group. “They wanted the environment to be as consistent as possible.”

With Timothy Winstead acting as principal in charge of the project and Eric Lankes as project architect, Freelon grounded the office structure in the industrial character and essential simplicity of the warehouse—built two years earlier by another firm to allow time for outfitting—so the presence of both is equalized in a kind of architectural parity.

At the same time, the Freelon architects conceived their piece as part of a progression through the site: “We layered it as a sequence of spaces and buildings, from the parking lot through the office building, through the connecting bridge, to the warehouse, where most of the people work,” says Lankes.

The new office structure, then, was conceived going and coming, but it was the materiality of the warehouse and its axial geometry that informed the character and organization of the new lead building. Materially, the architects extrapolated the industrial ethos of the warehouse to their own by choosing a cladding of insulated precast concrete sandwich panels, set against strip windows. “That was our point of departure,” says Winstead. “We took the concrete and corrugated metal [of the warehouse] into our building.” Because of the panels' self-insulation, the architects could leave them exposed inside, simply painted.

Philip G. Freelon


The Freelon Group
Michael Mills Philip G. Freelon President The Freelon Group

The architects also extended the spine from the factory through the operations building and the front entry to the parking lot. “The overall building came from an initial parti diagram, which started with layering of the site,” adds Winstead. “The pathway is a gathering spine serving the offices, administration, nursing, and other support people for the factory.” Like a skewer through a kebab, the path organizes all the elements, while collecting people on a common street, socializing occupants in both buildings. Corrugated metal siding runs from the warehouse along the bridge connecting to and through the office building. Having extended the material character of the warehouse shell to the shell of their own building, the architects built off that common character in the interior. All their decisions were also informed by the desire of their client to achieve LEED status.

The pedestrian path divides the two-story, rectangular building roughly into one-third and two-thirds, the larger part being devoted to open office pools and the smaller into support facilities, such as conference areas. In a decisive stroke that gives the interiors full floor-to-deck height and volume, encouraging daylighting into the depth of the 90-square-foot office pool, the architects dispensed with a dropped ceiling by creating an 18-inch underfloor air plenum furnished with wiring and cable. That left the ceilings free and the corrugated decking revealed. The direct-indirect fluorescents from Focal Point were simply hung in trays among the webbed joists of the exposed structure. Sun screens at the strip windows are positioned to bounce light far into the interior, and the fluorescents dim and brighten with changes in ambient luminosity, which has the added benefit of contributing LEED credits.

“We left the structure exposed and inside opted for kits of parts,” says Lankes. The architects completed the interiors with prefabricated wall and office systems (including DIRTT, which stands for “Do It Right This Time,” Walls and Herman Miller's My Studio Environments cubicle system) that supported the LEED agenda while extending the basic industrial aesthetic and guaranteeing changeability: “Sustainability was important, but with flexibility,” clarifies Winstead. “The exposed metal in the building is brushed aluminum, which largely influenced the interior building system, with their brushed aluminum frames and glass panels.”

Timothy F. WInstead

Principal in Charge

The Freelon Group
Michael Mills Timothy F. WInstead Principal in Charge The Freelon Group

Birch surfaces warm the environment, while sliding translucent glass windows between cubicles allow workers to speak with one another, as if across a fence in a backyard. “All the decisions came from the manufacturing idea in the context of sustainability and cost effectiveness,” says Winstead. “The shape, materials, and scale are consistent with manufacturing buildings. Each material decision affecting sustainability was decided in parallel with how the material would reinforce what we're trying to achieve conceptually.”

“We tried very hard to use standard inexpensive materials, to deliver a distinctive, well-planned facility at a modest cost,” summarizes Freelon.

Project: Merck Operations Support Facility
Location: Durham, N.C.
Client: Merck & Co.
Architect: The Freelon Group, Durham—Philip G. Freelon (president); Timothy F. Winstead (principal in charge); Eric J. Lankes, Kenneth F. Hanson, Ted Givens (project team)
Interior Design: The Freelon Group—Janene R. DeSantis
Landscape Architect: Coulter|Jewell|Thames, PA, Durham
Structural Engineer: Stewart Engineering, Morrisville, N.C.
M/E/P Engineer: PWI Engineering, Durham
Telecommunications/Data Engineer: Cetcon, Cincinnati
Specifications Consultant: Hall Architects, Charlotte, N.C.
LEED Consultant: Alicia Ravetto


Exterior Cladding
Location Roof
Product Sure-Weld Fleeceback TPO Membrane
Manufacturer Carlisle Syntec
Website Location Exterior Walls
Product 11-inch-thick insulated precast concrete sandwich panels

Location Exterior walls
Product FormaBond metal panel system
Manufacturer Centria

Location Exterior walls
Product CS-260 metal panels
Manufacturer Centria

Location Exterior glazing
Product Solarban 60 glass
Manufacturer PPG

Location Exterior glazing
Product Solarban 80 glass
Manufacturer PPG

Flooring Location Offices
Product Raised flooring system
Manufacturer Tate Access Floors

Location Offices
Product Dressed to Kill modular carpet tile
Manufacturer Shaw Contract

Location Cafeteria
Product Loneco
Manufacturer Lonseal

Location Food Prep
Product Assurance II
Manufacturer Mannington

Location Restrooms
Product Villa Valleta glazed procelain floor tile
Manufacturer DalTile

Location Stairwell
Product Vantage rubber stair riser tile
Manufacturer Roppe

Location Throughout
Product 4-inch straight base
Manufacturer Roppe

Ceilings Location Conference areas
Product Techstyle acoustic ceiling panels
Manufacturer Hunter Douglas Contract

Location Offices
Product Optima Plank acoustical tiles
Manufacturer Armstrong

Location Offices
Product MetalWorks Mesh ceiling panels
Manufacturer Armstrong

Location Offices
Product Prelude ceiling grid system
Manufacturer Armstrong

Wall Systems Location Conference areas and private offices
Product DIRTT panel system
Manufacturer DIRTT Environmental Solutions

Location Throughout
Product CS-260 perforated metal wall panels
Manufacturer Centria

Furniture Location Offices
Product My Studio Environments office system
Manufacturer Herman Miller

Finishes Location Restrooms
Product Studio Recycled Content Collection solid surface material
Manufacturer Avonite

Location Lobby countertops and stair treads
Product Extreme Concrete ECO finish
Manufacturer MELD USA

Location Throughout
Product FN6001T laminate surface
Manufacturer Nevamar

Location Throughout
Product 299-58 Ebony Oxide laminate surface
Manufacturer Formica

Location Restrooms
Product Sierra Series toilet partitions
Manufacturer Bobrick Washroom Equipment

Location Conference areas and offices
Product Flexshades window shading system
Manufacturer Draper

Location Throughout
Product Interior paint
Manufacturer ICI Paints