Delta Dental

The NBBJ-designed interior for the Seattle insurer is open colorful, light-filled—and tailored to employee needs. Photography by Sean Airhart, courtesy of NBBJ

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Perhaps more than any physical or spatial design feature, creating a new headquarters for Seattle-based insurer Delta Dental of Washington was all about employee involvement: not simply attending a few meetings at project kickoff, but building a truly immersive process that began long before any design or even site selection.

“The company had been talking for quite a while about the culture we need to make sure we’re competing in a changing industry,” explains Karen Aliabadi, who directs human resource strategy at Delta Dental. “It was more about culture than brick and mortar.” But as a result of involving employees at every level, “We made decisions we didn’t think we were going to make,” she adds, “about everything from location to furniture.”

Breaking down barriers
Their eventual architect, NBBJ, spent a year gathering data and listening. “We engaged face- to-face and online with folks to learn about their current workplace experience and how the building played a role in their doing their job,” says NBBJ principal Kelly Griffin. “We did workshops to understand what people’s work days were like. We deployed a survey with ninety-eight percent response rate: I’d never seen that before. There was a lot of motivation from folks.”

Moving from a 1980s office building in the suburbs with high-walled cubicles, the company sought a more collaborative and flexible space. “We wanted to reduce silos,” Aliabadi says. “We talked about bringing everyone together and collaborating.” NBBJ summarized the design strategy in a series of goals: break down barriers; make the bigger vision visible; enable staff to overcome fear of change and taking risks; promote an optimistic point of view for the future of the industry; support individual needs; and leave healthier than you arrived.

Delta Dental’s offices in Seattle’s burgeoning South Lake Union neighborhood occupy three floors of a new LEED-rated building with a long, narrow form. To maintain social connections between floors, the design makes its stairways prominent and open, surrounding them with glass walls. “The first thing you see when you walk into the space is a stair. It invites you to go from the reception area to the floors below,” NBBJ architect Ben Spicer explains. This leads to a series of collaborative areas. “You don’t see a big fancy conference room or a stodgy boardroom when you walk in,” Griffin says. “You see an active space where innovation is happening. The point is, we’re changing the way people think about dental insurance.”

Collaboration and color
With natural light coming from one glass-walled side of the building (offering views of the nearby Space Needle), the design shifts the main circulation spine to this edge. Along this “promenade,” as it’s called, is the company’s design studio and an adjacent cafe-lounge; together they become one large space with the opening of a garage door in between. Along the promenade are also a series of smaller meeting spaces, known as “huddle eddies” denoted with washes of bright primary colors unifying floor, ceiling, and furniture. “In the huddles, color is very important to get us out of our workspaces and thinking differently about different problems,” Aliabadi says. Equipped with whiteboards, directional lighting, and loose seating, they encourage informal interactions. The designers also added stand-up meeting bars at every cluster of workstations.

Although the team sought to maintain the raw palette of the exposed concrete ceiling and floors, designers used distinctive material patterning, lighting, and pops of color to aid in wayfinding and highlighting individual space. A second circulation path down the middle of the space, for instance, features hanging perforated metal ceiling panels, which also improve acoustics. The stair treads and reception desk are clad with humble laminated-strand lumber, which is “a bit like plywood except it’s denser and more durable,” Spicer says. “With a little sand and sealant, it becomes beautiful.” Common areas make use of colorful fabrics for seating and oversized lighting fixtures over collaborative working areas help “clarify that space,” he says.

With employees giving up larger, more private cubicles for an open-office configuration, Delta Dental leadership anticipated an adjustment period or some degree of pushback, but it hasn’t happened. “Employees have embraced the building,” Aliabadi says. “You can probably work in about 50 different places on these three floors.”

And, says Griffin, “Just the act of inclusion and giving people a voice in the process helps dissipate a lot of concerns. The fact that they are being listened to and contributed to the design, I think that goes a long way.”


Who Architect: NBBJ. Project team: Kelly Griffin; Ben Spicer; Natalia Nesmeianova; Sevara Khabibullaeva. Contractor: Foushée and Associates, Inc. Project manager: Olin Wick. Lighting: Kimberly Taylor, NBBJ Lighting. Engineering: Magnusson Klemencic Associates (structural); McKinstry (MEP). Acoustician: Basel Jurdy, Stantec. Program management: Peter Baker, Montlake Associates. Workplace consultant: Betsy Leto, Western Office Inc.
What Wallcoverings: Armstrong; Statements; Daltile; FilzFelt; Koroseal; Stone Source; Clarus. Paint: Sherwin Williams. Laminate: Formica; Abet Laminati. Walls: USG; Northwest Door. Flooring: EcoSurfaces; Mannington; Daltile; Oregon Lumber. Carpet: Milliken; Lyceum; Plato. Ceilings: Arktura. Lighting: Selux; Finelite; Fluxwerx; Amerlux; XAL; LF Illumination; Lambert & Fils; Resolute; ANDlight; Tom Dixon; Zaneen; Pinnacle. Hardware: Corbin Russwin. Doors: VT Industries; Alum Doors; Wilson Partitions. Architectural glass/glazing: Wilson Partitions; Clarus. Window treatments: Flexshade. Workstations: Knoll; Interpole; Anchor. Seating: Knoll; naughtone; Andreu World; Hightower, ERG, Gavco; Kenneth Cobanpue; Allermuir; ERG; Paul Brayton. Upholstery: KnollTextiles; Camira; Designtex; Garrett Leather. Tables: Knoll; Dividends; Antenna; Pixel; Creoworks; Watson Gavco; Spec; naughtone. Architectural/custom woodworking/metals: WW Wells Millwork; ApplePly; Timberstrand LSL; Formica; Caesarstone. Signage: Creo Industrial Arts; Western Neon. Plumbing fixtures: Kohler; Elkay SS Sinks. Textile treatments/ finishes: Guilford of Maine; FilzFelt.

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