Case Study: Providing for the Community

Robeson County Department of Social Services

Lumberton, North Carolina


Design Concept: The River and the Bridge
In developing a design concept for a long awaited and vital new building for the Department of Social Services (DSS) of Robeson County, a parallel was drawn between the Lumber River as a provider for Robeson County throughout its history and the Department of Social Services as a provider for the community at large.

A Winding Path
The natural characteristics of the Lumber River became the inspiration for the layout of the site, as well as many of the design features of the building. Arranged as three separate two-story bars serving different programmatic requirements, the building mimics the tree canopy along the river bank. The three buildings form courtyard spaces that are connected by a winding path representing the moving waters of the river. Parking is broken up into two separate areas for employees and visitors that are layed out as if they are winding around the river.

The connection between the three buildings is created by a large lobby/waiting area that serves a critical function to the Department of Social Services and also links the separate entries for visitors and the employees of the building. This link is thought of as a bridge and is symbolic to the idea of moving from one path to another…similar to the goals DSS has for its visitors. The circulation paths are located adjacent to the bridge on the south elevation providing a buffer to open work areas along the river’s edge. The building’s solar orientation and depth of 80’ is designed for sustainable strategies and to maximize the connection to the landscape.

Exterior Design

Inspired by Nature
The building’s structural system is a steel frame with bracing designed to work with the idea of a bridge and is highlighted throughout the building. The exterior skin design is modeled after the cypress trees located along the Lumber River. Cypress trees have a unique base condition, creating strength by flaring out, here represented as 4”x16” polished concrete masonry units with a quarter stack pattern. The random nature of the cypress trees along the river’s edge influences the vertical elements along the south facade glazing portions of the building with a series of bays placed in a random A-B pattern. The horizontal nature of the tree branches determines the window mullion pattern which alternates on the A-B pattern.

  1. Exterior Curtainwall Shading
  2. Native Cypress Ship Lap Siding
  3. Composite Metal Panel
  4. Polished Ground Face CMU
Fig. 01
Building Skin Canopy
Spanish moss, which creates a filter of light, is represented in the building as shading louvers on the south elevation. In addition, native cypress wood ship lap siding is incorporated as an exterior material, running horizontally across the building to tie all elements together.

Challenges and Solutions

The original design concept for this project was a typical, 100,000 sf four-story office building. However, the site had a building height restriction of 30’. The design team immediately obtained a variance to allow for a 35’ building and began to rethink the entire design of the project. Utilizing a more innovative approach, they unstacked the floor plate and created three, two-level buildings, with 16’ ceilings. Taking advantage of the economy of scale with a smaller 80’ depth and placing the core along the spine, allows for more daylight to penetrate the space and creates open views. Each of the three buildings are identical in form and arranged in a simple design language with repetitive materials. The result is a sophisticated, elegant office the whole county can be proud of that comes in under budget at an incredible $157 per square foot.

Results Beyond Architecture

“This new building will allow us to give our customers—some of whom are at the lowest point in their lives; some confidentiality, dignity, and respect.” Raymond Cummings
Robeson County Commissioner

The project team spanned two Little offices and brought together a unique blend of experience and expertise. As a result, this project has won numerous awards including the Triangle AIA Award of Merit and the Charlotte AIA Honor Award. Here’s a look at some of the juror comments:

“It was refreshing to see such a thoughtful and sustainable approach to a public building oriented to social services.” – AIA Juror

“What the jury appreciated most about this project was its impeccably sound logic and the very clear concern for the well-being of workers and visitors to the building.” – AIA Juror

“Excellent site plan and ground floor plan, convincing way to scale down large program.” – AIA Juror

“Building proportions were skillfully handled, drawing graphics and diagrams were compelling.” – AIA Juror

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