Studies demonstrate the importance of comfortable, pleasant work environments on employee satisfaction and productivity. Whether indoors or out, nature often becomes the forgotten factor when companies plan employee break
areas. A brilliant exception is Church Mutual Insurance in Merrill, Wisconsin whose employees enjoy an impressive outdoor kitchen, seating areas, flowers and greenery. The catch here is the landscaping doesn’t adorn Class A office space. It’s next to a recycled box store, the former garden center of a Wal-Mart building leased by the insurance company to expand office space for its headquarters.
“Church Mutual’s CEO was looking for an inviting place for their 165 employees to relax and enjoy their break from the office,” says Carey Owen, owner of Colorscapes by Carey in Mount Pleasant, WI. “Their headquarters building encourages employees to get outside and into many walking paths and gardens.” Even though the company was converting a big box store into an office space, the CEO wanted a pleasant outdoor area for employees to use, she adds.
The design displays residential backyard hardscape icons: raised planters, an outdoor kitchen, concrete paver patio and pergola for shade over dining tables, etc. The challenge, however, was working within restrictions set by the building owner. “The patio was built on top of the cracked, uneven concrete pad that was the former garden center,” explains Ms. Owen. “I conducted research to see how to work over uneven, damaged concrete and found little information.” Removing the concrete pad was not an option because Church Mutual was leasing the building, and the owner did not want any permanent changes to the original property, including removal and replacement of the cracked concrete. This meant installing pavers, planters and retaining walls on top of an uneven platform.
Originally, the retaining walls and planters were planned for a grassy area adjacent to the slab. However, an easement for the Trans-Canada pipeline runs through the property. Because the concrete slabs were located within it, but built prior to that easement, all construction had to be placed on the slabs. “We had to use mortar and shims made of pieces of the block to level the retaining walls,” explains Steve Cooper, owners of PICS, the contractor. “We’d start with a thick bed of mortar and shim pieces that ran from one to three inches across the length of the wall.” Rebar was used to anchor the wall to the existing concrete slab and the block was filled with concrete to protect the wall against vehicles or snow plows pushing it over.
The raised planter walls are tied to geogrid for reinforcement. Underdrains set 2.5 ft. deep are surrounded by washed aggregate and covered by geotextile. The remaining space is composted topsoil and mulch filled with bulbs, annuals, perennials and small shrubs. The concrete pavers are 2 3/8 inches thick set on 1 in. of sand over 2¼ in. of base material.
There was nothing typical about installation in this project, says Ms. Owen. The paver soldier course was 6-inch thick step units mortared to the slab. “The step units solved a couple of challenges,” she says. “They provided a normal step height onto the patio that avoids a trip hazard or an awkward step while providing enough space to run irrigation lines under the pavers.” Another subtle safety item: Ms. Owen set bullnose pavers on top of the planters to ensure that clothing was not snagged as employees gathered in the area and sat on the walls.
Following a six-week delay from resolving the pipeline easement issue, construction began late September in 2015. By the end of the year everything was complete except for the grill and kitchen area, which was finished the following spring. The value of the project is $300,000 and approximately 4,500 sf of concrete pavers were used, says Ms. Owen. “The client was happy that employees now have an oasis just outside the office doors,” she says. “The use of pavers surrounded by tall retaining walls block the sound of passing traffic. Plus, flowers and plants a
The landlord’s requirement of not physically altering the property means that when the insurance company leaves the building, the site needs to remain in its original, pre-patio condition, cracked concrete slabs and all. The convenience of segmental concrete walls and pavers means the tenant can disassemble and reinstate the entire assembly at a new office location. That might explain the high initial investment in this project. For now, the project transcends box store banality and the architectural indifference towards those that work in them.