The anchor tenant of a light industrial park in Topeka, Kan., Cox Communications (CC) was in need of more space for its growing inventory—a new distribution center to respond to increased sales in the greater Topeka area. This was just the opportunity for CC's landlord, the owner of the office park who had inherited the outdated site from his father, to rewrite its architectural landscape by updating one building at a time.

With this vision, the owner called on El Dorado Architects, a 15-person Kansas City, Mo.–based firm, whose portfolio includes the award-winning Flex Storage Systems warehouse. Employing a similar design strategy, most notably the use of a pre-engineered building system to keep costs at bay, the architects applied their expertise and devised a structure that would set an innovative yet straightforward approach for future development for the entire industrial park site.

There were but three requirements from the client: that the building be durable, energy efficient, and that construction costs remained within the owner's budget of $80 per square foot. As El Dorado principal Josh Shelton explains, “The client was interested in some low-tech strategies to help keep the heat down in the summer and hold energy costs down in terms of lighting. But, more than anything, he was looking for a building that functioned well.”

Responding to these requirements, El Dorado chose a pre-engineered metal building system made from Galvalume—steel with a protective coating of zinc and aluminum—to envelop the 8,500-square-foot structure. “One of the things I love about these systems is that the shape of the steel is not designed by an architect, it's actually generated mathematically to create the most efficient way to achieve a given span,” Shelton says. Structurally, the warehouse is organized into repetitive 30-foot bays, the sentiment of which is echoed outside with oak trees and louvered vents that keep in rhythm with the modular sections. The linear louvered vents—located at the base of the north and south façades—speak to the building's energy efficiency as they activate a convection cooling system, allowing outside air to enter the warehouse at floor level and replace hot air that exits through large roof vents.

With its controlled material palette, including steel, concrete, and glass, the building's design is a pragmatic response to its function. The lighting design is no exception. “From the beginning of this project, we weren't thinking about lighting as an additional element,” Shelton notes. “We were thinking of it like a material, to the extent that it became part of the vocabulary of the building's skin details.” Fully integrated into the building, the lighting is unobtrusive and restrained, yet, as a result of its thoughtful placement, becomes more than just another element of the design. Consequently, the building's architecture acts as a light fixture, the impetus for the firm to keep the lighting design in-house. “It is not uncommon for El Dorado to perform lighting design for projects with simple program requirements and/or tight fee budgets,” Shelton says. “We are always seeking to integrate lighting into the core architectural systems that comprise any given project.”

The warehouse's façade is a clean and contemporary composition of horizontal swathes of material in varying widths, including a concrete base, metal siding, clerestory windows, and a cantilevered roof. A band of light from 3500K T5HO fluorescent lamps in 4-foot lengths, located along the concrete foundation, provides pedestrian lighting for the sidewalks that run along the north and south faces of the building and the parking lot. A second linear accent of light occurs just above the clerestory windows, where 4-foot T5HO fluorescent strips, also 3500K, are staggered and recessed into the underside of the roof's overhang uplighting the Galvalume. The reflection on the metal surface directs a balanced ambient light onto the asphalt of the parking lot, providing a secondary level of illumination. On the south side of the building, linear fluorescent strips in an overhead exterior soffit provide task lighting for vehicle loading and unloading. Indirect lighting above the clerestory windows is provided by 4-foot T5HO fluorescent lamps with reflectors, staggered 4 inches below the base of the 2-foot-by-6-foot windows. As Shelton point out, “There was a required structural member for lateral bracing that created a perfect little cove for uplighting the underside of the soffit.” This practical approach was key to creating efficient expanses of indirect site illumination, eliminating the need for stand-alone fixtures, while highlighting the details of the steel skin. “We were interested in putting light where it was needed,” Shelton says.

Inside, the lighting, as on the exterior, is minimal. The majority of illumination is supplied by a single run of industrial fluorescent fixtures that illuminate shelving on the north and south sides of the warehouse. At the southern end of the space, daylighting plays a significant role. Although the clerestory windows are shaded beneath the large roof overhang, indirect natural light fills the warehouse during the day; enough so that no electric light is needed to illuminate the southern shelving aisle.

Another aspect of the design that introduces natural light into the space is the glass “link” that connects the new warehouse to the company's existing office building. The low-slung glass box forms a natural transition between the two spaces. Frosted glass panels minimize glare, but natural light still enters the space during the day. At night, the glass box glows, illuminated by fluorescent lamps that wash the ceiling with light.

Surrounded by nondescript, box-like buildings built during the 1960s and '70s, the new warehouse with its soaring cantilever, elegant proportions and striking metal skin commands a larger site presence than its 40 by 200 footprint. Bringing a modern aesthetic to the office park while employing simple strategies to keep energy demands to a minimum, the building also connects with its environment. “One of the things that I didn't anticipate is how the building interacts with natural light,” Shelton says. “There's something about the way the sun—especially in the evening—rakes across the Galvalume siding. The building becomes fluid and silky, much softer than you would expect of a metal building.” Smooth, subtle, and efficient, the new distribution center is setting the standard for the structures to come.

DETAILS Project Cox Communications, Topeka, Kan.
Client Henderson Development, Topeka, Kan.
Architect and Lighting Designer El Dorado Architects, Kansas City, Mo.
Project Size 9,200 square feet (including glass “link”)
Project Cost $800,000
Lighting Cost $28,000
Watts per Square Foot 0.8 (interior and exterior)
Photographer Mike Sinclair, Kansas City, Mo.
Drawings El Dorado Architects, Kansas City, Mo.
Manufacturers / Applications

H.E. Williams
Interior uplighting and exterior light coves at soffit and stem walls

Exterior ballasts

Manko Window Systems
Windows and clear anodized aluminum entry system

Corrugated Galvalume siding, 601 series wall sheathing and siding

VP Buildings
Pre-engineered building and roofing systems