Bold architectural geometry and color and a riverfront location combine to elevate the profile of an agency that helps save lives

By John Reinan

The mighty Mississippi flows south from Minnesota, bringing life to a nation. As it rolls through Minneapolis, life-givers of another kind perch on its banks, drawing strength for their own cycle of renewal.

LifeSource moved into its new RSP Architects–designed home in November 2014. The 45,000-square-foot, $14 million headquarters consolidates the 140 employees and all the functions of LifeSource, the federally designated coordinating agency for tissue and organ donation in Minnesota and the Dakotas.

More than that, the dramatic modern structure is a place for the entire donor community to celebrate the gift of life, says Susan Gunderson, who founded LifeSource 26 years ago and is the only CEO the organization has ever known. “I have, for a long time, had a vision that really was driven by wanting a space where we could honor the families of organ and tissue donors,” says Gunderson. “We walk with those families at the time of the loss of their loved one, but also in years to come by keeping the legacy of that gift alive.

“Donation is at the intersection of high-tech medicine and high-touch medicine,” she says. “To have a headquarters to associate with that message, we’ve found, has already helped elevate awareness of the need for individuals to say yes to donation.”

Indeed, the LifeSource building embodies both tech and touch. Its materials—primarily glass, metal, and wood composite—give the structure a look that’s crisp yet warm. The siting and the design were planned to maximize the presence of the river, says RSP Architects design principal Derek McCallum, AIA, the lead designer on the project. “We were huge advocates of putting them on the river, just for the metaphor of the constant flow, the circle of life,” he explains. “They are saving lives. So the metaphor of the river became important for us early on.”

The RSP team created the footprint in a V shape, like two arms opening up to the river and the city. Nestled within the arms is a healing garden and dedication plaza created by landscape architect Shane Coen of Coen + Partners. The plaza includes a granite wall inscribed with the names of 97 donors, an honor roll that will grow as the years go by.

On the entry side, away from the river, a wall of woven composite wooden panels creates a signature element that’s carried through the building. A two-story glass atrium provides a hinge point for the two wings and allows light and views of the river to flow from front to back.

The primary skin is a charcoal-colored metal rain-screen panel, and the extensive glass throughout the building is high-performance low-E, with automated interior shades for sun control. But the designers and the occupants wanted to let in as much sunshine as possible. “We wanted a lot of glass, a lot of light,” says Gunderson. “We have [working] here 24 hours a day, so being able to look out the windows and have a nice view was important.”

That’s the kind of return on investment that can’t be measured in dollars and cents, says McCallum. “They knew there was an ROI on good design, and that’s for their people,” he says. “They are building an environment for people to do their jobs better.”

The design team spent a great deal of time—far more than usual—developing an understanding of LifeSource and its mission. “We spent three to four months on a really deep-dive immersion process,” says McCallum. The LifeSource staff and board were very involved in the process. “We were blessed with a client that had very good taste and sophistication,” he says. “We were the directors and editors of this movie, but these guys were the cast, in many ways. We were exposed to a whole range of thinking that doesn’t show up in many corporate headquarters.

“It is a heartfelt solution for people who are saving lives,” says McCallum. “It’s hard not to be affected by that. It puts a lot into perspective for you as a designer. You end up with a bit of a ‘get on with it’ attitude.”

The new building brings together staff members who had been scattered in several locations. It’s lent a new feeling of cohesiveness—of family—to the organization, says Gunderson. The open plan, with lots of touchdown spaces, was designed to make staff members more accessible to one another.

“Our building felt more like a labor of love than a building project,” says Gunderson. “People saw that and believed in it. That’s how we got to be on time and under budget. That only happens when people are really focused.”

A LifeSource executive related a story to Gunderson that summed up the experience. “My CFO saw someone there on a Saturday recently and wondered who it was,” she says. “It was one of the subcontractors. He had brought his family there on a Saturday. He wanted to show them that the work he was doing was saving lives.”

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Client: LifeSource
Architect: RSP Architects
Principal-in-charge: Dave Norback, AIA
Project lead designer: Derek McCallum, AIA
Landscape architect: Coen + Partners
General contractor: Greiner Construction
Size: 45,000 square feet
Cost: $14 million
Completion: November 2014
Photographer: Pete Sieger