Designing and constructing a building in the middle of a pandemic requires a flexible mind.

That’s what Dan Fishbein learned as developers worked on plans for the new building that his company, Sun Life Financial, will move into in two years.

A rendering of Sun Life Financial’s planned office building on the Portland waterfront. Courtesy of Sun Life Financial

Ground was broken this week – an event that was attended virtually, of course – on a building that will house the growing benefits company and, its developer hopes, extend the Old Port eastward. It is one of the area’s first major commercial buildings to break ground since the pandemic struck.

Fishbein, president of Sun Life, said the building will continue his company’s ability to adapt to the new workplace that is redefining what “the office” means to workers.

“It was already designed for what we call an agile work environment,” Fishbein said, noting that the firm’s other four major locations in the U.S. are also adapting to a workforce that no longer sees the office as the place to be five days a week.

Fishbein is part of the 98 percent of Sun Life’s workforce that has been working from home since mid-March, he said, but nearly a quarter of the Canada-based company’s 3,500 employees already were working remotely before the pandemic. That number will increase as the company moves toward a new structure for its employees.

“We were kind of already doing that,” he said.

Most of the adaptations to the Portland building are still in flux, he said, but they will feature an emphasis on larger meeting spaces to accommodate social distancing, and more extensive technology to allow employees to participate in meetings without being physically present. He said some of that additional meeting space will come from having fewer individual offices in the building than originally envisioned.

The building is intended to be an inviting presence on the city’s eastern waterfront, part of the Portland Foreside redevelopment of a section of the city at the base of Munjoy Hill that was mostly industrial land.

The goal, said Casey Prentice, managing partner of Portland Foreside Development Co., is for people to connect the Old Port with a stretch of waterfront that’s across Franklin Street. The company also developed Foreside Marina in the area.

“We’re looking to create a nexus point,” he said. “There’s a lot of great stuff happening in that neighborhood.”

The Sun Life building “is a critically important part of the project,” he said, and is designed to encourage pedestrians, in particular, to continue on once they meet the end of Commercial Street at the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal. The plans also call for restaurants and shops to occupy the ground floors of buildings in the development, Prentice said, but a new public market and event space on the second floor of Sun Life’s building are on hold until the coronavirus is brought under control and people can gather in large groups again.

Prentice’s company isn’t the only one to alter plans to address the pandemic. Ed Gilman, spokesman for Northern Light Mercy Hospital, said the medical center is adding 14 additional negative pressure rooms at its new hospital on the Fore River Parkway.

The rooms are designed for cases in which the hospital needs to care for patients while also minimizing the risk of transmitting pathogens through the air, Gilman said. The hospital recognized the need because of the surge in hospitalizations for COVID-19 patients.

Airborne spread of illnesses is a concern for office settings, as well, Prentice said, and some of the standards for heating and cooling systems have changed in recent months to recognize the need for more filtering of air to minimize the threat. Sun Life’s building was set for a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system that met those standards, so no changes needed to be made, he said.

Fishbein said he’s especially happy that his company’s building will be across the street from a new waterfront park the city wants to build. That will ensure open views of the water in the future, he said.

“The whole concept is designed for public use,” he said. “We would love for there to be a lot of activity around the building.”

The building’s location near Northeastern University’s Roux Institute is also an advantage, Fishbein said. The new institute just got a big boost from a $100 million grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation, but Sun Life has been working with the organization since its start and currently has 22 employees getting instruction in data visualization, he said.

Since the insurance industry is based on data, he said, being able to easily work with the institute can also help attract talented new employees, he said.

“We’re delighted to be in Portland and working with the city and the community, and we think there are going to be great opportunities from the talent perspective,” he said.

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