Rural Chic

Nestled in the wooded wetlands of rural Ohio, the campus of clothier Abercrombie & Fitch reflects the company's hip, natural image
August 11, 2010

An old-school wooden canoe hangs from the ceiling in the lobby of the main entrance of the Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) office campus, a symbol of the active, nature-loving lifestyle that reflects the company's corporate identity and its hip brand of casual clothing for young collegians.

The canoe isn't the only symbol of the company's identity. Its entire 260,000-sq.-ft. office campus and 700,000-sq.-ft. distribution center are themselves extensions of the company's brand. This is exactly what chairman and CEO Michael Jeffries had in mind when it came time to move the company from traditional office space it was leasing from its former parent company, the Limited, in Columbus, Ohio.

Upon the purchase of an undeveloped rural site located on 300 acres of wooded wetlands in New Albany, Ohio, adjacent to Columbus, Jeffries selected New York-based anderson architects to conceptualize his vision. The collaborative team of Jeffries and anderson president Ross Anderson, together with the Columbus offices of architect-of-record NBBJ and construction manager Gilbane, turned Jeffries' vision into a bucolic reality. It also culminated in the project's selection as a Grand Award winner in Building Design & Construction's2003 Building Team Project of the Year Awards.

"The collaboration between the design team and the owner, in terms of creating a spectacular environment for the owner's young workforce, and between the entire Building Team and the environmental community, was wonderful," says Building Team Project of the Year Award juror Philip Tobey, VP/Healthcare Detroit-based A/E SmithGroup.

But it wasn't easy. A "ridiculous" project schedule brought on by the impending expiration of A&F's current office lease necessitated the overlapping of processes, including programming, design, bidding, and construction, to complete the project by the May 2001 move-in date.

Building on a virgin site further complicated the project by requiring installation of all new infrastructure, as well as mitigation of wetlands. A&F selected the site because of its natural surroundings and intended to preserve the landscape. However, local environmental groups concerned about the project's impact on the land and Blacklick Creek, which flows through the property, became involved in the process.

The concern was understandable, says Tom Lennox, A&F's director of corporate communications. "The community didn't know exactly what we were out to do," he says. "When we presented the plan, they became more comfortable. We went to great lengths to preserve the streams and the natural elements."

The Building Team worked with the environmental groups to avoid any disturbance to the creek. Along with the groups, it handpicked the trees that would remain on site and worked around a Native American archeological site. Except for a disagreement over compliance of on-site containment of construction mud, the project was a successful example of corporate environmental stewardship, says Bill Resch, a member of the Friends of the Blacklick Creek Watershed. "Our experience with Abercrombie & Fitch was one of the best examples of mutual efforts and collaboration to protect our beloved Blacklick Creek for our children and grandchildren," he says.

Shed simplicity

"Our brand is a northeastern, Adirondack theme aimed at college kids. It's hip. It's cool," says Lennox. "We found a beautiful piece of land that fit Mike Jeffries' vision for the company."

The idea was to not only preserve the natural setting but to celebrate it and incorporate it into a campus theme for the complex. "We call it our campus because a 'headquarters' really isn't the Abercrombie way," explains Lennox. "It's laid out like the great college campuses. Ross [Anderson] really managed to maintain the natural elements while also building a $130 million office campus in a very efficient, cool way that motivates our young employees even more."

The agricultural-industrial aesthetic of the campus was the result of close collaboration between Jeffries and Anderson. "Mike said, 'Let's keep it simple,'" says Lennox, who compares the construction of the campus to the making of a pair of A&F denim jeans. "They both use simple materials and processes put together in a very detailed way."

Anderson took this direction to heart, choosing the simplest of concepts from which to base the campus design — the shed. The concept acknowledged the rural landscape and helped meet the programmatical requirement of an open, flexible office environment. "Agricultural buildings seemed to offer what we were looking for both structurally and spatially," says Anderson. "We weren't building offices, we were building large open sheds that helped underscore the kind of community they were trying to build."

Collaboration is a tenet of the A&F corporate model. Spaces for impromptu meetings are found throughout the campus, both indoors and outdoors in the many common areas located along the campus streetscape.

There are only 30 offices in the entire campus that houses 1,300 employees. Jeffries doesn't even have an office, a desk, or a file cabinet, says Lennox. Instead, he prefers to work in a conference room. Worktables define workspaces rather than desks and cubicles.

The Jeffries/Anderson team conceived a campus comprised of a collection of buildings bounded by nature on the outside and tied together by an urban streetscape. The buildings use common industrial finishes and materials in unconventional ways. They are clad using exposed concrete slab, cement board panels, stucco, galvanized metal panels, plywood, and aluminum and operable-glass curtainwall.

The structures also feature galvanized metal roofs and wood windows. Tongue-and-groove cedar board is used as welcome mats at entrances. Exposed steel framing and glulam timber comprise the buildings' structural skeletons. Open ceilings reveal metal ductwork meticulously planned and installed according to Anderson's directions.

Designed to rust, Cor-ten steel panels give the barn-like structure that houses the dining hall and fitness center a distinctive appearance. Another eye-catching structure is the tree house conference room perched atop the executive administration building.

Along the urban streetscape, a wall section of the main building is left open to the elements. This area, known as the "bite," is paneled entirely in cedar board. Along the wall, a large wooden staircase leads up to the building's upper floor. It also contains a 7-ft.-6-in. by 9-ft.-4-in. board-formed lodge-style fireplace. A similarly constructed fireplace is located on the exterior of the rusty barn dining hall.

Bucolic look belies complexity

The project's rustic appearance is deceiving. Although the campus seems to be a collection of simple agricultural sheds, the compressed project schedule and anderson's exacting design concepts pushed the entire Building Team. "It was a very aggressive timeline, almost ridiculous," says A&F's Lennox. "But thanks to Ross, and partnering with Gilbane and the subs, the project came in on time and under budget. We moved in without a hitch."

From the time anderson was hired until construction of the office campus and distribution center was completed, the project took only two years. "There was a high design quotient placed on the project," says Anderson. "Not only did it have to be done in a hurry, the client also set the design bar high. It got people's attention and focus. Actually, the project benefited by decisions having to be made quickly."

The schedule mandated that the Building Team be brought on board early. "The project team worked well together because we were all assembled very early in the project planning," says Gilbane project manager Mike Giuliani. "The goals were clear, the course was set, and the decisions were timely."

At the time the project got under way, steel was difficult to procure and deliver in the Columbus area, says Giuliani. This prompted Gilbane to bid out the steel for the campus and distribution center as mill order packages to guarantee the team a spot in the production line.

Environmental concerns about damage to the creek required the construction of a 300-ft. bridge across a ravine that bisected the campus. Because no traffic could cross the ravine until the bridge was built, the campus was divided into two separately bid construction sites.

The unusual use of finishes and materials required adjustments. "They were used in ways we hadn't experienced before," says Giuliani. Suppliers were required to produce special runs that did not include the various stamps typically found on material, such as plywood and sheet metal ductwork. For bidding clarification purposes, 4-ft.-tall mockups gave bidders evidence that what was shown on the drawings was not complicated, says Giuliani.

Tree house structure stands out

From a structural standpoint, the executive administration building, which contained the tree house, received the most attention. "It was the toughest to detail, draw, and build," says NBBJ project architect Robert Hatfield. "The geometry was very complex. Structurally, it was a nightmare."

"The roof of the administration building sloped in two directions," says Scott Hawk, principal in charge and project manager for the Columbus-based structural engineer Lantz Jones & Nebraska. "None of the four corners of the roof was the same elevation, and we didn't have any of the elevations when the steel bid package went out. We had to put elevations at every structural member so the detailer could figure it out."

The campus' exposed structures also required attention to detail. The dining hall features glulam tree columns with exposed branches, and the specs for the staircases near the main entry and at the west end of the campus puzzled structural engineers. "The design required that none of the supporting members be vertical," says Hawk.

While most central heating and cooling plants are hidden in a corner, anderson turned A&F's into a work of art, cladding the large concrete block structure, known as the "tower of power," with horizontal wooden lattice members made of Douglas fir. At night, trellis lights set the structure aglow.

The campus's electrical power facility is one of the most unusual technical aspects of the project, says John Mrofchak, mechanical systems project manager for M/E/P subcontractor M-Engineering, Westerville, Ohio. A&F purchases primary power from the local power company and delivers it to the campus via two independent power feeds. In the event of a power outage, the redundant system will continue to supply power to the campus.

A recruitment tool is born

Though the campus was not designed as a recruitment tool for A&F, it has become one, according to Lennox. "Our employees work long, hard hours and we want them to enjoy spending time here."

Chairman and CEO Jeffries reportedly is pleased with the facility. "He said he couldn't imagine it looking any other way than it does," Lennox says. One measure of that success is that the anderson/NBBJ design team has been retained to do an addition to the campus for the company's Hollister clothing line for teen-agers.

"A lot of real trust and equity was created during the first project," says Anderson. "It's nice to see it enforced."