When choosing the site the project team considered groundwater flows wetlands and orientation to take advantage of natural light

The Beacon lights the way

March 6, 2013
KOHLER, WISC. —In 1883, John Michael Kohler decided to enamel coat one of his rectangular cast-iron basins. He was so happy with the results that he later listed it in his company’s one-page catalog: "Horse Trough/Hog Scalder — when furnished with four legs will serve as a bathtub." And just like that, Kohler Co. entered the plumbing products business. 

KOHLER, WISC. —In 1883, John Michael Kohler decided to enamel coat one of his rectangular cast-iron basins. He was so happy with the results that he later listed it in his company’s one-page catalog: "Horse Trough/Hog Scalder —when furnished with four legs will serve as a bathtub." And just like that, Kohler Co. entered the plumbing products business.

It’s a simple story, but it contains three key ingredients that have led to Kohler’s global success: innovation, forward-thinking design and a communications strategy to share its products with the world.

All three are again on display in Kohler’s new Corporate Communications Building. The one-story, 79,000-sq.ft. building has been nicknamed “The Beacon” for the guiding role it hopes to play in the company’s future. It is now home to 180 corporate communications associates in an open workspace, and includes a 32,300-sq.ft. video studio.

“Communications has long been an integral part of building and protecting the Kohler brand,” Natalie Black, Sr. Vice President and Chief Legal Officer for Kohler Co. says. “The new Beacon building provides the foundation for continued excellence in the development and production of creative assets for use in Kohler’s public relations, digital communications and the traditional forms of print and television advertising.”


The need for the new building came from the growth of the company’s several communications and media groups, and the simultaneous need for them to work more collaboratively in the digital marketplace.

“Our photo staff used to be at one location,” explains Vicki Hafenstein, Kitchen and Bath Public Relations for Kohler, “our art staff used to be at a different location, and then public relations and account supervisors and the Web team used to be at another location. We had a lot of off-site meetings and spent a lot of time in the car.”

While each department had grown independently in response to the company’s evolving needs, the time had come to bring everything under one roof. “It was felt, to get the best synergies between the groups, improve collaboration and just overall operating efficiencies, we needed bring the groups together in a state-of-the-art, very lively, living building that would help stimulate the creative process,” says Sr. Staff Project Manager Mike Andrews.

The new building has room to design and test booths and displays for exhibitions.

To design the building, Kohler turned to Gensler, an architecture firm based in Chicago. To make it a reality they went to general contractor C.G. Schmidt out of Milwaukee and to a mechanical contractor as old and as well respected as the Kohler brand, J. F. Ahern in Fond du Lac, Wisc.

Right for the job

Ahern has been in business since 1880. One of the largest mechanical contractors in the country (ranked No. 25 in CONTRACTOR’s 2012 Book of Giants), the company employs about 1,000 workers. “We do HVAC, plumbing, fire protection, wastewater, industrial work,” Phil Corbin, Manager of Pre-Construction Services says. “Just about anything that has to do with moving water or air.” The company also boasts a range of energy services to help clients audit, control and decrease their energy use.

Ahern had worked with C.G. Schmidt on a number of jobs, and had even done work on the Kohler campus before coming to The Beacon project. “We were very familiar with Ahern,” Joe Azzarello, Sr. Staff Sustainability Engineer for Kohler Co. says. “What they were able to bring to the table was, first, their integration. Being able to do the plumbing, fire protection and HVAC systems all in-house; for continuity, for consistency of design, intent, delivery and schedule.”

An Ahern tech at work.

Ahern bid the job in 2010 and was selected in early 2011. The design portion of the job took a little less than four months. Their end of the project was complete by the Spring of 2012. “Our crew maxed out at maybe a dozen men among the four trades and three disciplines —HVAC, pluming and fire protection,” Corbin says.

LEED goes without saying

For Kohler Co. the question was never “Should we go for LEED?” but instead “What level of LEED are we going for?” As a company that produces the largest line of WaterSense plumbing products in the market, The Beacon was a chance to put in practice what they had long been preaching.

Azzarello doesn’t recall any resistance to the decision to seek LEED accreditation. “We did a lot of give-and-take to decide which credits we would go for and what level we would try to achieve,” he says, “but there was really no discussion about whether we would or we wouldn’t.”

LEED was very much a concern when it came to selecting a mechanical contractor, and again, J.F. Ahern fit the bill. “The LEED requirement was aggressive for the type of building they were building,” says Corbin. “It wasn’t unusual for us. We’ve done about 10% of the LEED buildings in the state of Wisconsin. Our headquarters here in Fond du Lac is LEED Gold. We helped them get through that process.”

Ahern also helped Kohler work with an in-state utility program, Focus on Energy, which offers rebates and financial incentives to drive energy efficiency and efficient component selection.

Most of the building’s LEED points do come from Kohler’s water efficient plumbing products. It is estimated they will save 330,140 gallons of water a year over conventional toilets, faucets and fixtures.

An advanced smart controls package from Johnson Controls provides extensive metering of natural gas, electricity and water (including sewer lines) allowing detailed tracking of usage by time, area and systems. All information is fed into a computerized monitoring and management system for building operation analysis and, when needed, direct maintenance.

A storm water-management system reduces or eliminates the water that leaves the site, allowing dirt, dust and other unwanted contaminants to collect in a settling pond, preventing problems downstream while recharging the aquifer.

One of the challenges Ahern faced had to do with the different interior spaces. “The building is a mixed-use,” Corbin explains. “Part of it is a photographic studio where still and video shooting is done, and in those areas they needed minimal to no air movement.” Half the building is displacement ventilation, but there also needed to be a high bay arrangement because of the construction of the sets. Some areas had tight humidity requirements as well.

Ahern also installed some radiant floor heating —all in-slab —for most of the office spaces and along the perimeter of some of the studio spaces. “Just to offset the load on the exterior of the building,” Corbin says.

More than 20% of the building materials were harvested and manufactured within a 500-mile radius of Kohler, Wisc., and more than 20% of the building overall is comprised of recycled material. “Being new construction, there was a LEED plan in place from day one to handle construction waste and to utilize recycled material,” Corbin says.

Building with BIM

According to Corbin, the biggest challenge with the job was in fulfilling the vision Kohler and their architectural team were trying to achieve. “Everything had to be in just the right spot, whether it was a mechanical component or an architectural component, the two needed to meld together,” Corbin says.

This was done mostly through BIM (Building Information Modeling), which is fortunately one of Ahern’s strong points. Because of their experience they were able to drive BIM reviews and certifications.

“We had some spatial requirements, particularly in the shooting studio,” Azzarello says. “Through the use of BIM and strong coordination between the architectural designs coming out of Gensler and [Ahern’s] mechanical designs — mainly of duct work, duct run and clearances —we were able to get good give-and-take between the two design entities.”

The result was highly efficient use of space. Effective use of BIM during the design phase made it easy to identify potential clashes or conflicts before they could happen mitigating field changes, field orders and field adjustments, saving time, money and aggravation.

As a result that initial vision has come true: a lively, spirited building that fosters a sense of openness and collaboration. “We really wanted it to have a fresh feel to it,” says Azzarello. “To make a statement. It’s the leading edge. That’s why we call it The Beacon.”

The building was dedicated on May 5, 2012. By July, all the various communications departments had been migrated. As with any large commercial space, there has been some balancing and adjusting of the building’s systems. “Some tweaking of the controls,” Corbin says, “and some sequences of operation, but nothing substantial.”

“This is the first year putting all the systems through their seasonal cycle,” Azzarello says. “We’re learning a little bit more as we go along, but the hardware that is there and the control system that is there have given us the ability to respond to any issues that come up.” That control system is also learning, and will eventually self-adjust based on historical data.

The Kohler team feels that the communications group is already feeling the benefits of being together in their new work environment. They also feel that The Beacon —fittingly —sends a message to their fellow employees, their clients and their industry as a whole about who they are and where they’re going as a company.

About the Author

Steve Spaulding | Editor-inChief - CONTRACTOR

Steve Spaulding is Editor-in-Chief for CONTRACTOR Magazine. He has been with the magazine since 1996, and has contributed to Radiant Living, NATE Magazine, and other Endeavor Media properties.

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