Facilitating Uniqueness

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New facilities for financial institutions are seldom recognized for their unique architecture. Indeed, the large, national banks usually build branches that support their "brand" with a sameness that blends generically into strip-mall America.

But the firms that design and build many credit union facilities say their clients frequently challenge them to create unique facilities, often on sites where "big boxes" are standing. Moreover, some credit unions look to their facilities to reinforce their names.

American Heritage FCU is one such example. It uses a Colonial Williamsburg theme. Located in Philadelphia, home of Independence Hall, American Heritage wanted to demonstrate its link to history (as reflected in its name) and its community.

"Bruce Foulke, the CEO there, wanted to be true to the American Heritage name and went with a Williamsburg Colonial theme, and the credit union is very active in this," explained R.W. Saunders of the Pittsburgh-based design/build firm PWCampbell. "They're always out there finding all kinds of historical paraphernalia, like bidding on a lock of Abraham Lincoln's hair on e-Bay and stuff like that."

But just because the credit union's name is all about history, doesn't mean it's not cutting edge, and that was the challenge. "Here we have a credit union that wants to look colonial, but you walk inside, and it's got every high-tech service you could want," Saunders commented. "We are building a campus effect for them, with a headquarters, then a branch, a drive-up and a retail facility. We're talking about something like 50,000 square feet all together. The building is currently under construction, and here's this colonial-looking building, and you walk in and there's an atrium. It's a whole different animal for us. About half of the first floor is dedicated to Members Financial Service, their CUSO, and selling alternative products. They're trying to go beyond car loans."

The credit union is also making a big effort to be active in the community, and will include a community room that can be used by Boy Scout troops and other local organizations that need a meeting room.

"And they're doing what a bank would call a lot of CRA projects. They're putting branches in the inner-city, places that can't possibly a money-maker. They'll tell me where the site is, and I'll say, 'What are you doing there?' And (Bruce Foulke) will say, 'Well, there aren't any banks there, and they need credit union services, so that's where we're going.'"

Some credit unions take a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque approach to blending in with its community. When Truliant FCU built a branch in Richmond, Va., it went with a prairie-style building in the tradition of the master of the cantilever.

"We have unity among the site, the exterior elevation and the interior," explained Rebecca Hofmann, chief interior designer for DEI, Cincinnati. "Frank Lloyd Wright said a building should match its surroundings, it shouldn't compete with its surroundings. The exterior is made from materials found in the region with strong horizontal lines to represent the horizon. On the interior, we used a lot of faux materials to bring that theme through. We have a natural slate-look on the floor. We used a lot of copper leaf laminate and warm wood tones."

The facility features a two-story glass atrium and vestibule with high windows that frame the Truliant logo, which is lit at night. "We used a lot of green colors to be in keeping with the surrounding environment, with a low, flat roof with a two-foot overhang in keeping with Frank Lloyd Wright's design elements," added Jeff Licklider, an architect with DEI. "There's a river relief pattern on the interior that directs you through the facility that guides you toward the teller line."

The building was so unique it made front-page news in the Richmond paper complete with a color photograph from the grand opening a month ago, according to DEI's Cynthia Grow.

While each of these facilities have been ground-up projects, sometimes a credit union finds itself trying to put a square peg in a round hole-or vice versa, as the case was with Golden Bay FCU in Sunnyvale, Calif.

The credit union took what used to be a Warehouse Records store in a shopping center and turned it into a high-tech, high-gloss financial facility.

"The space was not too dissimilar from a Blockbuster-essentially a wide open box," noted Larry Gendelman of KDA. "They wanted to have a very inviting space with a retail orientation that had to reflect its location in the heart of Silicon Valley and the credit union's high-tech membership."

It also had to overcome the transaction-only image of its former facility. Golden Bay's headquarters is located in Moffit Field, a high-security Air Force base that wasn't particularly convenient to the CU's members who didn't work on base.

"Its first off-base branch was just one mile outside the fence line in the middle of a parking lot, essentially, with bullet-proof glass," Gendelman related.

In an effort to take the strip mall space and turn it into an interesting, flowing space, the credit union wanted to use lots of curves integrated into what was basically a square box-which presented a bit of a challenge.

"When you start off with a square form, you have to figure out how to bring in all those curves," explained KDA's Kevin Webb. "There is only one straight wall in the whole building, and that's the one that separates the training area from the rest of the area. The fact that they wanted a training area at a 3,500-square-foot branch is unique in itself."

Golden Bay had to negotiate with the landlord in order to get the outside of the building to better match the new interior. That move involved not just the credit union, but repainting the entire shopping center. What used to be a brown building with a reddish roof is now all done in varying shades of gray, which allowed the credit union to expand its colors throughout the space.

As a result, the credit union ended up helping to update the look of the entire shopping mall, sort of a credit union twist on the old Boy Scout motto of leaving a place even better than you found it.

That's exactly what Bull's Eye CU in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., set out to do when it renovated an existing branch, according to Ralph LaMacchia of the Redmond Group, Waukesha, Wis.

"The credit union had a branch in a building they owned. The exterior was asbestos panels and has had over eight remodels and addition projects. (It had) a barrel roof and (looked like) an airplane hanger-an eyesore on the main street of Wisconsin Rapids," he related. "Our architects approached the problem hand-in-hand with our project managers as we had over 16,000 square feet to remodel and selectively demolish. (It needed) new HVAC, electrical, bank equipment, and exterior without spending more than $1 million total."

The firm demolished the additions as needed and cut a 10-foot section along the entire rear of the building and replaced it with a single block wall, he explained. Then the front of the building was removed and replaced with glass and Exterior Insulation Finish System.

"The credit union now has the full use of the space and operates a very successful branch," LaMacchia commented, adding that the building's new look took what was an eye sore on the main street in town and turned it into a jewel.

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