Update: This article was originally published in December 2020. Since that time, as employees have returned to the office, VyStar’s tower headquarters in downtown Jacksonville has continued to gain recognition.
The breezeway adjacent to the building, which hosts events including farmers’ markets and live music, was recently recognized by the Annual Downtown #DTJax Awards as “Project of the Year.” RS&H’s team is continuing to develop the breezeway with VyStar, adding new furnishings and vendor stalls.
Just off the St. Johns River, the VyStar Tower in Downtown Jacksonville lights up the north bank every evening, as blue LED lighting illuminates the 23-story tower. Much like the Acosta Bridge to the south, the lighting makes a bold statement about the building and the company that resides within.
What’s inside the building is even bolder.
VyStar, the largest credit union headquartered in Northeast Florida, set out in 2018 with design firm RS&H to design not only the best office environment in Jacksonville, but the best office in the banking industry.
RS&H architect Jim Hawkes and construction administrator Ted Pangan headed up the survey team that took VyStar leaders to several sites around Jacksonville. The team analyzed each building system and came up with a scorecard that rated each space based on those systems and the overall health of the building.
It became apparent that downtown is where VyStar wanted to be – a sharp turn from the four-story, suburban campus facility that RS&H designed almost 20 years ago. VyStar purchased the 23-story, 369,000 useable-square-foot Tower for $59 million in 2018 and with RS&H set off to completely transform its image.
The goals were lofty.
“Our goal was to create a best-in-class workspace – not just the best in our industry, but the best in Jacksonville,” said VyStar Chief Operations Officer and Executive Vice President Chad Meadows. “We wanted a space that allowed our employees to do more, to interact more frequently with their peers – a place that drives collaboration, partnership, creativity and allows them space to think outside the box when working on projects or solving problems.”
Bigger, Better, Best
Early in the design process, all of the VyStar department heads regularly met onsite with the RS&H design team.
“It was all about collaboration, collaboration, collaboration,” said RS&H Project Manager Patrick Kern. “We worked our hardest at keeping all communications open and flowing and setting expectations.”
Before the team put pen to paper to figure out how to fill out the floors of this building, RS&H extensively surveyed representatives from departments throughout the company. Meadows and VyStar Senior Vice President of Facilities Brian Kitchens sat through many of those interviews.
“It was important that they shared a consistent vision but also heard the feedback and various needs of each group,” said RS&H Project Manager Interior Designer Briehn Wildman. “We also worked closely with their marketing department on the ‘flavor’ of the building.”
There were a few objectives that helped drive the design. VyStar officials wanted everyone in the office to have access to the views of downtown and the St. Johns River. Every workspace is off the exterior windows, granting a great view to all associates. Not only that, VyStar wanted to create brighter, larger workstations to foster collaboration.
“VyStar put their priorities into practice and reduced the number of workstations with more collaborative spaces,” said RS&H interior designer Carlie Cole. “They wanted larger workstations, adjustable desks for all employees and increased collaborative space in the floor plan.
RS&H developed a typical floor plan with a modular design concept that could be applied throughout the tower with twelve-packs of 6-by-8-foot workstations that could be interchangeable with packs of four 10-by-10-foot offices. The square column grid throughout the floor plate allowed for an even swap of either office pack or workstation pack. By sticking to this modular concept, RS&H was able to meet different program needs on various floors with adjustments to those key components.
For the offices, VyStar selected a modular, custom prefab office partition manufactured by DIRTT Environmental Solutions. The DIRTT partitions are demountable, come with many panel finish options, can incorporate power, data, and switches as well as monitors for a very clean, modern look and feel. They also schedule in the construction process towards the end which allowed for greater speed to market to turn the floor over substantially complete.
Every floor has a mix of conference rooms designed to give employees options. Coffee and printing stations are right off the elevator bank on every floor. Natural light flows in from all sides of the building, and with the offices and conference rooms set off of the windows, more access to natural light is gained throughout the space.
The RS&H team also performed a comprehensive power system study and arc flash assessment, designed a new back-up generator system to support the entire building, crafted a new fiber optic communication backbone, and upgraded the core restrooms and elevator lobbies.
Special Floors in a Special Space
While the tower building already had a gym for tenants, VyStar wanted its own gym facility for their associates. RS&H carved out 3,600 square feet on the 17th floor to deliver a full exercise facility with a separate workout classroom, all offering amazing views of the city.
The views are even more spectacular on the top two floors of the tower, typically reserved for executive suites. But the VyStar space is anything but typical.
“We wanted a place where they can have fun and let loose and walk away from the daily stressors at work and go upstairs to grab some food, play pinball or ping pong or just go for a nice walk around downtown Jacksonville,” Meadows said. “We wanted to create an environment where people want to work and want to stay.”
The floors are filled with ping pong and pool tables, air hockey, arcade and video games. In addition to another large collaborative space, there is also a relaxation room.
VyStar wanted a raw, urban, eclectic space with concrete floors and open ceilings. With the kind of equipment in these rooms, concerns about noise prompted new solutions.
“We worked with them on finding an acoustical balance for the space,” Wildman said. “The big X’s you see on the walls are actually acoustic material, and we were able to get additional cushioning under the carpeting while still maintaining the feel they were looking for.”
The acoustical treatments continue throughout the space, as VyStar leaders wanted an open ceiling. Wildman introduced the Arktura SoundStars – hexagons five feet across and 12 inches deep – in the ceiling, closely coordinating the engineering and architecture efforts.
“On the coordination and collaboration side, when we removed the ceiling, we uncovered a large main duct line that runs through the space,” said RS&H architectural associate Kaylee Delhagen. “We had to introduce new mechanical units and duct lines to make sure there was even distribution for the fitness space.”
Along with RS&H electrical associate Bailey Holbrooks, Delhagen and the team coordinated placement of these mechanical items with the SoundStars, light fixtures, circulating fans, speakers, wireless access points, and life safety equipment. The design team worked with VyStar’s fitness equipment vendor to assure this coordination of systems above complemented the fitness equipment layout below.
“We painted the entire ceiling a great blue color to energize the space,” said RS&H interiors associate Jaclyn Dinenberg. “And since there is no finished ceiling for the walls to stop at, we implemented a 6-inch wood cap that wraps around the entire space and creates a clean stopping point for all of our finishes to end.”
Rejuvenation and Recruiting Advantages
When fully occupied, the VyStar tower will host more than 1,000 employees. Employees are greeted in the parking garage by five murals painted by ArtRepublic, which selected downtown Jacksonville for its Community Cultural Development program because it is ripe for growth and change.
VyStar sees downtown the same way.
“What VyStar is doing for Downtown Jacksonville is great,” Kern said. “A healthy downtown leads to a healthy region, and they are doing all they can to not just bring their employees downtown, but to also bring opportunities for more businesses downtown.”
As the first waves of associates began moving into the tower, any angst about leaving suburbia behind for Jacksonville’s urban core drifted away.
“This space is so far superior to our prior environment that it was extremely well received across the board,” said Brian Kitchens, VyStar’s Senior Vice President of Facilities. “Our associates who moved here became the biggest advocates for the new space.”
As visitors enter the tower across the breezeway park into the first floor, they walk past the flagship VyStar credit union branch, which utilizes a lot of digital technology interaction as well as a healthy amount of daylight.
Design cues in the branch are shared with the offices above it, and the look will be seen in more and more VyStar facilities moving forward.
“RS&H really helped us home in our standardization across our real estate and how we can design our offices moving forward,” Kitchens said.
The space is already making an impact on recruiting efforts, Meadows added. There is a lot of excitement around this building, not just in Jacksonville but within the industry.
“People are hearing about the environment and culture we have created, and they want to be part of that,” Meadows said. “If you’re not sure, you really have to come and see it.”