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Nissan North America Headquarters

Cultural Evolution

We provide more than buildings for our clients... we’re actually helping them manage change

Moving an entire company across the country is an incredible task, and an even more incredible opportunity. Nissan North America’s decision to relocate their corporate operations from California to Tennessee created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design a new, globally recognized corporate campus that would reestablish and enhance Nissan’s corporate culture and identity. The striking 460,000-square-foot building was designed by GS&P to enhance Nissan’s employee efficiency, support the cross-functional nature of the staff, and facilitate collaboration and creativity. The incorporation of sustainable design elements in both interior and exterior environments aims to create a campus that stands out against its surrounding suburban context.

It was a great challenge for Nissan to move its headquarters across the country. Discuss the opportunity to help provide a smooth transition for Nissan’s operations and culture.

Jeff Kuhnhenn: We had some unique challenges because they had not announced the move to their people internally. For a little while, the building actually advanced ahead of the internal development because we couldn’t speak to anybody. It really impacted how we went about doing the project because it was very important to Nissan that its brand, culture, and general functionality be protected.

The takeaway from this is that we have to be flexible because we provide more than buildings for our clients. In the big picture, we’re actually helping them manage change. In Nissan’s case, the change was a major relocation that not only had ramifications once the move began for their marketplace, but simply having knowledge of the potential relocation had ramifications, and it was our job to help facilitate this change.

It sounds like our method of approach had to change drastically to meet their needs. Was this the case?

Jack Weber: Because they had not yet announced the relocation to Tennessee internally to staff, we could only develop concepts based on assumptions and on the basic information provided at the time. So, yes, in the beginning, we started in a reactionary mode to provide design concepts and site analysis that they needed to make early decisions about the site selection. However, immediately upon announcing the project publically, and through direction from the CEO, we were able to back up and develop a strategy for the site, building, and workplace based on a detailed analysis of business processes, worker needs, and organizational culture. Once fully engaged in this process, we were able to morph the campus layout, the building design, and the interior space into what it is today by responding to Nissan’s true needs.

Since Nissan is one of the world’s leading automakers, they had to consider the implications of the new building and how it might impact their brand. What does “brand” mean to Nissan?

Jeff: Branding and corporate culture are two separate things. The brand is what you want the public to see and think about you, and your corporate culture is how you do business internally. But, for Nissan, the two completely overlap. They have a very definitive understanding of their brand, and a pretty sophisticated understanding of the behaviors that are necessary to reinforce and perpetuate that brand identity. They also believe that their brand identity works best when reinforced and propagated by the behaviors of their people. They have a lot of pride in the design, quality, and appearance of their vehicles, so we had to make sure they felt the same way about their workplace.

Jack: To add to what Jeff said, brand and corporate culture at Nissan are very well defined and fused together. Depicting these elements throughout the campus design was one of the most important parts of the process. Our task was to design a headquarters building, so it was clear that the brand image would not be a literal interpretation of the automotive industry. Rather, its purpose was to embody Nissan’s corporate philosophy and promote an intuitive alignment of that philosophy for those who would occupy the space. The true challenge was making sure that there was a consistent message blended throughout every element of the campus.

Describe the process for developing the strategy for such a multifaceted project.

Jeff: he schedule they wanted certainly demanded a specific workflow. We had to have early-release packages, contractors on board early, and certain pieces of the project procured early. It was a slightly different plan than what we’re used to, but once we understood the order of the processes, it wasn’t difficult. However, it absolutely affected how we made decisions. In a typical design-bid-build process, some choices can be delayed until later in the project. But in an early-release package environment, you’ve got to make some choices in a certain order and be married to them.

Can you provide an example of a decision that had to be made earlier than usual?

Jeff: The building is a fairly sculptural structure with some very formal aesthetics to it, so the shape of the building was important. Because of that, we had to lock down the column grid and understand the structural system pretty early on, and we had to be willing to live with it after a certain point. That dictated that we have a system for generating this form. We created sort of an algorithm so that we could make things a little bigger or smaller as needed as we went through programming. We had three or four decisions that we needed to make in a hurry, but our client wasn’t sure if the building would have 1,200 or 1,800 people in it, so we had to be able to make changes as needed.

Jack: Nissan Americas was given a directive by the CEO to implement an alternative office program that would target at least 15 to 20 percent of the staff to work virtually. Each of these, but especially the alternative office concept, had a tremendous impact on the size of the floor plate and ultimately the building. Steel had to be ordered, so floor plate size was a critical path decision. By showing in 3-D how various modifications to the floor plate and building shape could affect building capacity, we were able to systematically but quickly guide Nissan through the appropriate decisions.

Since this project had so many pieces to it, what role did 3-D imaging play in your proposal?

Jeff: We used a lot of 3-D imaging and maintained up-to-date models throughout the design process. As I developed the design of the shell of the structure, we had a working model of the building that enabled us to have a clear understanding of the structural requirements. I was then able to sit down with the structural engineer and go through the whole building floor by floor, and understand the relationship between every column and every beam. Having a well-developed architectural model makes a huge difference. Our structural group is really excellent at this. They’re way ahead of most firms designing in 3-D. They were able to expedite getting information to the steel fabricators so that we could lock down the steel for the building very early. Having a good model helps you avoid costly mistakes, control costs, and stay within the budget.

Explain how 3-D models actually save the client money. Should we be using 3-D models in every GS&P project?

Jeff: A huge benefit of having a good model is what I call protecting the scope, and for exactly that reason, we strongly recommend 3-D models to our clients who hire a contractor. Typically, a contractor will often take a look at the drawings, do some math, and tack on a whole host of other contingencies to their budget estimate. They can have an escalation contingency, a design contingency, a budget contingency, etc. The less certain a contractor is in those areas, the bigger the contingency is. The earlier in a project that you can put hard numbers on big-ticket items, you dramatically increase the level of certainty and decrease the level of risk for the contractor, which allows you to protect the scope because you’re not artificially assuming things cost more because of the contractor’s uncertainty.

What sustainability components did GS&P incorporate in the design?

Jeff: Nissan was interested in sustainable strategies and a responsible building, and they said, “Whether we pursue LEED certification or not, we’re going to favor the LEED strategies that make sense.” So as we went through the design, we planned a strategy to achieve a silver LEED certification and looked for things that helped apply value.

We did a lot of incremental things. We made sure that the shell of the building had excellent thermal performance. We used high-performance glass on the building. The building has a large footprint versus its surface area on the outside, so it’s able to regulate its temperature pretty easily. We invested in an underfloor air system, which is substantially more cost-effective in terms of lifetime performance than standard ducting systems. We put sunshades on the building, and we also invested in some daylight sensors and a dimming system for the fluorescent lighting in the building.

Where did the inspiration for the exterior shape come from?

Jeff: It was really a gradual translation of two rectangular office buildings of typical size that were put together to make this single floor plate. Then we shifted to breaking down the building into neighborhoods of different interior spaces. In order to preserve the site for future flexibility and keep it green, we wanted a small footprint on the site, but we had zoning restrictions on how high the building could be. We also evolved toward having the town centers and less changeable, more communal-use spaces. So where the building started being able to be flexible, we literally flexed it. We shifted the plan a little bit and broke down the mass of the building. By maintaining the efficient rectilinear neighborhood areas, and installing rectangular furniture and offices, we didn’t generate a lot of wasted space. We had to be cognizant of costs so we made high-impact, achievable kinds of sculptural moves that could be done without much additional cost.

The interior floors are extremely open. Discuss the workplace strategy and how their work environment responds to the way they like to run their business.

Jack: “Transparency” was a term often quoted by Nissan to denote light, open, and airy, but also to imply a sense of being frank and direct. As an architectural response, 95 percent of the enclosed spaces throughout the building have clear glass front walls. And virtually all of the staff seated in the open workstations has a view to the outside. We also heard “cross-functional” repeatedly, which relates to how they like to collaborate across departments. Providing places and spaces for employees to interact in a formal or informal setting, whether running into one another on the stairs or having a video conference meeting, was critical to how the building responded to Nissan’s working culture. We created “town centers,” where people can come together. The stairs, open spaces, elevators, bathrooms, and everything considered support elements of each floor are placed in the center of the floor, nudging people together to encourage interaction.

It sounds like Nissan was very committed to creating a dynamic work environment. Did they come to you with a clear vision, or were they open to suggestions?

Jack: There was a commitment and a vision from the top, and they understood from the very beginning the benefits of a work environment that responds to their corporate culture. They were extremely open-minded about new concepts surrounding the workplace. That was our first insight into Nissan’s culture. Concepts were looked at in many different ways from different perspectives in order to make sound decisions about whether it was good for the company. In the end, they stood by the decisions that we helped them make. It was a true team effort.

Did cultural differences present any unique challenges during this project?

Jeff: We sat down with them and discussed some of the ways that Americans don’t culturally behave the same as Japanese. In Japan, for instance, there’s a tremendous formality in the meeting process and the interaction between staff. Here, we tend to have more informal settings, and a lot of meetings and decisions are done on the fly. In Japan, the business gets done during the meeting. It’s almost exactly the opposite in the U.S. So we had a whole set of issues that we had to deal with uniquely, and many of the strategies that we talked about were actually customized based on an American way of doing business.

Are there any lessons learned that stand out in this project. Any special surprises or processes that could be carried forward and used on future projects?

Jack: In terms of the process, we learned a lot through benchmarking trips. We actually toured six or seven other corporate facilities with the client. We observed, learned, absorbed, and documented information and impressions of the good and the bad. We used this information as well as lessons learned by others to make choices about the new facility design. This was a new process for us, but one that I would highly recommend for our projects in the future.

Jeff: I’m a firm believer in the multidiscipline firm, and that’s where our strength is. I really want to continue this trajectory toward a more cross-disciplined approach to designing and developing ideas that generate value for clients. We have an extremely diverse practice in terms of our collective knowledge and experience.

Also, it was invigorating for Nissan to ask us to prove everything. We should be in the business of proving everything all the time. Whether it’s issues that relate to sustainability or best practices, we should demonstrate a very acute knowledge about how to do things. Part of that is coming up with creative answers instead of relying on formula or intuition. We do things, not because we believe it’s true, but because we know it’s true.

At the end of it all, what makes you the most proud?

Jack: Leading a firm of that caliber through the process of making smart decisions, and even changing their standards and strategy surrounding the workplace, was very rewarding. We could have easily just listened and simply given them what they asked for as opposed to working with them to make the best decisions about their work environment. We were not pushing them toward an aesthetic or concept that served our own agenda. Rather we worked through a process together that allowed us to look at how people work and pay attention to their employees and their needs. Working with them through this process was fun and by far one of my greatest career accomplishments.

Jeff: I run into Nissan people from time to time, and they always have nice things to say and are legitimately proud of the building. In the end, I want people to like the environment that we’ve help create for them. So when you run into someone who actually has to live in it all the time and they compliment your work, that’s a good feeling.

The proudest moment for me was when the CEO, Carlos Ghosn, flew in from France for the unveiling of the design. Seeing the piles of people and press at this big event was my personal realization of how big this was. We just designed a headquarters building for a multinational company whose business is design. It was a very eye-opening and mind-altering moment to picture us, as a firm, working at that level and on that stage. I’ve never had that moment before, and I’d like to do that again.

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Project Info

  • Client: Nissan North America
  • Location: Franklin, TN, USA
  • Market: Corporate + Urban Design
  • Services: Architecture, Engineering, Interior Design, Planning, Sustainability, Building Information Modeling (BIM), Civil Engineering, Structural Engineering, Workplace Strategy, Landscape Architecture, Master Planning
  • Team:
    • Steven P. Johnson, AIA Principal-in-Charge
    • Anna S. Roberts, AIA, LEED AP Project Manager
    • Eric Bearden, AIA Project Architect
    • Jeffrey W. Kuhnhenn, AIA, LEED AP Project Designer
    • Jack E. Weber, IIDA, LEED AP Project Designer
    • R.J. Tazelaar, P.E. Project Professional
    • Joseph A. Johnston Project Professional
    • Jennifer M. Shupe, P.E. Project Professional
    • Mike Harris
  • Awards:

    AIA Tennessee, Award for Excellence in Architecture

    South Central Construction, Best of 2008 Construction & Design Awards, Judges Award

    ABC Mid-Tennessee Chapter Awards of Excellence, Eagle Award

    IIDA Tennessee Chapter, Commercial Award

    Middle Tennessee AIA, Award of Citation, “Built” Category

    Developer Magazine, 2008 Annual Sustainability Awards, Best Use of Land

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