John Crowe is the top North American executive for Saint-Gobain, the $55 billion- a-year French construction- materials maker that traces its roots to the group that built Versailles for King Louis XIV. Crowe has been looking for a place to build another palace - in Pennsylvania - as Saint-Gobain's U.S. base and showroom.
To replace the company's aging U.S. headquarters near Valley Forge, Crowe scouted sites for "an absolutely spectacular building that will incorporate all aspects of what we know as a building-materials company in terms of energy efficiency and a sustainable, open, collaborative workplace," he tells me. Plus, a research and development center to replace the old labs in Blue Bell.
The search, extended by the recession, took Saint- Gobain six years. The company plans to announce this week that it has picked a potentially spectacular fixer-upper, an $80 million-plus expansion of the once-innovative but now-rusted and vacant complex built in 1969 by the former National Liberty Life Insurance Co. on 65 acres north of Malvern, close to the new State Route 29 ramp from the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Saint-Gobain picked Malvern after discarding University City and Conshohocken sites (too far for current staff), and after checking out DuPont Co.'s Building 730, which opened in 2012 at Chestnut Run outside Wilmington. Crowe was so taken with DuPont's open workspaces and a board monitoring computer and utility use in real time, he's ordered similar features.
"It met all their criteria," says Downingtown developer Eli Kahn, who is overseeing the project with partner J. Loew Associates. Kahn says he walked at least a dozen other CEOs through the site - including bosses at VWR, ViroPharma, and Bentley Systems - since National Liberty's successor, Aegon, moved out six years ago for a smaller Exton location.
Some were scared off, Kahn says, by the "appalling failure" of the steel surface on the building's exoskeleton. Designed to weather to a natural glow, it dumped rust down the glass walls. "The solution is what we're doing: ripping the skin off the building and putting up new windows outside the steel."
The new surface, built from Saint-Gobain's Sage Electrochromic Glass, the adjustable surface added to cool the Kimmel Center's Garden Terrace two years ago, will form what Crowe calls "a very dramatic multistory atrium." It recalls a smaller nearby project, CrossPoints, the new home of Teleflex Inc., whose new atrium entrance links and opens older suburban boxes.
The property has woods, fields, a wide pond. "Every view is spectacular," Kahn says. A river even runs through it - or at least a branch of Valley Creek, flowing below the lobby.
Architect is Bernardon Haber Holloway; Jacobs Engineering Group is doing interior work.
Unlike Glaxo or the Center City law firms that have moved to newer, smaller sites, Saint-Gobain is moving to grow. The complex includes 320,000 square feet, about 100,000 square feet larger than Saint-Gobain's Valley Forge site. Crowe says he's moving 680 people from Valley Forge and about 120 more from the R&D center and other locations, and will have enough space to add still 100 more in the next five years.
Demolition started last week. "The fascinating part of this is that they're using their own materials," says Clive G. Mendelow, vice chairman of Binswanger, the Philadelphia real estate brokerage that closed the deal. Besides Sage Electrochromic, Saint-Gobain plans to cover walks with Sheerfill, the fabric that forms the canopy at Denver's main airport; roof with Saint-Gobain's CertainTeed CoolStar Roofing, and line rooms with its CertainTeed AirRenew Gypsum walls.
Crowe plans to finish in time to mark Saint-Gobain's 350th anniversary next year. "We build for the long term," he says.