Realizing the Client’s Vision : Design-Build Creates A Landmark for Orvis

Bread Loaf Corporation

Manchester, VT — When the Orvis Company decided to locate its flagship retail store in Manchester, it was adamant that its new facility would be far more than just an attractive new store. Orvis wanted the building and its surroundings to convey the essence of the Orvis lifestyle. This meant that the store should evoke memories and imagery of a distinctive country way of life. The Orvis lifestyle expresses a strong appreciation of the natural environment and is steeped in sporting traditions, particularly fly-fishing. The 150 year-old company was committed to making a visit to its store a unique experience. Visitors were to leave the store having shared key elements of the Orvis lifestyle, having somehow been magically transported to one of the bountiful “Great Camps” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Orvis Retail Flagship interior – Manchester, Vermont
Orvis Retail Flagship interior – Manchester, Vermont

As if the challenge of creating a branded lifestyle in the retail store were not sufficient, the entire project, from exterior building and siting to interior fit-in, had to be designed and constructed around the existing retail store, an obsolete facility that would be demolished only when the new facility was complete. Moreover, given strong community perceptions about aesthetic values and preservation of the environment, project leaders had to be able to navigate the permitting process expeditiously.

In short, the new flagship store was no “cookie-cutter” effort, but a special, one-of-a-kind project. To achieve its vision, Orvis hired Bread Loaf Corporation, a Middlebury, VT-based design-build firm, to lead the project. Orvis and Bread Loaf had worked together previously, notably on a multi-phase, multi-year relocation of the Orvis corporate headquarters, where 377 acres of natural black bear habitat are now preserved in rural Sunderland, VT, as well as a reconfiguration of on-site retail and manufacturing operations. Orvis was impressed with Bread Loaf’s commitment to excellence and their demonstrated ability to identify with the needs and values of their client.

Conveying the Orvis Lifestyle

Orvis Retail Flagship front entrance – Manchester, Vermont
Orvis Retail Flagship front entrance – Manchester, Vermont

The essential element of the project was disseminating the legacy and tradition of the Orvis lifestyle. But how could Orvis be certain that the project team truly understood, and moreover, could effectively convey it? For George Haskins, director of retail operations at Orvis, the solution was novel, but effective. Before significant design began, Orvis staff treated the key members of the project design-team to a series of events designed to make them understand and feel part of the distinctive country lifestyle that is Orvis’ focus and legacy. The group toured different local inns to gain a feel for characteristic elements of the Vermont countryside. They visited the country home and guest house of Orvis’ chairman Leigh H. Perkins and toured the nearby British School of Falconry to gain a better grasp of the materials, tools, and artistry that are essential components of deeply felt sporting traditions. Lastly, the group went fly fishing and wingshooting together. Haskins points out that the primary purpose of these activities was to “make sure that we were all on the same page, so that the project team would know not only what we wanted, but why we wanted something done in a specific manner.” David Santini, Bread Loaf project architect, agrees. He feels that these experiences gave his team a strong sense of Orvis’ key values and assumptions. When it was later necessary to make difficult design decisions, Santini feels his team had more flexibility and greater credibility with Orvis precisely because they now understood each other far more deeply. This was more than “project bonding.” Orvis had successfully communicated its mission and objectives to the project team. The Bread Loaf-led team, in turn, had demonstrated an empathy towards its client that exceeded traditional expectations.

The Flagship Store

Orvis Retail Flagship interior view of trout pond – Manchester, Vermont
Orvis Retail Flagship interior view of trout pond – Manchester, Vermont

Orvis currently has 31 retail stores throughout the U.S., typically averaging about 5,000 s.f. per store. The new flagship stores boasts close to 25,000 s.f. and stands as the embodiment of the Orvis lifestyle. But the sheer size of the project is not what sets the building apart. For Santini, the most important design feature is the effective integration of the store into its immediate surroundings. The customer is supposed to feel that he/she has entered a new world, not just another retail shop. The building is evocative of memories or dreams of past hunts and travels. Materials indigenous to the area are vital elements of both the exterior and interior.

The store is sited near casting ponds, and is intended to attract not only customers but also casual visitors, fly-fishing students, and other sport persons visiting the nearby American Museum of Fly Fishing. The building design strategy was to “bring the outside in.” Three fundamental elements thus define the building: the entrance, horizontal and vertical circulation, and the use of water pools and ponds.

The entrance is a two-story corner porch with two facades. The porch presents a dramatic vertical entrance, linking the exterior with the two-story interior lobby. The atmosphere is meant to be as relaxing as possible, with seating areas placed inside and out. Visitors are encouraged to relax and linger in what Orvis’ Haskins terms the “decompression zone,” allowing them to get away from the workaday world. Randy Sattler, vice president of Robert G. Lyon Associates (RGLA) and retail designer for the project, adds that by creating such an atmosphere, Orvis is not only able to sell merchandise effectively, but also entertains, educates, and informs their customer base. “It means that there is much more going on besides business.”

The main interior of the building is designed to create an open, airy atmosphere. Highly-placed gabled windows at either end of the building present views of the sky and surrounding mountains. Wide stairways at opposite corners of the building provide large landings, suitable for casual strolling.

The project team made every effort to utilize local materials and subcontracted with local craftsman. Two working fireplaces and a 30-foot high stone chimney warm the interior. Complementary stonework is used on both the exterior of the building’s façade and throughout the landscaping and waterways. Birch bark is used for trim molding. Doug Williamson, Bread Loaf project manager, points out that this often meant that construction details were developed on site with the entire team, reflecting an unusual degree of flexibility and commitment.

Dave Perkins, executive vice president for Orvis, observes that the store’s design and construction bespeak a relaxed comfort and whimsy not typical for a large retail store. Upon entering the site, the visitor views cast-aluminum fish encased in the concrete walkway, while the Orvis roadside sign is carved into huge white marble boulders unearthed on site. Stained glass reveals leaping trout. Vibrantly colored aluminum fish adorn the frieze of the entry porch. Perkins points out that the store takes this comfort attitude a step further — encouraging visitors to bring their dogs into the store, even supplying little dog troughs for their “dining.” The dogs may also avail themselves of two knee-high mirrors to view their new collars. Of course, customers can dine as well, with the menu providing a marked emphasis on fish delicacies such as smoked salmon or trout mousse.

Visitors can enter the main retail level directly from casting ponds, walks, and parking lots. They walk over rustic footbridges, giving the feel of “moving through nature rather than viewing it from afar.” The ponds extend to the northern edge of the building. Inside the building, the ponds become viewing pools that continue the design concept of “bringing the outside in.”

Despite the very relaxed elements to the store, there are practical recreational and educational facets as well. The store includes a 1,000 s.f. Barbour clothing concept store. A private gunroom sells high-quality guns, with fittings by renowned gunsmiths.

The flagship store has the feel of an unpretentious museum. Educational literature, historical artifacts, and fishing memorabilia dot the premises. The facility provides regular “Saturday seminars,” with topics ranging from fly-fishing techniques to best travel tips for local hunting and fishing destinations. Orvis sponsors two “lifestyle fairs” each year, drawing on many of the resources of its flagship store. Across the street is the Orvis Fly-Fishing School that uses the store’s ponds for teaching sessions. The American Museum of Fly Fishing is immediately adjacent to the store and is expected to increase customer traffic to the store as well.

Why Design-Build?

One of the major challenges throughout the project was to maintain a continuous operational flow for Orvis. Retail operations were never shut down during the course of the project, even when construction activities were within 15 feet of ongoing retail activity. The broad range of activities —space renovation, demolition of existing building, new facility, new parking lot — all required careful attention to detail and scheduling and often mandated temporary power, temporary utility poles, and water holding tanks. By project closeout, all utilities had been moved and upgraded with zero disruption to Orvis’ ongoing business.

Orvis Retail Flagship interior – Manchester, Vermont
Orvis Retail Flagship interior – Manchester, Vermont

Moreover, all project work — completion of the new store, demolition of the old facility, and completing the ponds and landscaping — had to adhere to a very aggressive schedule. Orvis scheduled their “soft opening” for Memorial Day weekend, 2002 and their “Grand Opening” for August 24, 2002. The old store was demolished a week after the soft opening and all landscaping, pond work, and masonry were completed in time for the August festivities. Careful scheduling ensured that these deadlines were met.

The project was deemed an unqualified success by all participants. The Orvis Flagship Store has garnered a number of awards, most notably DBIA’s 2003 National Design-Build Award in the private sector under $15 million category and the Vermont chapter of the American Institute of Architects Excellence in Architecture award. Certainly the skill and dedication of the project team was essential for this achievement. Moreover, Orvis articulated its vision expansively and effectively. Yet these were not the only ingredients for success. Gregor Masefield, Bread Loaf architectural designer, feels that the commitment to use design-build delivery facilitated interdisciplinary, collaborative exchanges across the entire team. Even though he was trained as an architect, Masefield and the design team frequently found themselves performing tasks more reminiscent of the “master builder” of earlier times, participating directly in the art and crafting of the project. This intellectual cross fertilization allowed Masefield and his colleagues to make critical decisions about major design concepts well before detailed drawings were developed. It allowed for flexibility later in the project when mid-course adjustments were necessary for a number of building elements.

Dick Trudell, president of Trudell Consulting Engineers, the lead civil engineer on the project, feels that with design-build his group had “significant input” and felt more part of a single, integrated team. He was pleased to be treated as a professional, not “merely” a subcontractor. More importantly, being able to provide candid input at critical stages in the project encouraged authentic give and take across the team, and avoided missteps later in the project.

Orvis’ Haskins concurs. While much of the firm’s construction work to date has used traditional delivery methods, Haskins is convinced that using design-build project delivery on the flagship store project was integral to project success. He feels that there were so many “special” aspects to the project that a traditional delivery mode would not have been able to anticipate problems or show the flexibility to craft innovative solutions. For Haskins, “all members of the project team checked their egos at the door and did whatever they had to do in order to get the job done. Simply put, complex projects demand design-build.”

A popular misconception of designbuild is that it works quite well for simple boxes and other straightforward “cookie cutter” projects, but should not be considered for complex, out-of-the-box efforts. The Orvis Flagship Store eloquently and forcefully refutes that generalization. It’s about time.

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