It survived decades of war, recession, a Great Depression, whispered and public liaisons (Studebaker-Packard Corporation, for one), changes in demographics and even a post-WWII employee in its Argentine division named Adolph Eichmann. But for all of its challenges, and to make it a true daily double, Alex, Mercedes-Benz remains the world’s oldest automotive brand still in existence.
In 2004, when the time came to gild the proverbial lily, and with something close to 1,000 automotive facility designs in the firm’s fight book, Chris Lessard, Lori Hall and Hernani Codera of The Lessard Group took Mercedes-Benz’s branding philosophies out for a test drive when they designed a 27,000 s.f. Old Town Alexandria, Va. dealership at 200 S. Pickett Street, one that embraced both the product and the neighborhood. And they did it again this year as the facility experienced a renovation in a mid-Atlantic salute to the brand’s progressive, industrial, high-tech German image.
“Auto manufacturers create branding books so when you go to different dealerships, you can identify with some of the elements in each dealership,” Lessard said, noting that Autohaus is Mercedes-Benz’s image and branding program. But in a storied venue like Old Town, where historical parameters govern building design, applying branding principles such as Mercedes-Benz’s steely facades can be like walking a diplomatic tightrope at best. “As a firm, we do a lot of other things, not just auto dealerships,” Lessard said, emphasizing that zoning and entitlement work often follow suit, though Alexandria is one of the “tougher jurisdictions.”
“We also had to present some renderings to the residents,” said Hall, who is the firm’s director of automotive facility design, because they, too, were concerned with how it was going to look. They wanted to know what their view was going to be.”
The Demise of Mini-Me
The structure, which was built essentially to swallow and to some extent incorporate a small, deteriorating mid-century Oldsmobile dealership on the site, is wood and red brick (think: ubiquitous northern Virginia) with traditional detailing and arched windows. But because the city’s saga’d image has evolved and become less restrictive in the last six years, and in compliance with Mercedes-Benz’s current identity that sanctions exposed steel, a blue arcade, silver panels and blue columns with chrome caps, the architects were able to integrate these elements into the renovation.
According to Lessard, Autohaus examines each dealership and estimates the level of business it’s going to do. “With that, they give a very defined programming requirement that they want to have appropriate service and waiting areas,” he explained, noting they are adding more bays in Alexandria to deal with the dealership’s service component. “It’s very prescriptive,” he said, “especially with Mercedes, where you’re getting the high level of service for the consumer that either buys or services a car there, or while servicing a car, looks at a new car.” To that end, according to project manager Codera, the Old Town facility will also be able to accommodate 580 vehicles, up from 520, when the renovation is complete. “In the 1950s, you had auto sites that didn’t have a lot of cars on them, but that’s not how it works today,” Lessard said. “You have to count every square inch of the site to make sure you can meet the requirements of inventory.”
Message in a Building
In Silver Spring, Md., a roughly 60,000 s.f. two-story Mercedes-Benz dealership at 3301 Briggs Chaney Road, that actually turns a corner, careens toward a March, 2011 delivery date with LEED Gold looming. “At the time we were designing it (first submission was in 2008, though construction issues stalled the process), LEED wasn’t really a factor,” Hall said, referencing the firm’s best practices standards. But with Montgomery County’s current mandate for all new commercial construction to meet LEED certification requirements, and actual construction beginning just this year, energy efficient lighting comprised of both LED and CFL’s is just one component of the glass and steel building which, by its nature, will also utilize natural light.
Trumpeting Mercedes-Benz’s perspective on precision and luxury, and branding elements such as exposed steel, black high gloss tile and “beam outriggers” that reinforce the German industrial machine look all withstanding, the psychology of the Silver Spring facility will involve what the automotive company calls its “triad,” where the service area and lounge, parts accessory boutique and the showroom are all visible from the middle of the building.
“If I’m going to get my car serviced, I’m going to want to sit in this beautiful lounge and enjoy myself, wander through to accessories thinking about whether I want to get a new keychain or new wheels, and while there, I can be looking at all the brand new cars thinking maybe it’s time to upgrade,” Hall explained. In fact, when a new car decision is made, the new car delivery area, painted an effervescent yellow, is sited so that a new owner and family can be somewhat isolated from the throng (think: sort of a private screening), but other customers can also experience the “bragging rights” of the new owner driving away. In the service lounge, according to Codera, customers can actually see their car being serviced through glass that abuts the service bays. “It’s a retail selling process,” Lessard said in summary, “whether you’re servicing or buying a new car – it’s making you feel happy whatever you’re doing and making you want to come back.”
Speaking to any perceived constraints of working within the parameters of branding specifications, Lessard maintained that while the auto manufacturer has certain standards, they are not always precise and do allow for creativity and change over time. “You can be part of that change,” he said, affirming that as an architect, he’s “not necessarily into social engineering.
“I’m really trying to make sure the building is servicing the needs of whoever’s using it, whether it feels good inside, or whether it encourages someone to do something. That’s what this firm is about, so branding actually helps me,” Lessard said. “It makes clear what the program needs to be, and I can improve on the requirements by making the building even better. It really reinforces the message.”
Bottom 2 photos of Mercedes-Benz Annapolis.