Back to the Future

With its stunning LEED-certified renovation of HON’s historic headquarters, SmithGroup affirms a paradigm shift in corporate America to transforming outmoded office buildings into state-of-the-art workplaces.

by Carol Tisch


To move or not to move: that is the question plaguing corporations across America. Confronted with looming federal regulations on carbon emissions and projected increases in energy costs, businesses are busy analyzing their carbon footprints. Efficiency and collaboration are the new buzzwords in the green and global economies of the future. And in the face of a down economy, the nation’s stockpile of outmoded office buildings is in serious need of modernizing.

Ironically, one of those buildings was the 68,000-square-foot headquarters of The HON Company, the second largest office furniture manufacturer in the country. Despite its stellar reputation for leadership in affordable but cutting-edge workplace solutions, HON’s 100-year-old building—practically a landmark in Muscatine, Iowa—was the antithesis of cutting-edge.

Company executives thought briefly about moving, but decided instead to go for LEED-CI Silver certification with a total gut renovation—providing an opportunity to lead by example and embrace the history of their buildings … all while "greening" the space and readying it for upcoming technological advances in the workplace. Call it a paradigm shift back to the future; a design space-time continuum of a new order.

Community relations are another big reason HON stayed put. "As a corporation, we’re really committed to the community and our heritage in Muscatine," says Tim Smith, vice president of workplace environment at HON. "And as the biggest employer here, there is so much desire by HON Company and [parent company] HNI to give back to the community. We wanted our new headquarters to celebrate what we have here, while demonstrating our commitment to sustainability."

"HON has been in this building for 60 years," adds Rod Vickroy, design principal at SmithGroup, the architectural and engineering firm responsible for the 18-month-long renovation. "The company and its members are so deeply woven into the community that it was important for us to develop a scheme that renovated the building and continued that sense of place—but also took HON to a different level within that place."

From the moment guests enter the front door, HON’s dazzling white three-story atrium leaves no doubt SmithGroup achieved that goal. White porcelain tile, articulated plaster walls and a sheath of white glass concealing an elevator shaft now refract light throughout what was once a dark void between the north and south parts of the building. Indeed, railroad cars used that space to drop off materials when the building was a factory, dating back 100 years to the original owner, window sash manufacturer Huttig Manufacturing.

While HON would receive LEED credits for reusing an existing building and working with its inherent characteristics, the lack of natural daylight was a major problem. "The building was really dark because it was redone with small windows in the 1970s during another energy crisis," explains Smith.

"It was a load-bearing perimeter with punctures along the front for windows—that’s all the natural light we had," adds Vickroy. "Our most interventive move to the structure itself was to cut a penetration through the roof for skylights. We reroofed with a highly reflective light roof which is good for LEED as well as sustainability. Then we cut a hole through the steel floor to allow the light to penetrate down three levels."

Though HON execs had thought about opening up the roof, they had not considered the potential of preserving the building core and shell as key elements of the design.

"We were amazed at the beauty in this building that had not been exposed for years. We didn’t really recognize how high the ceilings were. We didn’t understand the beautiful old beams and floor joists that had been covered up in sheet rock or metal," says Smith. "Everything had been sprayed white so we ended up sand blasting the entire thing. It was like peeling back layers of an onion. We kept finding little jewels that SmithGroup was able to incorporate into the design."

Existing wood beams and masonry were integrated into the design, revealing the heritage of the building and reducing the use of new materials. In fact, sustainability was a top priority in every aspect of the renovation. "Rod and the SmithGroup did a really incredible job with the juxtaposition of old versus the new, while incorporating a completely new MEP system into the building," notes Smith.

To divert waste, 75 percent of construction demolition was recycled and reused. Appliances, cabinetry and furniture were donated to local nonprofit organizations, including some which were affected by Iowa floods during the renovation. Lighting improvements are expected to save 40 percent in energy costs over previous systems, and all HVAC and lighting systems feature state-of-the-art, energy efficiencies. HON’s bathroom stalls are made from 100 percent recycled milk cartons, and SmithGroup used walnut shells, a renewable waste byproduct of the nut industry, as a sandblasting medium.

While the entire facility is a showcase for HON office products in situ, the sustainable advantages of the company’s furnishings aided and inspired LEED-CI certification. "Everything we have done in the selection of our own furniture has been at the highest level of recyclable content, including fabrics used for our Initiate panel system—whether they’re from HON, Maharam or Momentum," adds Smith.

In addition to creating a sustainable environment and an inspirational showplace for dealers and customers, SmithGroup was also charged with creating a better working environment for HON’s employees. Their solution would be to reprogram the space into a mix of open workstations and private offices, collaborative gathering space, and an extensive product showroom encompassing two floors. But once again, the challenge was the facility itself.

"It is a mixed bag of structure—what you could consider four quadrants combined to make a total headquarters," explains Vickroy. "The four quadrants are actually separate buildings, so there are different structural types, different ceiling heights, and different floor levels. We worked with how we would expose that structure and how we would treat it to make the whole space hang together."

The glue that binds the four buildings is a new commons area—a café-type setting off the reception room that has become a hub of activity, promoting employee interaction and engagement between employees and guests.

"Our facility did not provide that type of energy and collaboration before, but through the renovation process it was transformed into a collaborative and vibrant workplace that is open, friendly, productive and approachable—the essence of the HON brand," explains Smith.

The bold, simplistic design reinforces the company’s brand as a forward-thinking leader. "It’s warm and modern at the same time, and that’s what HON had wanted for their home. They are a grounded company; but they are also a company that looks to—and has a great stake in—the future," concludes Vickroy.

Carol Tisch is a freelance writer, editor and marketing consultant based in Sarasota, FL. She was formerly editor-in-chief of Shelter Interiors magazine and Home Furnishings News (HFN), and has developed communications programs for commercial and residential design industry clients. She can be reached at

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The HON Company
200 Oak St.
Muscatine, IA 52761
(563) 272-7100


SmithGroup Inc.
35 E. Wacker Dr.
Chicago, IL
(312) 641-0770

Angie Lee, architect/engineer, FAIA, IIDA, LEED AP

Rod Vickroy, principal designer, IIDA Assoc., LEED AP

Virgilio and Associates, LTD

Carl A. Nelson & Co.

Hornbuckle Heating and Air Conditioning

Muscatine Electric

Hedrich Blessing / Steve Hall