Opened almost exactly two years after a devastating fire, Inverness CC’s new clubhouse has sizzled from the start with “home-style” activity.
Architects accept, and often encourage, the notion of “starting with a blank slate” or “going back to the drawing board” as part of any design project.
But when Rick Snellinger, President/CEO of Baltimore-based Chambers, made a return trip to Birmingham, Ala. in June 2007, to continue discussions on a clubhouse renovation at Inverness Country Club, he was surprised to discover that a blank slate—or more precisely, a blank foundation slab—was literally where he’d have to start.
• Club: Inverness Country Club Location: Birmingham, Ala. Architect: Chambers Interior Design: Chambers Contractor: Rives Construction Fitness: Club Industry Consulting Clubhouse Size: 24,000 sq. ft. Construction Dates: May 2008 to June 2009 Project Highlights:• “Casual and friendly elegance” creates “comforts of home”
• Back-of-the-house operations designed to be as invisible and unobtrusive as possible to members and guests
Snellinger had held an initial meeting a week earlier with Bill Ochsenhirt, the club’s co-owner and General Manager. When he came back to Birmingham to present preliminary concepts of how the clubhouse could be redesigned, he drove up to the Inverness parking lot, only to find that the existing building had burned completely to the ground. The fire had occurred two days earlier, and in the heat of scrambling to start the recovery process (“Inverness CC Rises from the Ashes,” C&RB, December 2007), Ochsenhirt had understandably not yet been able to inform some people, including Snellinger, of what happened.
A little over two years later, though, the word was widespread that a new clubhouse at Inverness was ready to be unveiled, and over 800 members and guests drove up to the same, now slightly expanded parking lot area to attend an open house on July 2, 2009.
The parade hasn’t stopped since, as the club’s membership has clearly taken to the many new features and comforts that emerged from the “blank slab” approach. “[Members] are enjoying things like the rocking chairs on our new patio so much, they’re staying a lot later at night than we’ve ever needed to have staff here before,” Ochsenhirt reports. “But that’s certainly a nice ‘problem’ to have.”
All Part of the Plan
Creating a new clubhouse environment that members would embrace as every bit as appealing as home was a primary goal of the new master plan put together by Ochsenhirt, Chambers and an advisory committee of members after the fire created the opportunity for starting over on the project.
“[The committee] had a good cross-section of ages represented from among the membership,” says Ochsenhirt. “And across the board, everyone said they wanted a clubhouse that was casual and friendly, yet elegant. The descriptions they all gave us for how it should be laid out and decorated, and how it would function, were very similar to how they described things and spaces they enjoyed in their own homes.”
At 24,000 square feet, the new Inverness clubhouse is nearly 40% larger than its predecessor. But even with the added space, the overriding goal of providing the intimacy and comforts of home has been achieved through a carefully planned layout of rooms that are sized appropriately, but not overwhelmingly, for their specific functions.
The front entrance and foyer (see photos, opposite page) lead invitingly to several different dining and socializing areas, as well as a full fitness center, pro shop, men’s and women’s locker rooms, outdoor terraces and even a child care center. Moving from room to room is much more reminiscent of walking around a private home than in a traditional club building, as the design throughout emphasizes openness and an abundance of natural light drawn through large picture windows. A number of “conversation areas” are set up around fireplaces or other gathering points in several of the rooms (as well as outdoors), and a minimum of physical barriers are presented by walls or hallways.
|Plans were already in the works to replace the original Inverness CC clubhouse (left), which was built in 1973—but then a fire that burned the building to the ground in two hours hastened the need to build anew.
The entrance foyer and dining areas, in fact, are separated only by a “water wall” (with recirculated water running down one side of a large pane of glass) that has proved to be such an eye-catcher, the club has had to post small “please enjoy, but don’t touch” signs near its base.
“The huge clubhouse is a white elephant that just can’t be justified in terms of energy and operating costs any more,” Ochsenhirt believes. “This building is designed to comfortably handle hopefully as many as 1,000 members someday—but in much less space than you’d expect for a club of that size.”
The emphasis on intimacy, openness and flexibility is also evident through the absence of a traditional ballroom. “We certainly want and expect [the new building] to more than double our F&B revenues, and much of those gains will come from events,” Ochsenhirt says.
“But we do not want to get there by becoming a banquet factory. And when you have a room where you can’t change the walls or colors, that’s just a monster waiting to be fed.”
As its alternative concept, Inverness has designed its most formal dining area, the Garden Room, to “feel like a restaurant,” Ochsenhirt says. This is achieved with touches like pendant lighting, and by using banquette seating that offers the flexibility, in combination with padded tables that can be converted to either square or round formats, to quickly adapt to whatever seating arrangements are needed. “If we have a party of six, we don’t have to put two fours together,” notes Ochsenhirt.
The new clubhouse was moved back closer to the golf course, partly to increase available parking in the front but more importantly to enhance views and a connection with the course from the rear of the building. A new patio (walled area at far right) has proved to be particularly popular, especially at night.
At the same time, the Garden Room will serve as the club’s primary indoor event venue, as it can be easily transformed, using movable walls, to accommodate groups of 20 or 200. “The planters are all on casters, and we have many different colors of linens available,” says Ochsenhirt, describing just some of the ways the venue has been designed and prepared to provide a maximum level of choice and customization. “Instead of having to say, ‘No, we can’t change the room,’ we want to say, ‘Here’s the space—how would you like us to set it up for your party?’ ”
Out of Sight and Mind
The homey feeling of the new Inverness clubhouse is also enhanced by the great care that was taken, as it was designed, to minimize members’ and guests’ awareness of—or intrusion from—the back-of-the-house requirements of club operations.
“We wanted to make how the club is run as invisible as possible,” Ochsenhirt says. “Nothing is worse than having beer or wine deliveries come through the front door, or band equipment moved through dining or bar areas as members are trying to enjoy the club.
“[The new building] was designed so all mechanical equipment is on the roof and no one will ever have to see it being serviced,” he reports. “All of the deliveries come up a separate road to a separate entrance for the storage areas, which are all on the outer edges of the building. We have double-doors leading to the kitchen so sound and light don’t bleed out, and we painted the walls between the kitchen and service areas black, to kill the light when the doors are opened. In the dining rooms, everything bartenders and servers need is well-hidden from view.”
Members and guests at the front of the house, and staff and service personnel behind the scenes, are also more comfortable moving around the new Inverness clubhouse because it has been confined to one level. The single-floor concept was actually a design adjustment made during the one time that “back to the drawing board” is inevitable for a project: the midstream “correction phase” that always comes after costs begin to escalate beyond the budget.
The original drawings for the Inverness clubhouse called for a building that wouldn’t be much bigger from a square-footage standpoint, but did include a second level and plans for an elevator. “[The original plan] required a lot more site work and excavation, but four months into it, we saw we were going to need to revisit those ideas,” says Ochsenhirt. “But as we value-engineered the original design, I wanted to make sure we didn’t take out things that members would be able to touch and see and feel good about. And we were able to find the [reductions] we needed without cutting back on furnishings or decor or amenities, primarily by redesigning everything as a one-level building.”
Justifying the Costs
Ochsenhirt, who bought Inverness from Metropolitan Life in 2005 and co-owns and operates two other Birmingham-area clubs, prefers not to reveal the final price tag for the Inverness clubhouse. But he does say it represents a “significant investment” over what was reimbursed by insurance after the fire.
“We could have just rebuilt a clubhouse of the same size and style, with no out-of-pocket costs—that would have been the safe bet,” he notes. “But members had been asking for fitness, and outdoor dining, and a nicer bar. Clearly, these were all things that could become important new focal points for the club.
“And the membership gains we kept making while building the new clubhouse [from 500 at the time of the fire to over 800 today], largely on the basis of people hearing about what we were adding, also made it clear that these were the kind of changes we needed to make, if we were to keep winning the ‘family-friendly’ battle,” he adds.
The cost in the end of all this to Inverness members? A $35/month dues increase.
“There was no assessment and it was the first dues increase in three years, even though we’d rebuilt the golf course right before the fire,” says Ochsenhirt. “The reactions we saw as members came into the foyer for the first time at the open house—and how they’ve continued to come back and fill up the fitness room and dining rooms and bars ever since—tell me we made the right decisions and that people feel it’s well worth it. It’s clear that everyone’s very proud of what the club has now become.“