Principal’s renovated headquarters has features you have to see to believe


The financial giant has spent the past two years overhauling its 1939 headquarters building.

When Principal Financial Group, then The Bankers Life Co., open its downtown Des Moines headquarters in 1939, company leaders lauded it as a modern marvel, an open office concept that would promote collaboration.

“How ironic,” said Principal CEO Dan Houston. “That’s right what we’ve come back to today.”

For two years, contractors have been gutting and renovating the Principal’s headquarters at 711 High St., a project company officials say will revive the building’s original open-office environment and provide more flexible workplace.

On Wednesday, Houston and other Principal executives unveiled the mostly finished product.

Employees will begin moving back into the building Monday, with the final work expected to be complete later this summer.

The headquarters overhaul is a cornerstone of Principal’s ongoing $400 million campus renovation, which by dollar figure is the largest project downtown Des Moines has seen in years.

Executives had to convince Principal’s board that Des Moines — not New York, Chicago or some other major market — was the right place to invest, Houston said.

“There is no doubt in my mind we made the right investment by doubling down on Des Moines, doubling down on this building and giving our employees a truly world class experience,” he said.

Principal officials declined to say how much the renovation of 711 High St. cost. Tim Dunbar, executive vice president and chief investment officer, said it accounted for nearly half of the downtown campus renovation budget.

While often overshadowed by the neighboring skyscraper 801 Grand, which Principal also owns, the stately art deco building at 711 High has been the headquarters of Principal’s global operations since it opened 77 years ago.

About 1,000 people work in the headquarters building, including the company’s executives and corporate services like legal and communications teams. Principal is downtown’s largest employee and has more than 6,000 workers in the metro area.

Several other projects at Principal’s downtown campus are still under construction, including a redesigned plaza and renovation of office space in 801 Grand. A parking garage directly south of 711 High is scheduled to be complete in late 2017.

Here’s a look at what you will find inside Principal’s new headquarters:

Architects turned an unused light well into a five-story, climate-controlled atrium.

“It’s the town hall of the building, of the entire campus, really,” said Tony Curnyn, senior project manager with Jones Lang LaSalle, the real estate firm managing the renovation. “If we did this right, and I think we did, this will be a buzz of activity all the time.”

Part of Principal’s private skywalk system, the atrium features a café, meeting space and an employee break area, named Club 711, with a giant chess board and other games.

The atrium’s roof is made of light-filtering glass panels. Called electrochomic glass, the panels are treated with chemicals and can be made opaque or clear by running electric current through them.

The panels will be programed to change opacity based on the time of day and season to let in the optimal amount of light.

At any given time, different panels have different opacity, giving the effect of being under scatter clouds or a shade tree, Curnyn said.

The first thing workers and clients will see when they arrive in the lobby is a 60-by-20-foot LED screen displaying photos of Principal properties around the globe. Standing four-stories tall, the massive screen is also visible from the skywalk level.

One of the project’s goals was to mesh the building’s 1930s details with modern technology and designs, Houston said.

The lobby also features the original details like limestone walls, art deco clocks and brass trim. The original auditorium was preserved.

“Look at what the architects and builders have done to preserve everything about the past that we felt was really important and yet modernized everything else,” Houston said.

Most employees in 711 High won’t have a dedicated office or desk, but will be able to choose from several different types of work stations.

The goal, building designers said, is for employees to pick a work station based on the task at hand. To hunker down and write something important, they can go to an enclosed room or secluded desk. To check email or meet with colleagues, there are common area tables. To power through tasks after a big lunch, they can work at a standing desk.

While such open office plans have become ubiquitous in recent years, they have also faced growing backlash from those who say the open designs hurt productivity, increase distractions and offer too little privacy.

Dunbar said Principal has conducted pilot programs to test and tweak its open office format and familiarize employees with it. He said about 80 percent of employees say they like the design.

Even in an open office, employees need some seclusion. At 711 High, there are several options like more traditional cubicles and small, first-come first-serve meeting rooms.

The building also features so-called brody chairs. Like a recliner mixed with a cubical, the chairs are surrounded by paneling that shields an employee from the commotion of a busy workplace.