Proximity to natural elements like greenery and sunlight is associated with a 15% increase in well-being and creativity, and 6% higher productivity. [Human Spaces]
Microsoft’s workplace guidelines are clear about access to natural light and most buildings on campus are built specifically to this criterion. Our challenge was to adapt two old 1990s buildings, designed for a medical equipment manufacturer and later purchased by Microsoft, and optimize them for an entirely different type of work environment. B+H worked hand-in-handwith Microsoft’s Real Estate and Facilities team to identify opportunities and develop creative solutions to bring the Microsoft Workplaces to life.
Natural Light as a Guide
Most buildings on Microsoft’s campus have been built specifically to accommodate the company’s clear guidelines about locating team workspaces with access to natural light. The buildings feature narrow floor plates sized to maximize natural light penetration into both team workspaces and common areas. They also typically feature multi-story atria that house common areas, meeting and social spaces.
The buildings the team needed to adapt were designed and built for a medical equipment manufacturer in the 1990s. As such their design was optimized to support a completely different kind of business. An early 2000s remodel filled the floor plates with rows and rows of private offices, without a window in sight.
B+H and Microsoft approached this challenge with the same fundamental question we ask at the outset of any design partnership, “how can we optimize this space to create a desirable human experience?” Simply placing team workspaces and supporting spaces along perimeter windows would have left tens of thousands of unusable square feet in the center of the buildings. The only way to bring these buildings up to Microsoft’s rigorous standards and to provide an engaging, inspiring workspace was to bring natural light deep into the interiors, and in a big way.
Natural World as Inspiration
With natural light as a guiding principle, we developed the concept of “Rainforest and Rain Shadow” referencing the two distinctly different eco-regions of Washington State that converge in the Puget Sound where Microsoft’s campus is located. The Olympic Rainforest and the Cascade Rain Shadow are products of the two mountain ranges that flank Puget Sound region.
Located a few hundred miles of each other, they are as diverse as they are distinct. The tall evergreen trees, trailing mosses, fallen logs and filtered light of the Hoh Rainforest contrast dramatically with the Cascade Rain Shadow’s open views, deep gorges, caves and expanses of open farmland dotted with barns and silos.
The design concept explores the effects of light, form and materiality interpreted through these lenses and incorporates features that reference human activity and adaptation to these regions.
Optimized user experience …
User groups within the buildings vary widely, from engineering, data scientists and researchers to organizational functions like finance, legal or real estate, which means spaces have to be flexible enough to accommodate diverse work styles.
Microsoft needs aesthetic concepts and user experience that are universal enough to be enjoyed and understood by a variety of people, but clear enough to anchor users in Microsoft’s values, connecting people to a unique sense of place.
The design team planned skylights and large openings in the existing floor slabs to create several three-story interior spaces where team workspaces could access natural light at the center of the building. These atria also became “connector” spaces in the buildings with kitchens, open meeting areas, relaxation and recreation spaces adjacent. Doing so allowed us to meet Microsoft’s space metrics and made the projects pencil out from a financial standpoint.
…anchored to a sense of place
The two buildings are separated by a large grassy area. Their details and materiality coordinate with one another, but beyond this there was no existing aesthetic or functional connection between the buildings. The new design connects the buildings to one another with new pathways and canopies. The grass lawn is transformed into a vibrant plaza with amphitheater, bocce court, interpretive artwork, and two open-air meeting pavilions. A glassy modern “cabin,” complete with fireplace, felt walls, wood beams, and full conferencing capability tethers the edge of the outdoor space and provides an appealing alternative conference and gathering space. Local artists were engaged to collaborate with Microsoft and B+H to create site-specific interpretive artwork.
Native Rainforest and Rain Shadow plantings merge here to create a dynamic extension of the workplace that invites users to engage with the outdoors and each other.
Birdhouses designed for native birds that sit outside offset touches like local tree cores engraved with a Robert Frost poem in binary code that sit inside the buildings.
Virtual Reality collaboration allows client to experience their design from early concept stages
As these buildings have much larger floor plates than the standard Microsoft building, it was challenging to visualize the look and feel of the interior once we’d cut skylights and giant openings into the floor slabs. Given the tight schedule, design decisions had to be made quickly and there wasn’t always time to generate 3D renderings to illustrate the concepts.
Through bi-weekly VR sessions B+H and Microsoft’s Real Estate and Facilities team were able to co-create with the client and contractor within the model to determine optimal locations and sizes for the floor openings. With such large floor plates even substantial openings could look small and narrow when viewed on 2D floor plans. The VR helped the team to understand the scale of the spaces and to begin to layer in elements such as the more intimate wood “hut” meeting structures, light features and seating areas, that humanized the scale while maximizing light penetration through the large space down to the first floor.
Linking structural and mechanical Revit models to the architectural model allowed us to understand the aesthetic impacts of both systems and to illustrate these to the client in a material way.
B+H planned skylights and large openings in the existing floor slabs to create several three-story interior spaces where team workspaces could access natural light at the center of the building.
These atria also became “connector” spaces in the buildings with kitchens, open meeting areas, relaxation and recreation spaces adjacent.
The grass lawn is transformed into a vibrant plaza with a conference room (cabin), amphitheater, bocce court, interpretive artwork, and two open-air meeting pavilions.
A glassy modern “cabin,” complete with fireplace, felt walls, wood beams, and full conferencing capability tethers the edge of the outdoor space and provides an appealing alternative conference and gathering space.
Bi-weekly VR sessions helped the team understand the scale of the spaces and begin to layer in elements such as the more intimate wood “hut” meeting structures, light features and seating areas that humanized the scale while maximizing light penetration through the large space down to the first floor.
Elements of verticality and filtered light create consistent immersive experiences in the Rainforest concept. Open views, cabin like shelters, and agricultural structures reinforce the Rain Shadow concept.
Neighborhoods include clusters of smaller workstation groupings with access to windows and natural light for all. Each neighborhood allows opportunities for personalization in an organized way. Breaking tradition with the standard acoustical ceiling grid, the design team cut openings to allow views through to structure with dropped pendants arranged in oversized shapes below.