The striking combination of transparent boldness with subtlety is at the core of the design of the new Seattle campus of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the world’s largest charitable entities. Overseen by trustees Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, the Foundation takes great effort to be transparent in its role, globally, to enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty, and to expand educational opportunities and access to information technology within the United States. The new campus—adjacent to the Seattle Center, Space Needle, and Frank Gehry–designed Experience Music Project—reflects the Foundation’s fit in both the global and urban contexts.
Designed by NBBJ, its two boomerang-shaped buildings resemble pairs of outstretched arms, reaching out to and embracing the world. They’re, in fact, a metaphor for the Foundation’s goal to eradicate pernicious diseases throughout the world. While strong figuratively, these arms are slim, with overall floor plate widths of only 65 feet. That narrowness—combined with floor-to-ceiling glass with 10-foot panes—allows incredible daylight penetration in notoriously overcast Seattle. This transparency also allows employees working in separate wings or buildings to see one another across the campus’s courtyard, increasing camaraderie between staff, even if they work on different teams.
Open, flexible space for a changing infrastructure
Flexibility is a core attribute of workplace design that isn’t just the backdrop to innovation, but one that actively courts it. Add to that the goal of using the building for at least a century, and flexibility is even more paramount. NBBJ devised a plan that adapts for team and priority shuffling at a moment’s notice, specifying 60 percent open space and 40 percent assigned desk space for employees.
“Tremendous flexibility was so important here. The Foundation changed so much just in the seven years we were working with them,” says Anne Marie Cunningham, a principal at NBBJ. “We knew flexibility was the key to making this work for the long term.” To meet these demands, the team incorporated elements ranging from raised floors and demountable partitions to component-based furniture, and of course considered material durability.
Many of today’s companies and organizations can attest to collaborative work styles gaining popularity. The design thus presents a campus-as-your-workspace philosophy, encouraging the use of public amenities offered. The large atrium/cafeteria, for instance, lures staffers away from their desks to work alone, together, or alone together in a setting akin to the proverbial third place, where ambient noise is a welcome buzz in a pleasant space. Numerous unexpected hubs leverage the possibilities of hatching and building on great ideas in the staircases as well as at a desk. Even the walls of the emergency stairwells are lined in glass, and feature sofas or chairs on the landings. NBBJ’s post-occupancy study found that 90 percent of respondents felt the architecture and interior design of their LEED Platinum–certified campus encourages them to work together.
Client-designer dialogue and collaboration
During a seven-year collaboration between NBBJ and the Foundation, together they conducted an analysis to define goals and aesthetic language—and then successfully articulate them. Interior designers presented business cases for their ideas and corresponding costs. For example, NBBJ and its consultant Arup successfully presented a case for why $8 million more needed to be allocated for the sophisticated curtain wall system: a 30 percent increase in facade energy performance, a consistent distribution of heat, and the aforementioned visual connection.
The structure of this process mirrored the Foundation’s own rigor, and this manifests in even the smallest of details. The woodwork aligns with all visually adjacent ceiling tile and carpet seams. The atrium’s ambient noise is actually an acoustic calibration honed by repeated material studies of how the blinds, shades, wood ceiling, and drywall absorbs decibels ricocheted by the expanse of glass.
Staying within context
Other very deliberate design elements address sustainability and context. Locally sourced materials read as from the Pacific Northwest, down to the felt used on reception seating. “We collaborated with a felt maker who produces her work less than 100 miles from Seattle,” reveals Cunningham. Reclaimed maple was fashioned into occasional tables throughout the project and rapidly renewable alder wood was used for flooring, doors, paneling, and the demountable wall panels.
Since the Foundation is just as much about the people it serves in some 100 countries, a global context also factors into the design scheme. Art relevant to Foundation programs in Africa, for instance, is placed on walls in repose. A textural rope blanket alludes to the hand-knit pieces of indigenous cultures while also providing visual contrast to the sleek architecture of the campus.
“When we broke ground on the campus, our motto was ‘local roots, global mission,’” says Martha Choe, chief administrative officer of the Foundation. “Now that we’ve moved in, it’s truer than ever. Our new location gives staff and partners a place to do their best work, with the ultimate goal of giving all people a chance to live a healthy and productive life.”
Key Design Highlights
- Narrow floor plates and floor-to-ceiling glass curtain walls allow daylight to penetrate office spaces throughout the LEED Platinum campus.
- The workspace plan adapts for team and priority shuffling, with 40 percent assigned desk space. The rest is open as flexible desk space for any employee.
- Numerous seating hubs give employees many gathering and meeting options.
- Locally sourced materials are used throughout the campus.
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Client Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
What 639,860 square feet on six floors