Microsoft's New Vista
A sales-and-marketing satellite in Bellevue, Washington, runs an SkB Architects operating system based on fun
Lawrence W. Cheek -- Interior Design, 5/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
The private office used to be a perk at Microsoft Corporation, one more recruiting enticement to go with the enviable stock options, long-but-loose hours, and all-you-can-drink Starbucks. But at the software giant's sales-and-marketing outpost in Bellevue, Washington, all those private offices have gone the way of. . .well, all those instant fortunes spinning off the no-longer-ballooning stock. In the place of a traditional setup, the open plan is composed of a smorgasbord of environments for informal interaction, organized meetings, and private work.
"Maybe you have a problem that needs solitude, serenity, and focus to solve. Or maybe you need a quick, intense hit with a loud, raucous meeting," SkB Architects principal Shannon Rankin says. "If the spaces were all the same, they'd always promote the same kind of interaction."
The satellite offices occupy 300,000 square feet spread over floors 14 to 28 of a new building in Bellevue's burgeoning thicket of towers. (At last count, nine cranes were elbowing into the skyline.) The 15th floor houses reception and meeting rooms. The 28th floor is a penthouse café—don't call it a cafeteria. For the remaining floors, dedicated mostly to office areas, Rankin and senior designer Jami Howard created three alternating themes, centered around billiards, golf, and a spa.
"Billiards" floors feature an actual billiards table as well as dark paint and fabric, heavy wingbacks, and a high-tech hearth in the form of an LCD video screen set into a black wall. "Golf"' floors feel outdoorsy, with miniature putting greens made out of carpet and a pastoral scattering of leaves and ferns incorporated in wall panels. On "spa" floors, you'll find a massage chair, a Zen fountain, and a palette of watery blues and greens. The designers expressed each theme in a corner "hub," a cluster of conference and break-out spaces. Depending on time of day and personal whim, these areas can accommodate either a hubbub of activity or a lone staffer hunched over a notebook computer.
Microsoft had an overarching vision of openness, but executives didn't dictate the design themes. "In programming sessions, we asked them a lot of questions. Who are you? What do you want to express to others?" Rankin says. "Then we decided to have some fun with it. Sales-and-marketing is a lively group, so we knew we didn't have to go with innocuous colors and forms." The fun is sophisticated and carefully zoned, however. No one will mistake this company for a wacky software start-up. In each "golf" snack area, for example, wooden bleachers set a casual tone for group conversations, but the built-ins' crisp, rectilinear lines still suggest business, not a playground.
Instead of closed offices, workstations gather in blocks. They're customized with translucent glass partitions that extend almost to the eye level of the average passerby, providing an intermediate amount of privacy between desks and corridors: Daylight passes through but not information. Built into the partitions, shelves of painted MDF are just deep enough for tchotchkes and other personal touches.
A delicate equilibrium exists between public and private space, randomness and order. There's such an array of environments—and so little structure in the form of who-belongs-where mandates—that individuals simply roam around until they discover whatever works for them. Howard confirms that the balancing act was tricky: "Spaces had to be flexible without losing their meaning and definition." Rankin adds: "We had to let go and allow people to put their imprint on the space, allow them to make it not perfect." However, she couldn't let go altogether. Throughout the hubs, SkB sprinkled clues to keep the design from deconstructing itself. Take the "golf" hubs, where the teal upholstery on lounge chairs gently hints that they're meant to stay put on the blue-green carpet.
Around lunchtime, the 1,300 Microsofties working here gravitate to the penthouse café, where SkB banished any hint of company-cafeteria dreariness. The main course is the stunning view—the Cascades to the east, Lake Washington to the west, and Mount Rainier to the south for volcano watching. Overhead, the ceiling is peeled open to expose the building's entrails, not so much for the industrial effect but to take full advantage of the exhilarating 20-foot height. At ground level, the room is divided into zones of intimacy or formality, ranging in atmosphere from airy diner to clubby party room.
While SkB's design is far from zany or chaotic, it shows how a bit of entertainment can slip inside the skin of a business-suited office, with LEED-CI certification to boot. It's all about variety and choice—pretty attractive perks in themselves.