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Amazon's Seattle HQ Biosphere - Workplace of the Future?

Amazon employs over 20,000 people in Seattle, over 70% of which live in the city and 20% of those employees live close enough to walk to work. That’s a lot of bodies in downtown Seattle dedicated to one employer, and growing. Projections expect Amazon to more than double in size to 50,000 workers in the next decade! [1] Because of their massive impact, Amazon has a duty to develop a responsible, beautiful, and culturally sustainable urban campus. But while there are plenty of commendable elements to the project we can learn from, it’s important to first understand the context of the whole proposal.

People love to talk about the biospheres; they’re futuristic, unique, sustainable - awesome, right? But those glass-encased urban forests are really a tiny part of Amazon’s tremendous takeover. The Amazon Tower I, a 37 story office building, opened in December 2015. Amazon Tower II should be completed in September and Amazon Tower III by 2020. Once complete, it’s slated to be the largest development in Seattle’s history - more than 3 million square feet of new mixed-use spaces! Take a look at the schematic modeling to get an idea of the scale:

Out of the 3.3 million new square feet of Seattle’s Amazonian kingdom, only 65,000 square feet are dedicated to the spheres - that’s just 2% of the new spaces and 0.7% of the whole Seattle campus.

While the domes will definitely act as a landmark, drawing people in to ground-level retail spaces with their unique forms, biomimetic structural system, and jewel faceted glow, I’m less convinced they’ll play a major part in the health and well-being of Amazon’s overall workforce. They’re just too far removed from primary work spaces with too little square footage dedicated to employees to truly act as mitigating agents for the tower residents like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, CEO of worldwide consumer business Jeff Wilke, and architects NBBJ had envisioned.

The original inspiration for the gardens in part came from a survey conducted some years ago which looked into what benefits Amazon’s employees really wanted. Research indicated a key thing missing was a link to the natural world, so they went all out with their solution. Touted as the “workplace of the future”, the biospheres will host more than 300 plant species from around the world - an environment so lush it requires a full-time horticulturist on-site. The idea is that Amazonians will take breaks from their desks to walk through the gardens over suspension bridges and meet with others in one of many conference rooms floating between the tree tops to brainstorm and conceive of their next big idea.

Quotes from the design review documents further indicate strategies for the spheres:

“The generative idea is that a plant-rich environment has many positive qualities that are not often found in a typical office setting”
“While the form of the building will be visually reminiscent of a greenhouse or conservatory, plant material will be selected for its ability to co-exist in a microclimate that also suits people
“The goal of the new spherical space is to create an environment where employees can work and socialize in a more natural, park-like setting”
“It will be a place where new possibilities are explored and ideas are formed” [2]

Given the abundance of studies out there finding overwhelmingly positive effects from incorporating natural lighting and connection to nature in the workplace, Amazon’s intent is certainly on the right track.

For decades we’ve focused on reducing the impact architecture makes on the environment, but lately we’re really beginning to investigate and understand how architecture impacts us on a personal level, the users and inhabitants. How does building design affect our happiness? Our health? And what affect does that have on our work? The results are pretty substantial, it turns out.

From author and professor Dr. Stephen R. Kellert:

“People possess an inherent need to affiliate with nature, something we have called biophilia. This can occur directly in the built environment through the experience of plants and natural lighting, but also indirectly through shapes, forms and materials that originate in the natural world. Incorporating these features into the work place, through the application of biophilic design, can enhance employee health, motivation, problem solving, and creativity. In effect, it can lead to superior performance and productivity.”

The Human Spaces’ report on the Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace found employees in environments with natural elements report a 15% higher level of well-being, are 6% more productive, and are 15% more creative overall. Pair that information with the statistics of existing workplace environments, that 42% of office employees have no natural light and 55% have no access to greenery [3], and there’s huge potential for architecture to boost productivity levels and affect a company’s overall bottom line.

All of these metrics are good news to developers, too. Thanks to Life Cycle Cost (LCC) studies combined with the latest data on building wellness we can prove that it makes financial sense to invest in healthy, natural design. When we look at the big picture from initial conception through end of use the biggest cost is not in the materials or construction labor, but in supporting the people who occupy the space once it’s built. Thousands of salaries and benefits tend to add up over the years, meaning it is essential that we develop buildings and spaces that encourage innovation, support healthy lifestyles, and facilitate productive use of time.

So, great! Biophilic design is the answer! Natural light, diverse lifeforms, and biomimetic shapes - easy. It’s beautiful, natural, saves money, and makes people happy.

The biospheres are what we need then, right?

360 degree, high-quality natural light:

Teeming with life:

And forms inspired by nature:

Well, not quite. The point of biophilic design is its seamless incorporation of the natural world within the workplace, where it’s visible and functional from your permanent work station. Creating temporary use facilities in a separate, nearby structure does not have nearly the same effect.

The Human Spaces study also found that, unsurprisingly, a majority of employees prefer their own desk and they feel most productive if their desk is in a private office. And people are lazy. You can’t rely on the assumption that your workers will get up, get out, and seek nature. In order to be most effective, you’ve got to bring nature to them, up close and personal.

So sure, the biospheres are awesome and definitely provide the positive benefits of biophilic design to those that wander into the urban jungle. But what about the rest of the tens of thousands of employees in the nearby towers? What about the remaining 99% of floor area without perfect lighting, 300 species of plants, and curvilinear structural frames?

Maybe I’d be convinced if the project looked less like it does on the left and more like the growing, living thing on the right:

We’ll see soon enough if those little balls full of trees are enough to make a big impact on Amazon’s employees. But even if they don’t live up to expectations for the workforce, we shouldn’t ignore the extraordinary design and abundant benefits to the community here.

If you read further into project documentation, the program and pedestrian oriented design suggest this architecture is really as much a gift to the city as it is a space for employees, maybe more so.

“Urban design principles play a prominent role in the project, with emphasis given to ground-level activity and diversity in building character.”
“The key open space elements include the playfield, off-leash dog park, and an accessible path through the site and a weather protected walkway between the buildings. Both street corners are now activated by ground level retail off public plazas with highly transparent storefronts. The entrances from 6th and 7th Avenue to the central public open space at midblock are wider than in the approved MUP and the design maintains an accessible through-block pedestrian connection. Solar access to the ground plane is much improved in the new design due to the spherical form and graduated height of the low building. Planters, benches, landscaping, walls and other street elements are designed to allow visibility into and out of the open space.” [4]

After all, Jeff Bezos is and always has been extremely committed to Seattle:

“We could have built a suburban campus,” Bezos said, noting that a location outside of the city might have saved the company money. “I think it would have been the wrong decision.” [5]
“We believe this concentration providers for a healthier, more dynamic workforce. It’s a strong indicator that our long-term commitment to an urban campus can bring some of the best and the brightest right here to downtown Seattle.”

There’s a lot to be said about creating a rich, densified environment when other tech giants have vied for spreading out in more suburban settings, like many campuses sprawled out in California.

Because of their immediate proximity to a big population, Amazon has been able to do some pretty cool things like: recycling waste heat from a nearby data center to heat their own buildings (which has never been done before in US), invest in cycle tracks in downtown Seattle to encourage more people bike to work, purchase street cars and pay for their operation which is a public benefit for all Seattle residents and promotes alternative transportation, house city block parties and sponsor 4th of July fireworks to connect and strengthen community engagement, and invest in local industries like food trucks. They’ve made sure that, in exchange for dominating 15% of real estate in the Seattle area, they’re giving back as much as they can to be sure the area continues to thrive for decades to come.

Ultimately, what Amazon has done with this project is make a series of very important social statements, some of which are:

  • Investing in the greater community is as important (and ultimately the same thing) as investing directly in private company property.
     
  • Creating shared spaces, vibrant diversity, and utilizing sustainable design that is also beautiful is just plain smart business.
     
  • Big corporations must commit to improving the health of the environment and the people that live in it.
     
  • Developing dense, urban campuses reduces commuting (reliance on vehicles), creates rich mixed use opportunities, and lends itself to much more sustainable practices.
     
  • (Oh, and one for my people…) Architectural innovation continues to play a major role in defining and symbolizing societal ideals and is a valuable asset to all communities.

The Amazon campus may not be perfect in practical execution, but there are definite valuable takeaways, nonetheless. 

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Prime Real Estate: Amazon Has Swallowed Downtown Seattle

[2] Amazon's new HQ design

[3] The impact of biophilia

[4] Amazon in the Regrade

[5] Amazon’s Bezos: Suburban HQ ‘would have been the wrong decision’