“All lives have equal value,” declares the motto of Seattle’s Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation in the world. With an endowment of over $33 billion, its efforts span six continents, centering on education, global health, and poverty.
The foundation’s Visitor Center opened last February, providing a glimpse into the organization’s inner workings with its near-exclusive use of local building materials and interiors by local firm Olson Kundig Architects. The center provides the history and context of the institution but its headquarters, recently completed by NBBJ, reveals the true planning, strategy, workplace design, and organization for the foundation.
On an unusually cold day in March, NBBJ’s Christian Carlson, lead designer for the headquarters, gave a tour. The Gates campus, with its LEED Platinum–certified buildings, is located in uptown Seattle, just across the street from the Seattle Center, and next to the Experience Music Project Museum, created by the other Microsoft founder, Paul Allen, and designed by Frank Gehry. The Gates’ design could not be more different. Where the museum is loud, bright, and sculptural, the foundation is streamlined, organized, and symmetrical. Not often do such contrasting nonprofit buildings stand at such close urban quarters, but in the tech-saturated new wealth that shapes Seattle, they can.
Benjamin Benschneider, Sean Airhart/nbbj, Benjamin Benschneider
Before the move, the Gates Foundation operated out of five different buildings, including the former SeaFirst Bank check-processing facility in Eastlake, which was notorious for its lack of windows and daylight for the Gates staff, according to Gates spokesperson Melissa Milburn. The building was unassuming and undercover, with not even a sign to announce its tenant, said NBBJ’s Carlson.
After analyzing several urban and rural sites, Gates and NBBJ ultimately chose a 12-acre plot with a more visible presence and convenient access to downtown, and that would provide a needed boost to an area that had seen its economic and social fortunes deteriorate since the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Much of the decision was based on an initiative focusing on greater communication between the foundation and the public.
The design pulls from civic-minded archetypes. Facades are cloaked in limestone masonry, while windows are ten feet high rather than the traditional corporate five. The primary entrance is set back from the curb across a plaza. As Carlson explained, “With limestone we drew upon civic building types—courthouses, city halls, civic centers—but we also grounded the design in practical materials such as corrugated aluminum and copper wall cladding.”
Benjamin Benschneider, Sean Airhart/nbbj
The goal of the design was to provide an improved workspace for foundation staff with an emphasis on collaboration, flexibility, and communication, and also to convey the foundation’s mission. Offices reside in two six-story V-shaped buildings. Cantilevered upper stories rest on bases centered on an urban courtyard, landscaped by Seattle firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, aligned toward the local Seattle urban grid. Granite stone pavers and bridges of wood decking traverse reflecting pools, and local grasses, maple trees, and even blueberry bushes evoke the site’s early history as a wetland marsh.
Walking through the campus, the meticulous focus on maximizing interior daylight was evident, with expansive walls of glazing in the four-story atrium, hallways, and department offices. Slender-by-corporate-standards, 65-foot floor plates ensure that foundation employees are no farther than 30 feet from daylight. Open floor plans provide varying kinds of spaces for collaboration and independent work. There are bullpen-style offices, focus rooms for impromptu small groups, larger conference rooms that can be tailored via demountable partitions, touchdown rooms for visiting employees, and separate workspaces at the end of hallways with expansive views of the city for quiet thinking.
Of course, some feel that open offices don’t provide enough private space for the kind of solitary thinking that the foundation encourages. As a result, some staff plug into headphones at their open desks. Supporters laud the open space for its democratization and ability to facilitate greater transparency between departments, staff, and colleagues. “This is the most challenging aspect of workspace design,” Kelly Griffin, senior associate at NBBJ admitted, about designing workspaces to meet physical requirements and organizational needs for independent and collaborative thinking across all levels of an organization. “There is always a trade-off, and the key is to find a balance. It’s important to listen, and listen well.”