Microsoft Silicon Valley

There is a certain delight to be drawn from the grand displays of architecture and brand in workplace design cropping up all over Silicon Valley. But at Microsoft’s campus in Mountain View, something very different and subtly exciting is happening. Nestled low into the landscape, Microsoft’s updated campus, which will house over 2000 employees in 640,000 square feet, augers a new kind of workplace—in form, function, aesthetic, and connection—that is first and foremost about the wellbeing and symbiosis of people and place. Envisioned as a mesh of natural and built habitats, Microsoft Silicon Valley (MSV) is quiet, intimate, and foundational—a place where serious people can do serious work.

At two stories, with an expansive, occupiable living roof, MSV is organized around a series of courtyards that invite sunlight and fresh air into every workspace, while creating a latticework of connected indoor/outdoor social spaces and amenities specifically tuned to support Microsoft’s unique culture. With sustainability and resiliency woven into every aspect of design, the project is targeting LEED Platinum, Net Zero Water per the Living Building Challenge, and Well Building Standard certification.

Employees will just as likely delight in their individual workspaces—light-filled spaces crafted of unadorned, honest materials like wood and concrete that look onto vegetated courtyards—as they will the rooftop barbeque and fire pit, multi-level fitness center and spirits complex, and trails leading out to Stevens Creek. That’s because an “inside-out” approach to design started with respect for the most singular, individual experience of being a creative at Microsoft and expanded out in layers: from person to neighborhood (10-20 people) to group (80 people), to district (320 people) to site, city, and natural environment. A great deal of control over one’s immediate environment — airflow, temperature, and lighting — will make each workspace comfortable and healthy, and everyone will have direct connection to nature via garden spaces that feel “owned” by the immediate neighborhood.

The inside/out design strategy, and the “Courtyards” scheme that grew out of it, was the result of a deep investigation into the heart of Microsoft. The goal was to understand just how Microsoft employees enact the two core conditions of knowledge work—interaction and self-governance over the processes of one’s work—in order to innovate. The design team found that the workspace proper—where most Microsoft employees work in highly focused dyads—warranted significant attention and investment to support comfort, inspiration, productivity, and community. After establishing the look, feel, and experience of the workspaces, the design team scaled out to the broader campus, imbuing it with a sense of exploration and connection.

The soul of the Courtyards scheme—in which groups of 80 are organized around a series of courtyards on the ground floor and decks on the second floor—is quiet, inward looking, and connective. It underscores the idea of Microsoft as a platform for innovation. Inspired by the dense, mixed-use neighborhoods of great walkable cities, the Courtyards organizational concept for MSV generates a latticework of people and place, a human-scaled experience of discovery and prospect in which people are invited to wander through alleyways, up staircases, around outdoor decks, and along the roof’s many pathways. A sense of anticipation that one might happen upon a large, open space that binds the collective—a “one Microsoft” ethos—defines the experience. The campus plan establishes an equality and diversity of organic, “found” space for all employees, from places of refuge and focus to highly collaborative and social zones. Amenities include dispersed and differently scaled gathering areas, recreation zones, food and beverage stops, a market hall overlooking Stevens Creek in which the whole campus can mingle, and a public conference center that houses galleries and a theater. The expansive, living roof is envisioned as the great equalizer, a platform for bringing the community together with shared spaces and views.

MSV is an intentionally low impact site response that organizes a hive of people into smaller neighborhoods, encouraging deep engagement with nature. The surrounding landscape, living roof, and courtyards work in tandem as an ecologically restorative transition between the natural and built environments—one in which both habitat and people can thrive. The re-design of the campus increases the amount of publicly accessible open space along Stevens Creek and helps return the ecosystem to the Habitat Overlay Zone. The habitat flows through the site, creating a strong sense of biophilia. Employees can easily get to a place of health, respite, community, or solitary contemplation. The extensive living roof punctuated by interior courtyards continues the expansion of various biological habitats into the workplace, with careful consideration of native and adapted plant species to encourage biodiversity of wildlife.

MSV is an innovative and visionary example of resilient and sustainable development—employing an integrated and aggressive approach to water, energy, and resource conservation that will help it achieve LEED Platinum certification. However, it is water that truly sets this project apart. One of Microsoft’s goals is to enact a design that is regionally specific and rich in ecological value. With the site located near the San Francisco Bay, adjacent to a creek habitat that has been compromised by development, and in a region and state facing severe water scarcity, Microsoft decided to bring its water story to the forefront. Water conservation and management thread the campus’s stories of wellbeing, ecological value, habitat restoration, energy efficiency, and biophilia into a cohesive narrative about caring for people and the planet.

The area of irrigated landscaping on the project site will more than double, supporting a 40% increase in population. But overall, water demand will be reduced by 69%. Targeting Net Zero Water certification under the Living Building Challenge, the project has been designed to ensure that 100% of its non-potable demand will be offset by a recycled water system that retains and re-uses rainwater, stormwater, greywater, and blackwater. An on-site greywater / blackwater treatment facility, storm water treatment areas, and roof and site surfaces will be integrated into the site design, putting the story of water conservation and the habitat it supports on display. The project has the potential to transcend Net Zero Water and become Net Positive Water.

MSV’s location in Mountain View’s North Bayshore Area brings tremendous opportunity and responsibility to re-think—via the innovative spirit that has driven this transformative, enduring company—the historically unsustainable suburban development patterns of yesteryear. Inspired by the North Bayshore Precise Plan, which conceives of a more urban-minded, deep green future, the re-designed MSV offers a variety of human-scale environments, attractive landscaping, an improved street edge, bicycle infrastructure, and connection to a fine grained network of pedestrian and bike paths. With deep respect for their people and place, Microsoft offers a new model in workplace design, showing once again, how innovation gets done.

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