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Microsoft HQ Could Go Urban Without Leaving Suburbia

O+A's Web site with an image of the Microsoft project referenced below

By Neil Gonzales

Microsoft Corp. could go massively urban while still remaining put in suburbia.

The technology heavyweight reportedly eyes a multibillion-dollar redesign of its longtime headquarters in Redmond. While the company and its San Francisco-based architect – Skidmore, Owings & Merrill – are not talking, industry experts believe an overhaul could feature many of the urban elements and amenities that today’s tech firms and highly skilled employees seek.

And at least one Microsoft building remake in recent years might provide a glimpse into what the company could construct on a larger scale.

“If they think they are losing workers or don’t have the tool to attract them because they are not more urban, they could make their campus urban,” said Matt Griffin, principal and managing partner of Seattle-based commercial developer Pine Street Group. For Microsoft, it could be “a lot more efficient to build urbanity into its campus than move the campus” to an urban setting such as Seattle.

An urban-located or designed workplace has become an important employee-recruiting vehicle as engineers and other knowledge workers these days are gravitating toward cities or vibrant, walkable areas that provide housing, dining, shopping, entertainment and transit connections.

Microsoft’s peers have already been responding to this urbanism in full force. Online travel company Expedia.com, for instance, plans to move its headquarters from Bellevue to a multi-building, waterfront campus in Seattle by 2018.

Over the past two decades or so, Griffin said, companies have been moving away from the suburban or college-type campus “dominated by grass and free-standing buildings” to a more urban design with “sidewalks and buildings close together” as well as proximity to shops, restaurants and bars.

“So employees are not isolated but mixed in with an urban city in motion,” he said.

Microsoft could be aiming for that kind of urban appeal without having to relocate from a place where it has been since 1986 and occupies about 80 buildings on roughly 500 acres.

A Bloomberg News article recently reported that a revamped Microsoft headquarters could involve new construction and redevelopment of existing buildings, possibly bringing in restaurants, retail spaces and apartments for visiting employees and interns. The Bloomberg report noted that Microsoft has a development agreement with the city of Redmond that allows an additional 1.4 million square feet for expansion.

As for the interior of buildings, the report said, the makeover could eschew private offices in favor of an open floor plan – another feature preferred in the current work world.

An open plan fosters increased worker interaction and collaboration, Griffin said. It is also “a better use of resources and space.”

The Registry’s attempts to obtain comments from Microsoft and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill were unsuccessful. “Unfortunately, we are unable to accommodate your request at this time,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in an email.

Microsoft hasn’t given Redmond any renovation proposal. “The city has not received any proposals, plans or concepts for the redesign of their campus to date,” said Steve Fischer, development review manager for the city.

But a redesign project in 2011 involving one of the oldest buildings on the Microsoft campus perhaps offers a good window into what the company has in mind for the rest of its property. San Francisco-based design studio O+A was hired to remake Building 4, which once housed Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ private office.

O+A declined comment for this story, but on its Web site, the firm described the Building 4 redo as “distinctly eyes forward. Microsoft maintains a division of planners whose job it is to anticipate how offices will work and what they will look like in the next 15 years. Their workspace is a lab for workspace development. These ‘futurists’ occupy Building 4.”

To reflect the kind of work being done in that building, the project moved “Microsoft’s employees out of 10×10 offices into more collaborative and creatively stimulating spaces,” the studio said on the Web site. “The unusual X-shaped footprint of the office” posed space-planning challenges, but also offered opportunities to make “common areas an interactive crossroads for departments that might not otherwise mingle.”

The project also included large glass windows and other elements that bring in the lush, wooded scene outside not to mention natural light; bike racks that encourage green transportation and double as sculpture; and lighting fixtures that evoke a lighthouse ambiance.

John Chau, design partner at Seattle-based LMN Architects, said Building 4 could serve as a prototype for Microsoft’s potential bigger redesign.

“Certainly, they have been headed toward that direction already,” Chau said of Microsoft’s interest in open-plan, team-building spaces. “It’s in line with what most companies not just tech companies do.”

But as Microsoft’s headquarters is possibly reimagined as urban-oriented, he said, it could still retain that college-campus feel because of its expansive land in a suburban community. “They can still have outdoor amenities like a soccer field or basketball courts” – something not readily doable in an urban core, he said.

Chau said he could also see Microsoft creating a large pedestrian and/or bike park connecting both sides of Highway 520, along which the headquarters is situated.

In terms of a high-density versus college-style design, he said, Microsoft “can have the best of both worlds.”