By Kate Snyder
Throughout the Serena Williams Building – the largest structure on the Nike World Headquarters campus near Beaverton, Ore. – there are subtle nods to both the sport of tennis and the athlete that inspired the building’s name.
Susan Barnes, principal of Skylab Architecture, which helmed the design of the building that now stands at more than one million square feet and houses thousands of employees, said the design process and later construction felt like being part of history. Williams, a now-retired top-ranked American tennis player, loaned several awards to Nike for a display inside the building, and Barnes had fun working with a team of architects to add features that resembled tennis nets and balls, integrate painted murals in the stairwells and shape rooms named after members of Williams’ family.
“They always want to tell the story of the athlete,” Barnes said about what Nike wanted to accomplish with the design. “It almost feels like a little museum in the main lobby.”
Nike approached the Portland-based architecture company with the goal of constructing a new building to house the company’s footwear and apparel designers, Barnes said. They were looking to consolidate their design process so it all took place under one roof on campus. The building’s architectural design process started in the fall of 2014 and construction was ultimately finished in 2021.
Challenges that faced designers included how to create a new prototype for design-focused workspace that fosters collaboration on an enormous scale, how to leverage regenerative principles to design for both the site and the occupants through a partnership with nature and how to capture the ethos of sport, Nike’s heritage and Williams’ spirit.
Barnes said for the building’s exterior, the team focused on Nike’s own namesake – the winged goddess of victory in Greek mythology, whom Skylab designers considered a meaningful symbol for Williams’ strength as well. As a result, the building was designed in the shape of a wing, with the structure’s 180-foot tower becoming a beacon on the Nike campus.
“The building’s kind of shaped in what we call a wing form,” she said.
According to information from Skylab, the building consists of four parts: an underground parking garage and loading dock; a merchandising center for prototype retail spaces; integrated design studios for multiple product categories; and the 12-story tower with shared amenities for all of campus. Integral to the design was the concept of flow, and the building was organized around a principle that all designers for each brand within the business occupy a single level, while the services stack vertically between levels, which would allow products to move from sketch to prototype to final design to retail fixture all under one roof.
Barnes said designers had to create a flexible workspace that would allow employees to do their best creatively, which sometimes means having the space to work alone and in other instances it means having the space and the convenience of working collaboratively. The cafeteria is wired, and there are dedicated studio spaces for independent work as well as interactive spaces for teams. And because of the building’s size, another focus was on bringing natural light to the center of the building whenever possible, including the installation of skylights in stairwells.
That connection to nature popped up elsewhere, too, with certain spots featuring 280-degree views of the hills in Portland and Mt. Hood, an outdoor garden on every floor (each based around a different theme of the northwest environment) and the use of a massive cistern in the basement that collects rainwater to flush all the building’s toilets.The building is also LEED Platinum certified.
Barnes’ favorite part of the building is an interior atrium by the Jenny Sabin Studio, a New York-based experimental architecture studio, that features a decorative art piece of blue and green that hangs from the ceiling. According to Jenny Sabin Studio’s website, the piece is knitted photoluminescent fibers, powder coat steel rings, webbing and rigging, and “core attributes that embody Serena Williams including sport, movement, energy, lightweight, contemporary, unexpected, and amazing serve as primary design drivers and inspiration for the project.”
Now that construction is complete, Barnes still finds herself not wanting to let the building go and checking how the materials and features are holding up after time. Especially seeing Williams finish out her career with a retirement announcement earlier this year, Barnes feels particularly privileged to have been part of this project at Nike.
“I still sort of feel like the caretaker,” she said about the building. “It was a pretty special once-in-a-lifetime project.”
Skylab Architecture team
Jeff Kovel, Design Director
Brent Grubb, Project Manager
Susan Barnes, Project Director
Robin Wilcox, Project Director
Nita Posada, Interior Architecture Lead
Louise Foster, Project Designer
Architecture and Interior Design – Skylab Architecture
Building Enclosure – Facade Group
Civil Engineering – WHPacific
Code Consultant – Code Unlimited
Contractor – Hoffman Construction
Kitchen Consultant – HDA
Landscape – Place Landscape
Lighting – Luma
Mechanical/Electrical/Plumbing – PAE
Signage/Wayfinding – Ambrosini Design
Sound – Listen Acoustics
Specifications Consultant – M.Thrailkill
Structural Engineering – Thornton Tomasetti
Sustainability Consultant – Brightworks