REDMOND, Wash. — Today it takes 22 minutes to walk from one end of Microsoft’s sprawling 500-acre headquarters to the other. But that long-distance hike will shrink to a seven-minute stroll when the tech giant is finished with a major refresh of the original swath of campus, the storied ground from which the company rose to dominate the PC software industry.
Uniting the sprawling campus through better pedestrian access is a key aspect of Microsoft’s plans to redevelop 72 acres of its headquarters here. First announced in November 2017, the plans are now taking shape, and GeekWire got an exclusive first look at new images of the buildings, and more details about the company’s priorities for the project.
It’s a big upgrade — the real estate equivalent of going from PCs and CD-ROMs to artificial intelligence and quantum computing. And it comes as Microsoft returns to the top of the mountaintop in tech under CEO Satya Nadella. The years-long turnaround that has seen it become the most-valuable U.S. company with a market cap exceeding $1 trillion as of this morning.
The multi-billion dollar initiative promises to reshape Microsoft’s home, replacing the 1980s buildings where Bill Gates oversaw the company’s growth into a tech industry giant. In their place will rise a dense, modern campus, centered around collaboration, open spaces and sports fields, with a new skybridge over state Route 520 that will cut down on the walking commute between the east and west portions of campus.
Microsoft has completed early designs on the project and the company expects to finalize plans by the end of the year. The company began knocking the old buildings down earlier this year and will complete the new ones in 2022 and 2023. That’s right around the time Sound Transit plans to complete the extension of light rail from downtown Seattle to Redmond, including a station that will drop thousands of people off at Microsoft’s campus every morning.
The 17 new four- and five-story buildings will total approximately 3 million square feet. The original two-story buildings set for demolition — which include Buildings 1 through 6 and 8 through 10, among others — total about 1 million square feet. (Microsoft’s missing Building 7 is the stuff of legend.) That results in a net addition of about 2 million square feet and room for an additional 8,000 employees.
Microsoft competes for talent with the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and hundreds of startups in the Seattle area, many of which rely on urban amenities as a selling point to attract employees. Microsoft’s 1980s suburban-style campus has its advantages, but a big part of the plan is to create the urban feel that has become popular with younger techies. Microsoft will swap out the car-centric nature of the original buildings with a more pedestrian and bike-friendly setup.
When it comes to headquarters, giants like Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook favored the suburbs, opting to build sprawling campuses with shorter buildings, plenty of greenery and plenty of amenities. Amazon took a different tact, betting on the draw of the city and centering its growth in the heart of Seattle. It has built out a campus that is close to rivaling Microsoft’s 15 million square feet, but Amazon is in far fewer buildings because it has taken a number of city-defining skyscrapers in addition to the shorter buildings that defined its original campus.
Microsoft hired four different architects and general contractors for the job — designers LMN, NBBJ, WRNS Studio and ZGF Architects and contractors Skanska, Balfour Beatty, GLY and Sellen — and split the project into quadrants.
Each set of buildings has its own identity. Some feature more greenery and plant life. Others are heavy on outdoor space. Some focus on unique building shapes.
The redevelopment of @microsoft‘s Redmond campus is a massive upgrade — the real estate equivalent of going from PCs and CD-ROMs to AI and quantum computing. GeekWire’s @natjlevy got an exclusive inside look at the latest plans. https://t.co/k72EzhZRAA pic.twitter.com/xdUyh9czmJ
— GeekWire (@geekwire) June 19, 2019
Microsoft has a “big, thick book,” that numbers hundreds of pages and covers the nuts and bolts of what most go into new buildings across the company’s portfolio: the size of conference rooms, the materials used for flooring, audio visual equipment and more, said Michael Ford, general manager of global real estate and security. Those standards apply to about 80 percent of the building, and the other 20 percent is left up to the designers.
“We didn’t want a cookie-cutter campus where everything looks the same,” Ford said. “So we wanted to focus on diversity and inclusion and do something different but also have it all blend together.”
A two-acre plaza for big meetings and product launches anchors the campus. A series of softball, soccer and cricket fields are central to the plan.
Right in the middle of the area will be a “signature” building with a standout design. A model of the new campus showed a unique structure with what looked like a mostly wood frame attached to some pods with windows on all sides. Ford said the model is just a placeholder and the actual building hasn’t been designed yet.
The roads winding between buildings and the surface parking lots of the old buildings will disappear, and Microsoft plans to bury parking underground. Microsoft is building a beltway around the new buildings with numerous entrances to parking garages to keep the interior of the campus car-free and pedestrian friendly.
Microsoft wants to open up parts of the new buildings to the public, so the company is setting aside space for restaurants and shops available to everyone, not just those with a Microsoft badge. Building lobbies will be publicly accessible, and Microsoft plans to host public events in the plaza and sports fields.
For much of its existence, the campus was mostly insular, a fortress within a city. But with the company’s changing culture, Ford says, comes a desire to be more open to the public and a part of the community.
“We want people to see what we’re doing at Microsoft,” Ford said. “We want to be open, and we want them to be a part of it. We’ve been in this community for close to 40 years.”
Microsoft didn’t say how much it is spending on the project, noting only that it is a multi-billion dollar effort. Microsoft is also upgrading its Silicon Valley campus.
A cool campus with the right amenities can be an important tool in recruiting and retaining talent. As tech giants battle for employees, they are sinking billions into real estate projects to give themselves an advantage.
Microsoft’s Redmond campus opened in 1986, and since then it has been in a near-constant state of change. This transformation is the biggest in at least a decade for the campus, which today totals 15 million square feet in 125 buildings on both sides of SR 520. The project also signals Microsoft’s desire to grow its workforce in the region well beyond the 51,000 people it employs in the Seattle area today.
The project will change the center of gravity at Microsoft’s campus. Though Microsoft hasn’t finalized which groups will move into the new buildings, the company previously said some top executives will relocate to one of the new buildings, as will the Microsoft “executive briefing center” where the company hosts key customer briefings and industry conferences.
Will Nadella get a new office as part of the project? Microsoft wouldn’t say.
The original X-shaped Redmond buildings may stir up nostalgia among Microsoft veterans. However, they probably won’t be missed by current employees. The layout of the structures makes them notoriously difficult to navigate, and very easy to get lost inside.
So far, none of the new buildings appear to be shaped like letters or Star Wars vehicles.
“We’ve had X’s for years at Microsoft. We started with the X in buildings one, two, three, four and then we expanded out to 12 buildings,” Ford said. “But it was time to modernize and move on. We’re a different company now.”
At least one relic to Microsoft’s past will remain in the new project. The “Lake Bill” pond on the original campus, famous among veteran Microsofties, is staying. Gates’ corner office in Building 4 overlooked the lake, where executives were known to take dunks to settle bets and reward sales milestones.
Work is well underway on the new campus. Crews started knocking down the old buildings back in January, and today several of the structures are gone. A few remain mostly whole, and remnants of others are still standing, but nearly half of those original buildings are now just piles of rubble.
Though the overall design for the buildings continues to evolve, we have a pretty good idea what the interiors will look like. Microsoft has spent much of the last decade renovating existing buildings on campus to emphasize what Ford calls “team-based space.”
In updating its buildings, Microsoft eschewed the individual offices of the old days, but it also didn’t embrace the huge open floors that have become both popular and controversial in recent years. Microsoft’s team-based spaces are laid out in “suites” for teams of eight to 12. Each area includes an open space with employee desks, small conference rooms and focus rooms for people to hunker down and code or complete other tasks.
Buildings 40 and 41 are examples of what the future holds. The pair of buildings, which are home to cloud teams, were renovated about a year ago. Microsoft added outdoor spaces, including ping pong tables and seating areas, a glass awning that spans the courtyard between the buildings to protect people from the rain and a couple of outdoor meeting pods.
The interior is designed around the team-based spaces, which sit around the edges of floors near windows to let light in. The hallways are replete with color and artwork. The buildings feature a markets with snacks and meals, game rooms and a libraries with more quiet areas.
About 30 percent of the existing campus has been updated in recent years, and the company intends to renovate the remaining buildings in the next five or six years parallel to the refresh of the original campus. Microsoft works on about two to four buildings at a time, and they take about nine months each.
“We started working on this in 2010, and we would take a quarter of a floor and we would try it and test team-based space,” Ford said. “Then we went to an entire floor, then we did a building, and now we’re modernizing the campus.”