Heatherwick and BIG complete Google’s first new HQ – a town in a hi-tech tent

The same design team is working on the internet giant’s £ 1 billion base in London’s King’s Cross, which is under construction and expected to finish in late 2023.

Described as Google’s ‘first-ever purpose-built headquarters’, the 102,000m² scheme is one of a pair of sister developments in California. The other, dubbed Charleston East and also drawn up by Thomas Heatherwick’s practice and BIG, is due to complete next year.

The three Bay View buildings – a pair of offices and a 1,000- seat auditorium – feature lightweight, tent-like roofs with ‘dragon-scale’ photovoltaic tiles, which will generate 40 per cent of the scheme’s energy needs.

Canopies with wave-like clerestories on the two office ‘tents’ shelter a ‘village’ of workspaces, meeting areas, cafés, and a gym and sports center.

This, says Heatherwick Studio, allows’ everyone [to] work together, under the same sky, instead of in cramped floors stacked above a spacious office lobby for guests’.

Google’s work groups are split into neighborhoods of 40 to 80 people and arranged around their own respective courtyards, incorporating works of art.

Heating and cooling for the project is supplied by the largest geothermal pile system in North America, incorporating below-ground pipes with a combined length of almost 100 miles, covering an area equal to 12 American football fields.

Engineers AKTII worked with the architects on the initial design concepts. Atelier Ten led the MEP engineering, environmental design, energy analysis and healthy building consultancy work.

Interview

Eliot Postma of Heatherwick Studio, group leader overseeing the Google campus in Mountain View

What was the starting point for this project?
It was 2014. By this point, Google had spent the best part of 15 years inhabiting and renovating existing buildings all over the world. But they’d never built anything like this. This was their first moment of creating a ground-up headquarters space for themselves.

They’d already worked with a few different architects and for whatever reason, those projects didn’t go forward. Then they did a bit of a reset of the process. during that they decided to more formally engage Larry Page, one of the two founders of Google in that process of re-envisioning what their physical presence and headquarters might be.

They went out to 10 or so different designers and architects, one of which was us and another was BIG. We all submitted a short sort of video, like an interview, explaining how we might approach a project like that. Larry and his team di lui made a selection of the people they liked. Both the way we approached design and BIG’s approach resonated with them – complementary ways of thinking.

So was this a true partnership between the practices?
We wholeheartedly jumped into a real 50:50 design collaboration. [Practically] this wasn’t the simplest [arrangement] because our production is in London, and BIG’s production is in New York. So we had more of a workshop model, where chunks of the team would go and work in New York for periods, and then chunks of the BIG team would come and work in London. We would all sit around the table together.

We share a lot of similarities in the way that we approach things and then there are definitely some differences. So, inevitably, there’s going to be compromise along the way and to commit to that compromise takes time, skill and mutual respect. We learned a lot from them and I think they learned a lot from us.

Until the end of the concept design it was genuinely completely blended. Then, because we were working on two sites in parallel, of course there’s the mechanism of the actual architectural delivery and producing the deliverables. Then there was an efficiency once we got into schematic design and beyond to have package ownerships. So, on one of the sites we focused on the canopy, and on the other one they focused on the canopy. And similarly with the interiors.

What were the inspirations for the design?
After a couple of days of really intense workshops trying to understand what Google needed, they took us on a tour of the Moffett Field airstrip, NASA federal land right next to the Bay View site. Thomas and I were with the BIG team standing in 1930s airship hangars.

The cladding had been taken off and there was this incredible light pouring through this huge steel structure. We looked at each other and thought: ‘We’re trying to design a building for an organization that is evolving so fast and these buildings aren’t going to complete for five to 10 years. We don’t even know what they’re going to be doing inside them. And how do we create a building system for them that is flexible and adaptable enough to be fit for purpose, not just once we built it, but in 50 or 100 years ‘time?’

So there’s sort of a reinvention of the workplace, but then thinking about the long-term view of how these buildings can serve a purpose for Google in many, many decades to come.

Bay View campus, California for Google – opened May 2022. Designed by Heatherwick Studio and BIG

Source: Iwan Baan

Is there any limit to the flexibility?
Say, you wanted to test autonomous vehicles in there. That is the ultimate extreme [from how the building is now]. It would be costly and there would be infrastructural implications; but, in theory, the building is designed so that the primary structure is divorced from the ‘town’ inside.

So you could take all of that out and be left with a shell, almost the ultimate extrapolation of the garage – a blank canvas of a space that you could inhabit with whatever start-up or function needs to happen in there. That’s part of that long-term aspiration. But it needed to work on multiple scales.

What is currently under the canopy?
We started to think about humanising the experience of the workplace. Google had this ambition of lateral connectivity. This is very important to their big communities of people and their being able to work together. How you do foster that sense of belonging within a very large-span structure?

We began thinking about the building almost like a town underneath a sky. We’ve lent into urban planning principles of a hierarchy of streets, organizing the building around courtyards. Part of that was to create a distinct set of communities within the buildings. Any one individual can find their place of hers and find their sense of belonging.

There’s a really varied mix of types of work environment, depending on your particular neurodiversity, or depending on the time of day, or depending on the task at hand. There’s the flexibility of the space to be able to find that moment in the building that really works for you.

What are the main sustainability moves in this building?
Google is so data-driven. Every single design move we made, though initially based on experience, also needed to be backed up in terms of data, the metrics, and on the grounds it was also providing an environmental benefit to the building.

[The overall approach was driven] by sun, rain and earth. We tried to harness as much energy as we could from the sun. There are issues with drought in California, so we made sure we were capturing and harnessing as much rainwater as possible and at the same time reducing the energy consumption of the building by using heat from the earth. It was these big-picture principles that we tried to bake into the building.

Bay View campus, California for Google – opened May 2022. Designed by Heatherwick Studio and BIG

Source: Iwan Baan

But then there is the materiality of the structures. We’ve used timber as permanent formwork and recycled materials from the timbers on the airfield for the cladding of some of the community buildings and amenity spaces.

The primary structure is steel and the canopy is as lightweight as possible with a semi-rigid sort of tensile tent structure to reduce the amount of material.

This is clad with 90,000 photovoltaic cells that are providing up to 40 per cent of energy for the building. It’s also providing the acoustic environment with the metal deck on the inside. Every component was thought about to try and make sure it was working really, really hard for us and fulfilling a number of functions.

Google must have been an amazing client?
Don’t get me wrong, there wasn’t an endless budget for the project. They were very focused on ensuring that their own buildings made sense financially. There were constraints on the project. But the ambitions of the design team met with the ambitions of the client to try and push those [sustainable] parts of the project.

Google’s attitude wasn’t just ‘let’s look at this project and try and make it one of the most sustainable workplaces going’, but it was also about what could be achieved as a way of moving the needle for the industry. And if we really want to make a change, how do we deliver on something that can be a pathway to mass adoption?


Are there lessons here which could be used on other projects?
What we’ve managed to achieve with the PV system is to really integrate solar panels to their extreme. We’ve taken a proprietary product and tweaked it; we haven’t had to reinvent the wheel.

But we’ve produced something that can stand up against any architectural finish on a complex surface. We’ve got a gorgeous skin to this building that is also working really hard for us with respect to the ambition.

It’s doing a great thing for Bay View, but I’m really hoping that it will open doors in other projects. [It proves] there really doesn’t have to be a compromise to achieve some of those sustainability aspirations.

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