I’ve loved architecture for as long as I can remember. In high school math class, in the height of irony, I sketched baseball stadiums on my graph paper when I should have been paying attention to the information needed to become an actual architect. And I devour those coffee table books bookstores always have on sale near the registers, highlighting the world’s coolest structures.
On my first trip to Silicon Valley a few years ago, I expected this area of mythic proportions in US business would be dense, pulsing with energy, and filled with cool architecture. It wasn’t. My visits to Google, Apple, and Microsoft found bland office buildings plopped near freeways. I noticed this same phenomena when I visited Zappos headquarters for a tour in 2013. Zappos’ bland office buildings were indistinguishable from the rest of the sand-colored office buildings in the Las Vegas suburbs.
This image of multi-billion dollar companies in their suburban wastelands surrounded by parking lots was what I imagined when TransLoc announced our move in early 2014 to a bland office building in the suburbs plopped near the freeway surrounded by thousands of empty parking spaces.
We exchanged our urban address surrounded by college students for an office park for the same reason that those blue chips did so: access to enough space to collaborate and grow, ease of transportation access, and the right price per square foot.
I was scared about this move. After growing up in the mountains with plenty of room to run, I’m now almost completely citified. Cities provide energy from the density of people, the ability to walk to nearby interesting places, and access to good food. I recently finished a fantastic book called Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser that the subtitle describes as “How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.” I believe it. The thought of moving to a suburban office park depressed me.
Our old office on a main thoroughfare in Raleigh near NC State University allowed us to walk around campus and gather that energy. The inside of our old space, however, was limited. Our teams couldn’t collaborate well because we were physically split between two suites, there was no collaboration space even if we could get together, and the low ceilings and bland walls didn’t inspire anyone. I was one of the few who still thought it was fine, simply because I don’t need many creature comforts to do my work.
As I pondered this disconnect between my feelings on the external location and the internal finishings, I realized that–contrary to many–I have an external bias when thinking about workspace. That makes sense, right? The first rule of real estate is “Location, location, location.” You can’t change location but you can always change the interior, even if many don’t.
What I didn’t appreciate–and perhaps what all those in Silicon Valley believe–is that if the inside of the space meets your needs, the external matters less. Thankfully, our company hired an architect to help design the workspaces, collaborative areas, and to use color and furniture to help make the space more attractive and help our teams work together more closely. Exterior location may still always be more important to me than many of my colleagues, but the value of the collaboration space, high ceilings, and liberal use of color has blunted the negative impact of the location.
The best spaces recognize that the interior and exterior must work together to achieve the goals of the tenant. And recent indications are that there is a positive change in appreciation for both the exterior of the building and the location. Shortly after my tour of their suburban headquarters, Zappos moved to a renovated modernist building in downtown Las Vegas and Google recently released their plans for their new headquarters that will “transform the sea of parking into a natural landscape.”
And I only learned this by looking at architecture inside out.