Principals Melissa Wallin and Seth Hanley of the San-Francisco based architecture and interior design firm, Design Blitz, were more than happy when Skype’s CEO, Tony Bates, called their design of its headquarters in Palo Alto, California, the standard to which all Skype offices shall be built.
The brief given to Wallin and Hanley required them to be on their toes. Skype’s primary goal for this project was to create a working environment that would differentiate it from its Bay Area competitors, like Google, Yahoo, and Yelp.
The space not only had to be a design statement in keeping with the client’s self-confessed modern and fun personality, but it had to meet specific acoustic requirements to support the company’s use of audio-visual (AV) equipment.
Meeting rooms and phone booths had to have acoustic privacy and access to AV. Offices and cubicles were not included and benching systems were in. Casual spaces were considered as important to the work process as workstation areas.
The two-year-old design firm won the project in an unusual way. “We were hired for two contracts before the actual project — need assessment in November 2009 and conceptual design in February 2010. They really liked us and hired us for the entire project in May 2010. So it was a very lucky set of circumstances for us,” said Wallin.
Design Blitz was given 12 weeks to prepare the design and necessary documents and another 12 weeks to build the 90,000 square foot office, once they had the permits in hand. The office officially opened this year.
Despite the time constraints, Wallin and Hanley undertook surveys to understand Skype’s work culture to create a design which met the company needs.
“A significant portion of their culture is built around Scrum development, or iterative idea generation and a philosophy called agile thinking, which is how the environment affects the thought process. To support Scrum, we designed a system of mobile whiteboards called Skype-Its.
These lightweight hanging whiteboards are deployed throughout the space to capture ideas as they occur. They can be easily moved and stored, and eliminates the “don’t erase this” messages that were previously a problem,” said Wallin.
They also created various environments to support different thought processes. What they call phone booths come in three types: light/bright for active thought; medium coloured for meditative thought; and dark cave-like rooms for introspective thought. This followed Skype’s brief on wanting three distinct types of spaces: collaboration, contemplation and concentration spaces.
“We believe that people, not conference rooms, deserve natural light so workstation areas are pushed to the perimeter to benefit from natural light and lower noise levels — these are the concentration spaces. Working back to the centre by degree of noise and distraction, the loudest functions are located at the middle of the space.
Collaboration zones — meeting rooms, coffee kiosks, and whiteboard areas — are centred along the main access spines on each level, encouraging staff to meet in the middle. Contemplation spaces are found in overlapping casual lounges.
These areas also provide points of arrival, that allows staff to find their way across the office — particularly important given Skype’s international and transient workforce,” said Hanley.
He said the pods are the part of the project he is most proud of, from a design and functional point of view. The pods were built into the Skype offices to provide a place to meet and access the AV.
Perforated metal deck roofs and the floating pods serve as a finished acoustical ceiling. The design of this removed the need for full height walls and structural bracing, saving studs, gypsum board and paint.
Even the Skype boardroom is a pod, which is clad in recycled flavour sticks, once added to wine barrels to infuse oak flavours, which have been used as a hint to the location of its Californian headquarters.
“The boxes that hold the meeting functions are pods. They are acoustically sealed boxes that hold the conference rooms, phone booths and dedicated offices. It’s also the major architectural insertion into the space because otherwise it’s all open desking,” said Wallin.
“As we’re all aware, particularly with the use of AV, we tend to speak louder than we need to. This is just a way of keeping the open office environment quieter,” added Hanley.
The 50-year-old building provided a great source of design inspiration, according to the designers. It had gone through multiple interior improvements over several decades.
When Wallin and Hanley toured the site, they saw the opportunity to strip away the layers. The big design moves included revealing the existing building structures, such as the ground floor slab, second floor framing, and building roof structure, as well as exposing the system of steel braced-frames. The end result was raw and industrial like a warehouse.
Design Blitz had a number of challenges in completing the project. “One of the challenges was working for an organisation that’s going through a rapid evolution itself.
There were a couple of points through the design process where we met with our clients, and they revealed to us that they were significantly increasing their staffing or the amount of space that they required was much bigger.
Responding to changes and thinking about where we currently were with the project and where we could be in six months was important. Part of the challenge was being flexible to their needs,” said Hanley.
“There were times when we were told we were the only people besides the executive team that knew a particular piece of information, which was going to change everything we were doing.
That’s definitely a jarring experience, but maintaining that nimble response time was important. That’s why we’re very small — we like that connection with our clients so we can respond immediately. It doesn’t have to go through a middle man; it’s just us,” said Wallin.
A lot of thought went into choosing materials. Asking “What else can it do?” was a standard for all material selections, according to the designers. The project budget required a creative use of simple materials: in the chill-out area, one wall is clad in astroturf, the other in industrial felt, which both serve as a finish material and acoustic dampener.
Sustainability was an important factor. Cradle to cradle carpet, workstations, and chairs are used, as well as low emitting materials including Zero VOC paint. Recycled acoustic wall felt helped reduce phone booth noise. Salvaged items from previous improvements include light fixtures, countertops, analog phones, and resin panels.
“Speaking from the terms of sustainability, almost all of the furniture has FSC-certified wood in it, and almost all of it is domestically produced. Though we did try to use local sources where we could,” said Wallin.
The project is registered for and seeking LEED Silver certification. “We just got our initial review back from USGBC (US Green Building Council). The project is definitely going to be certified but we are responding to pending points so we can get Silver rating. We’ve got our fingers crossed; this is our first LEED project. As Design Blitz, we’re new, so we’re very excited about it,” said Wallin.
Skype was heavily involved in the design. Wallin said it worked with the brand team to make sure the project was consistent with its global identity. “We wanted to ensure consistency with its European offices, but while it’s not identical to any of its other offices, it has the same feeling,” she said.
Wallin added the employees at the Palo Alto office are very happy with the new design. “We had the benefit of them being in a really bad environment before,” she said.
The US staff were split between a small space on the eBay Campus in San Jose and a small space in Brisbane, California. In comparison to that, the new office consolidated all employees into one location. In the old offices, they were using left-over furniture from previous tenants, which was a mix of cubicles and desks, without a benching system and it was crowded with no acoustics.
“We’re now making some tweaks. The benching workstation system is new for them, so we’re making some adjustments to meet their needs. But with the pods, they’re so pleased with it, they’re implementing those in their offices in Europe now. What Bates said about our design is an incredible compliment and we’re glad that they love it,” she added.
“At the time we landed the project, it was the middle of 2010, which was a bad year for most design firms. We know it was a very much sought after project, and by firms that were bigger than us. So the challenge was to make the absolute most of it. I think we are very happy with the result and I believe that we did [make the most of it],” said Hanley.
The project has given the firm tremendous exposure. “What people are asking us now after seeing what we did for Skype is ‘fun’ and ‘awesome’ – what a compliment that is,” said Wallin.