Friday, November 5, 2010

The lush playgrounds of a software giant

Entrance to one of the numerous dining areas at the Microsoft campus.
Living in Seattle, there is no escaping the presence of Microsoft, the international software giant familiar to everyone who has ever touched the keys of a computer. Together with the ever-present rain, Kurt Cobain and Starbucks Coffee, Microsoft is an inseparable part of the lives of Seattleites, either directly by paying the bills of its employees and their families, or indirectly by hiving off business opportunities for thousands of subcontractors and by providing a tax base that supports countless public causes. During its lifetime, Microsoft has generated wealth with an immeasurable effect on the city and the region.

High grasses combined with shrubs divide the soccer field from the surrounding office buildings.

Much less known is that the grounds of Microsoft's headquarters are one of the largest landscaped corporate parks in the US. In buildings scattered on 600 acres, over 30.000 employees spend their working hours amidst greenery tended daily by 300 garden workers. Since 1985, when Microsoft moved to Redmond, its goal has been to offer a relaxing environment to its employees who come from all parts of the world. The first buildings of what now forms the enormous "Microsoft campus' were raised amidst cleared forest land, with trails leading between the initial four buildings. As the company grew and the building density increased, preserving the character of the local Pacific Northwest nature still continued to be the most important design principle.

Pathways around the campus.

Intrigued by the variety and lushness of the huge corporate gardens, I talked to landscape architect Mark Brumbaugh, whose company Brumbaugh & Associates has been responsible for designing the grounds of Microsoft for years. Mark described how the design process has always been connected to the Northwest values: a love for nature and outdoor recreation. In the latest project, a new building area of 43 acres was designed to reflect the four regional habitat landscape types: coast, mountains, forests and meadows, each of them with their own distinct identity. Using local materials and plants suited to each habitat (not all of which are native), they were designed to provide interest during all 12 months of the year at the same time being reasonably easy to maintain.

Benches and chairs around one of the sports fields.

Microsoft's Senior facilities manager Michael Impala generously also took time to meet me, revealing some fascinating details about landscaping on this giant scale. For example, a full-sized soccer field, basketball, bocce and sand volley ball courts and an underground garage with 192.000 square foot green roof and a forest trail for running are all included in the design, all imposing their own requirements for planting and maintenance. Also, security of the employees who use the grounds has to be taken into account. Using hardy native plants is not only a matter of design, but it is also a way to keep the grounds sustainable maintenance- and irrigationwise. Despite its rainy reputation, over 90 percent of the precipitation in Seattle area falls between September and April, making special water-saving computerized irrigation systems necessary during the dry summer months.

Above plantings with forest theme; below entrance through the mountain themed plantings, with locally sourced boulders.

Wandering through the huge grounds of Microsoft, I was impressed both by the variety of detail and by their excellent connection with the surrounding landscape. Despite their scale, they felt at times almost intimate, an effect achieved mainly by skillful selection of vegetation. Huge grasses rustled besides curving paths and meadow like planting areas, with benches and seats scattered along the trail for moments of discussion or reflection of thought. Being a busy Tuesday morning, no-one was using the sports grounds, but many were enjoying their lattes by the dining area with water features providing a pleasant background for discussions.

Detail from the meadow plantings.

Deriving from the long tradition of university campuses in the US, where beautiful landscaping has for long been used to attract and retain students and staff (two wonderful examples of which are the campuses of Stanford and Berkeley), the Microsoft campus is built on a similar theme. Overall, it is an admirable display of the software giant's commitment to provide a great working environment for its employees.

Thank you, Mark and Michael, for taking time to tell about the Microsoft grounds!
I have no commercial interests in Microsoft and/or its products.



Åsa! said...

Imponerande! Jag är övertygad att denna miljö ger gladare medarbetare.

Safi Crafts said...

I often enjoy the plantings at Microsoft when I am visiting. What a clever idea to write about it. Thanks also for stopping by the blog and sharing my painting composition delemas. So many options when making a painting or a garden.

Carol said...

Wonderful plantings! Reveals an imaginative spirit in charge.