When Boeing, the world’s largest plane manufacturer, started designing a new version of its top-selling aircraft, the company wanted to put the plane’s designers as close as possible to the manufacturing process. At the airplane maker’s sprawling Renton, Washington, campus, office workers often face as much as a 20-minute walk from their desk to the factory floor, making meetings between the people designing the aircraft and those building the aircraft dreadfully inefficient and time-consuming. Facing pressure to churn out more planes to meet demand, the company decided to put its design engineers closer to the action–in a new office building built directly inside the factory.
The office building, with 120,000 square feet spread across two stories, puts Boeing designers right on top of their product, in a part of the factory once used for storage. The square two-story office is wedged into a upper-level corner of the 1.4 million-square-foot factory (where Boeing has made airplanes since the start of World War II) and is bordered by per-existing offices on the exterior walls. The new work space is arranged in a doughnut around a central interior courtyard, and buffered from the corner of the building by an L-shaped atrium space. The black building’s windows into the factory vary in size, moving from long, narrow slits next to the center of the manufacturing action to floor-to-ceiling glass closest to the outside wall of the factory building.
Whereas a walk to the factory floor from one of the other 18 office buildings on the 278-acre Renton campus might take 20 minutes, now, the designers of the 737 MAX only have a three-minute walk, and they don’t need to set foot outside to get there. The goal, says Gensler principal and design director Chad Yoshinobu, was to “connect their employees to the product that they’ll build.” According to Boeing’s Keith Leverkuhn, manager of the 737 MAX program, the result is that the new design makes collaboration between design and production easier, facilitating meetings and improving efficiency.
The task of creating a building inside a building comes with myriad challenges. For one thing, you can’t just plop a new building inside another building, like a couple of Russian nesting dolls, and expect it to be a decent workplace.
There were already offices taking up space near exterior walls of the factory building, so a traditional building nestled directly alongside them would have just provided views of the factory floor. Getting natural light to the offices was a major concern in the design process. “From all our studies, daylight access improves productivity,” Yoshinobu explains. Skylights were built into the factory’s roof, but they had been covered by metal panels during World War II to shield the factory from surveillance. Gensler removed the metal panels, but the architects still had to figure out a way to get daylight to all employees, on both the first and second floors, with limited window access. To do so, they structured the offices around a kind of central indoor courtyard, called the city hall. With offices and floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking the 8,000-square-foot double-height room, the sky-lit city hall provides a direct link to sunlight for both floors, as well as a large meeting and event space. To prevent daylight from becoming a premium luxury reserved just for those with corner offices, the architects designed another two-story, sky-lit space that runs in an L-shape around the perimeter of the building. More floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the spacious corridor, where sofas and chairs cluster to create informal meeting spaces.
Yet another unusual challenge faced Gensler’s designers as they sought to create an office for Boeing’s engineers: plane manufacturing is loud. The noise level near the front of the new Boeing office, where plane wings are produced, reaches up to 100 decibels–comparable to a jackhammer (and you thought the chatter around your cubicle was distracting). Never mind how much it can impact an office worker’s focus; that kind of racket can damage the ear if you’re exposed to it for more than eight hours. To combat the din, the part of the facade nearest to the action is windowless. The facade slowly becomes more transparent as you move from the interior of the factory building toward the exterior walls, with the windows closest to the manufacturing process being the smallest. All of the windows facing out into the factory are made of thick, glazed glass, but as you move away from the factory floor and the sound levels recede, the windows get larger to take advantage of the lower noise levels.
An Intimate 60,000 Square Feet
And then there’s the challenge that faces every designer of large workspaces–how do you design an office with floors that span 60,000 square feet (about the size of 12 NBA basketball courts put together) so that it doesn’t feel like an endless, monotonous sea of desks? Gensler’s solution was to create four office “neighborhoods” on each floor–smaller subdivisions within the office surrounded by amenities like coffee bars, copy and print stations, and meeting areas. This not only breaks up the space visually, but means a shorter walk to your coffee break. It may not seem like much, but company-wide, shaving off a few minutes of time running back and forth between computers and the printer adds up. “When you have 750 people working and it takes somebody five minutes to do something as opposed to one minute, over the course of the year, that’s a lot of time right there,” Yoshinobu notes.
This, in essence, was the mantra of the project: efficiency. By nestling a new building within the factory, Boeing employees shaved minutes off the time between their desks and solving problems on the factory floor. Even shortening the distance between desk and break room can add up when you’re talking about hundreds of employees over the course of the 250 or so work days in the average year. And for Boeing, that means being able to get more airplanes out the door, faster.