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Samsung’s New Open-Plan HQ Looks To Lighten San Jose

Don’t fret: There’s a “Chill Zone.”

Some call it a three-layer cake. Others, a stack of circuit boards. But to Jonathan Ward, design partner at NBBJ, his company’s latest architectural project and Samsung’s newest R&D headquarters is a “vertical garden tower.”

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In front of 1,000 well-wishers, including its 700 employees clad in identical blue Samsung shirts, the Korean electronics goliath celebrated opening day in its $300 million, 1.1-million-square-foot semiconductor research and development center in San Jose, California. For north San Jose, a section of town cursed with lackluster industrial buildings and tile-and-carpet stores, this is a welcome sign of things to come. While cubelike, at the heart of the glass and white aluminum edifice is a central atrium leading the visitor from an urban jungle into a serene courtyard alive with plantings and small trees. From a bird’s-eye view, the site resembles a square donut with a rectangular center and rounded edges.

“We want people to be surprised,” says Ward. “Rather than being a sculptural building, this is meant to be bold, with pure geometry on the outside and powerful inside with gardens and flowing lines.” Ward added that Samsung’s CEO Dr. Oh-Hyun Kwon wanted a landmark that would be simple yet unique.

Dubbed Samsung Device Solutions America, the 10-story complex isn’t merely a replacement for the former site. The headquarters is a womb for innovation–insanely rapid innovation. Samsung’s sheer competitive nature was evident when it set the bar high and urged the city to approve permits in record time (two months compared to six to nine months). Constructed in two years under extremely demanding deadlines, the building is designed to redefine working styles to foster an explosion of creativity. “We shape buildings and buildings shape us,” says Scott Wyatt, NBBJ partner and chairman. “Samsung knows there is a lot of money to be had in big ideas.”

NBBJ, a global architectural leader in cutting-edge spaces, was charged with creating a setting that leads to open collaboration and serendipitous encounters to ignite innovation, especially among professionals from different disciplines. One R&D floor features a wide set of stairs that leads up to sales and marketing, so techies and sales folks can intersect naturally. The floor plan calls for clusters of eye-popping red, lime, and orange chairs and couches for informal conversation. Some levels feature small, triangular stages. Snack center kitchenettes with counters, barstools, and Samsung refrigerators and appliances highlight the casual but intentional ambiance.

The interior is that of a free-form bullpen. No art is present, but you’ll find plenty of Samsung flat-screen TVs throughout the building. Management sits among the populous in half-height white cubicles with white walls and ceilings. Everyone gets a super-cool white desk that can elevate at the touch of a button so workers can stand while working. Employees can see what their peers are doing and hear phone conversations. The kitchenette with all-you-can drink Starbucks coffee is steps away. With an infinite lineup of windows on both the left and right, the views of the mountains and city skyline can be mesmerizing. Can all of this be too distracting? (It certainly goes against recent trends that frown upon open offices.)

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“Visual stimulation activates the brain,” said NBBJ’s Wyatt. “And people respond to their environments. Boring spaces make people dumber.” The building also offers workers a sense of control, another factor in employee satisfaction, indicated Wyatt. “In a traditional office where people feel tied to their desks, they feel stressed because they don’t have anywhere else to go. Here, they have so many choices. People can move to another area to think or talk, and that’s expected.”

Data drove initial floor plans and architecture. NBBJ synthesized reams of clinical data and psychological and anthropological studies before coming up with design conclusions. Since studies say movement is essential to productivity, the cafeteria was moved at a later stage from the mothership to its own home outside, forcing people to walk farther to get there. And since reports maintain that access to nature also stimulates creativity and lessens tension, the new abode features three open balconies on different levels with planter boxes and sitting areas.

Scott Birnbaum, Samsung vice president of displays, earlier worked in a private office as his staff sat in cubicles nearby. Now he has a cubicle in the middle of his team. “My work style has changed dramatically [after two weeks],” he said. “I run into different teams and have impromptu meetings that lead to great ideas. We have already developed new concepts by just catching up with each other.”

“It’s not about work-life balance anymore,” added Wyatt. “It’s work-life integration. You go to work to be social, to see your friends.”

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Employees did admit the open office setup takes getting used to. “The first week, everyone spoke softly, and it was very quiet because people didn’t want to be impolite to others,” recalled Roy Malatesta, senior director of HR. “Now we are used to it, and we are more relaxed.”

The building, which sits on a little under 10 acres, houses 700 employees and can fit up to 2,000 workers. Designed to support Samsung’s R&D needs for the next 30 years, the facility takes on elements of a convention center, hotel, and gym. The 24-hour gym, complete with fitness classes, trainers, and towel service, occupies the entire fifth floor, where it is equipped with the fitness industry’s newest gear. Glass doors open to a putting green and garden patios for yoga.

The other amenity is the Galaxy Cafe, a 19,000-square-foot stadium of gastronomic exploration offering free lunch and subsidized dinners. Twelve food stations account for every type of cuisine, from Indian to Latin to Japanese. California rolls are standing by. . . .

Birnbaum’s favorite part of campus is the Chill Zone, a colorful employee lounge with couches, coffee and tea stations, a convenience store, foosball and Ping-Pong and pool tables, a library loaded with board games and Lego bricks. One glass room contains a sleep pod with built-in back massager, music, and selective color lighting.

Spirits were high on the day of the building’s grand opening as Samsung treated employees to a company party in the cafeteria and a scavenger hunt where many were seen laughing and running in packs, instructions in hand. Says Samsung’s Malatesta, “With great food, a state-of-the-art gym, and everything else, it’s like Christmas every day. But I have yet to see the partridge in the pear tree.”

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