For Corenet’s Corporate Real Estate Leader magazine
Headquarters That Serve and Sell:
Creating Strong Company Identity and Employee Productivity Through Innovative Site
By Rene Bihan and John Hankey
Headquarters design is no longer simply about the building, it’s about how the building and
the land support the work of the occupiers as a cohesive and sustainable program. The
trend is both an outgrowth of the green movement and of the increasing use of the
corporate home as a high-functioning extension of the corporate ethos.
There’s more to these environmental and land-use decisions than contributing a chapter in
a company’s Corporate Social Responsibility report. This sustainability model adds value
to the bottom line, exemplified in office campuses in Silicon Valley and around the world.
NVIDIA, the world leader in visual computing technologies, is entering a process to create
a new corporate facility to best support the creativity, collaboration and productivity of its
employees. A proposed 2 million square foot campus offers a new canvas for putting
these concepts to work. Other forward-thinking firms have embraced the idea such as
Google, Electronic Arts, Lite-On and fee-developer Irvine Company, and not just for new
facilities but in repositioned and pre-owned properties as well. In fact, amid today’s
challenging economy, adapting existing properties to these concepts can add shareholder
value for ongoing facilities or add marketability to surplus properties.
NVIDIA: Land-use as Corporate Resource
Traditional headquarters design in the U.S. has focused the most attention on structures.
Now companies are taking an equal interest in the property itself to maximize the full
spectrum of this natural resource as a corporate resource. To create more sustainable
work-environments, corporations, developers, building architects, engineers, landscape
architects, contractors and other project participants need to work more collaboratively.
NVIDIA is working closely with its consultant team Korth Sunseri Hagey Architects, SWA
Group and others to make the most of its new headquarters’ entire potential.
The point is that companies can get more out of their real estate asset not by just using the
land, but by rethinking how the company, its employees and its business-lines can derive
benefits that were relatively unheard of a decade ago – at least in the U.S.
NVIDIA, like many firms today, has a corporate culture that includes concern for natural
resources. In fact, NVIDIA is an active member of the EPA’s Climate Leader Program with
goals for reduction of CO2 emissions and sustainable business practices. In creating the
land-use program for a new headquarters, the intent was to expose employees and visitors
to many of these elements and convey NVIDIA’sgreen approach.
In many states and jurisdictions stormwater from roofs and parking areas must be treated
or controlled to minimize pollution. The NVIDIA campus doesn’t use hidden systems that
merely fulfill the regulations but will divert rainwater into a new creek routed to the front of
the property that everyone must cross. The riparian water channel will use biofiltration to
discharge the water cleaner than when it started. At the same time, the creek confronts
visitors and employees with a subtle sustainability-reminder every time they enter or leave.
Another aspect of NVIDIA’s corporate culture is employee-driven innovation, and the
natural work environment plays an important role.
Company founder Jen-Hsun Huang dismissed outright the idea of creating a traditional
corporate campus. “Most employees have already gone to college so why re-live that
experience? People come to NVIDIA to work and that's what we want the environment to
How do landscape and natural systems contribute to employees’ work?
One direct connection is employee well-being and productivity. NVIDIA’s facility will
maximize access to daylight with plenty of windows and including atrium features to give
workers easy access to sunny, green views.
A workplace study commissioned by the California Energy Commission found 7% to 12%
higher productivity among workers with green and daylit views over control groups. Lower
health-care costs are also an important factor. A U.S. study showed workers without green
views reported 23% more cases of illness than those with exposure to landscapes and
A feng shui consultant was hired to review NVIDIA’s preliminary plans, and the consultant
gave it strong support because of the radial design and symmetry. One example is how
the employee is given equal footing and respect. A headquarters’ public entry is usually
the only lush and featured access point but NVIDIA has made the employee entry equally
special, eliminating the “back door”.
SGI/Google: The Serious, Fun Workplace
It’s an interesting anecdote of Silicon Valley that a highly creative, outside-the-box firm
should create one of the most innovative corporate campuses of its time, only to have
another highly creative firm take over the space.
SGI, known at the time as Silicon Graphics, designed a corporate campus in Mountain
View in 2000 to reflect a corporate culture personified in its unofficial motto, Serious Fun.
When its graphics-software business declined to the point of no longer needing a huge
campus, fast-growing Google soon moved in in part because the space reflected its own
creative culture – which includes the official motto, Do No Evil. Google virtually gutted the
building interiors to reformat the open, collaborative design to be even more supportive of
employee productivity but the land planning was largely untouched.
The campus’ original design created external spaces that flowed seamlessly from the
buildings, with large and small green spaces, nooks and gathering areas functioning as
integral parts of the workplace. Google has added and extended the concepts – for
example, whimsical pink flamingos found their way onto the site, and a new array of solar
panels cover the parking lot to power the building’s energy needs.
Electronic Arts: HQ Game-scape
Effective site planning anticipates needs that serve the core business as well. Electronic
Arts, a video-game firm, wanted a headquarters campus with both programmable and
flexible spaces to allow employees ample opportunities for mixing, sharing ideas and
gamesmanship. At other times, the facility had to accommodate investor/analyst meetings,
gubernatorial visits and multi-million-dollar product-launches.
EA’s headquarters has a park-like open space which at times seems underutilized, until a
large gathering is required. Reflecting the company’s game and entertainment culture, new
product-launches are often held there. The recent roll-out of a new iteration of its
successful Madden Football game transformed the greenspace into the perfect business
venue as throngs of employees, media, football players and fans created an atmosphere
better than any interior space could accomplish.
Lite-On: A Green Campus as Corporate Identity
In Taiwan, global technology firm Lite-On wanted its new corporate campus to reflect the
significance of technology, culture, and the environment in respect to its roots in traditional
Chinese culture and to its success in modern digital technology.
Embraced by mountains and lying alongside the river, the building works in tandem with
architecture and environment. The building, a 25-story structure atop outstretched podium
levels, is shaped like palm-to-palm hands pointing to the sky symbolizing Lite-On’s
business philosophy of devotion to high standards, as well as its respect and commitment
to social and environmental responsibility.
Conceived before LEED accreditation, the project included the first green roof envisioned
and built by a private corporation in Taipei. Garden spaces, a series of stepped fountains
and a light well opening into a courtyard and cafeteria bring natural systems in direct
connection to employees and visitors. These somewhat intangible benefits are
complemented by the facility’s tangible green attributes recorded in 2007: equivalent
reduction in emissions by around 675 tons of CO2, a savings of approximately 2.3 million
KWH of electricity per year and conservation of 14,000 tons of water through water
conservation and recovery measures.
The Irvine Company: The Outdoor Meeting is In
One of the keys to the success of Silicon Valley is the collaborative nature of idea-sharing,
in which company executives talk easily with engineers, venture capitalists brainstorm on
the back of napkins, and people of all walks mingle and share thoughts. The pleasant
year-round weather is one attraction of Northern California, and facilitating these
collaborative discussions in outdoor settings is an attribute of many high-tech campuses –
although creative site design can facilitate such spaces in any climate.
The Irvine Company, which develops property for lease, combines the notion of high-
quality design to attract corporations, while also being flexible. Irvine has incorporated
landscape and site planning as a key element in the experience of entering and using
offices, and projecting the corporate tenant’s image.
The Valley’s biggest and smallest firms have found outdoor spaces an important
complement to their buildings, providing numerous “people spaces” -- places for informal
meetings, employee lunches and breaks, and for public visitors who interact with the firm.
Start-up firms find it an important attribute. At Irvine’s McCarthy Ranch in the Silicon Valley
town of Milpitas, the offices are predominantly flex-tech buildings which can be easily
reformatted to accommodate the march of firms who grow, shrink and change needs.
Thus the landscape and external experience is what really differentiates the facility, and
these “people spaces” are a direct extension of the interior workplace.
Distinctive landscapes are more than window-dressing, enabling the same collaborative
impromptu meetings among employees, annual picnics and informal gatherings as large-
Collaborative spaces are also at work in the new NVIDIA headquarters plans.
The CEO’s office space is as simple, egalitarian and accessible as the rest of the
employees’. NVIDIA believes work spaces are not about social hierarchy but should
revolve around the work, making people accessible to each other.
The collaborative-space design of the interiors also flows into the planning of exterior
spaces, with outdoor walkways, planted nooks, tables and other subtle constructs which
make it easy for people to pull aside, meet and share ideas.
Real Estate That Serves and Sells
For many companies, the work space is a part of the corporate culture and expresses its
personality and competitive differentiation.
The landscape and site planning can and should be an equal expression of company
differentiation, from support of core business functions to employee-centric well-being and
environmental corporate social responsibility.
Land planning is a corporate resource. Companies are finding a competitive advantage in
using this asset to serve and sell just like their other resources.
Rene Bihan is a Principal of SWA Group, a global landscape and urban planning firm with
offices in California, Texas and China. The firm is collaborating with Korth Sunseri Hagey
Architects on the NVIDIA project.
John Hankey is Vice President of Real Estate at NVIDIA, named Forbes’ 2007 Company
of the Year. The Santa Clara, CA firm is one of the world’s leading fab-less semiconductor
companies and recently was given city approval to develop a new headquarters across
from its current facility.