Industrial Cool

April 1, 2005
Sarah Christy

Boeing soars to new heights with the redesign of its corporate headquarters.

Industrial CoolBoeing soars to new heights with the redesign of its corporate headquarters.By Sarah ChristyIn one part of a massive, bustling space is a sign directing those who view it to different places, including Lakeview Dining, Istanbul and Paris. No, this isn't a train station in the middle of Europe. Welcome to the new Boeing company headquarters in Washington state.International symbols as well as color were used to create easy way finding, one of the design objectives in the comprehensive consolidation and redesign of Boeing's facilities in Renton, WA. The project, which was dubbed "Move to the Lake" because the new facility overlooks Lake Washington, was the brainchild of Carolyn Corvi, Boeing vice president and general manager of the 737/757 programs. Although she had always wondered whether the assembly workers and engineers and other staff should work in closer proximity, she never acted on it until an earthquake in 2001 shook everything up—literally and physically. After the earthquake, Corvi had to move about 1,400 engineers out of their severely damaged building and into other facilities, and much to her amazement, she effectively did so in about two days. That was food for thought for Corvi. "I thought, if we could do this so fast, what else could we do?" she remembers.A visit to the Starbucks headquarters in nearby Seattle was another eye-opening experience for Corvi, as she was impressed by what she called an "industrial cool" design that lent the Starbucks retail feel to its large headquarters. "You sort of never forgot you were at Starbucks," she says, adding that she envisioned the same feeling for Boeing. The earthquake, that visit and the company's desire to invest in its future in Renton were the catalysts Corvi needed to make the leap to consolidate space and the manufacturing process, and bring every Boeing employee together—all under one industrial cool roof.In 2002, Boeing brought in the workplace consulting branch of Steelcase—whose services are growing beyond the design and supply of office furniture—to assess the company environment. Steelcase's initial findings were refined into six "critical success factors" that would be used to guide the redesign: The "Right" Focus (to build alignment around "one" vision); The "Right" Culture (to build an environment and image that captures the excitement of the 737/757, breaks down barriers and is consistent with 737/757 success); Employee Excellence (to develop an "engaged" workforce of highly efficient and effective individuals and teams); Knowledge Transfer (to ensure timely and consistent flow of information and ideas); Communication and Collaboration (to improve both the formal and informal sorts); and Operational Excellence (to optimize organizational structure and increase organizational flexibility).Jack Tanis, director of applied research at Steelcase, affirms that after evaluating the company's old headquarters and processes, he found that the main objectives for the new building were to bring all the mechanics and engineers together in a collaborative environment and increase efficiency. "The whole goal was to become far more productive," he says. A study was conducted wherein a focus group of engineers was moved into the assembly building. At first there was some apprehension, Corvi says, but that soon evaporated. "When it came time for them to go back (to their building), none of them wanted to leave," she says.Enter NBBJ, one of the largest architectural design firms in the world, which was responsible for the design of the Starbucks headquarters. After winning the Boeing project in January 2002, they got right to work, using the six critical success factors and Corvi's clear vision to redesign headquarters that would add value to the company by aligning process with product, and unite employees with each other and the airplane. One part of NBBJ's design created office areas in the factory with translucent and transparent walls, which provide a constant visual bridge to the airplanes while maintaining some privacy. Enclosed offices were not part of the plan, which allowed space for groups to sit near each other and participate in spontaneous gatherings.One of the major objectives was to incorporate light into the facility, which was done by adding a number of new windows and installing more lighting. Selective glazing in the walls of the assembly floor space and decorative lighting fixtures placed at random heights and intervals throughout the office spaces contributed to an overall brightening effect. "It's amazing the difference that it's made," says Anne Cunningham, NBBJ's lead designer on the project, who dubbed this process "the right to light," and emphasizes the importance of an atmosphere that connects people to the outdoors. "You could be in the factory all day long and not know what's going on outside."Another integral part of the project's design—which won the design team NBBJ's internal award for project of the year—was the need for directional orientation and easy way finding within the space. Bright, energizing colors were used to familiarize employees with the different areas in the vast space (for example, blue areas are large conference rooms, while green areas are small conference rooms); a "grid system" employs large icons and numerals on the building's translucent facades; and international symbols serve to give direction (the south area of the building is also known as Africa), as well as to remind employees of the impact their work has on the connection of people from across the globe.Art made from excess assembly materials grace the walls, and other areas such as gathering "café" spaces, an employee services center—where employees can bank, use the Internet and even get their dry-cleaning done—and a waterfront cafeteria with sprawling views of Lake Washington and the Seattle skyline add to the open-communication atmosphere and sense of pride Boeing employees have in their workplace and company. Corvi says that the end product was exactly what she envisioned, and is part of a philosophy of growth she hopes will take Boeing to the forefront of the aerospace industry. "The project is the first step in trying to do that, and I think that it's working," she says.According to Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, it is. The publication recently awarded one of its 2004 Laurels to Boeing's Move to the Lake project team "for making contributions to the advancement of aerospace." In the eyes of Mark Garvin, Boeing's Move to the Lake program manager, the project has been a total success; the award well-earned. He says that before the redesign, some Boeing employees could come to and leave work never having seen an airplane. Now, when employees go to their new workplace, they are entering an atmosphere that supports collaboration, emphasizes its customers and product, fosters creativity and efficiency, and gives them a sense of pride. "I get to come in and see it everyday," Garvin says. "It's the coolest place in the world to work."

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