To Attract Tech Workers, Developer Envisions the City in the Suburbs

2/6/14Follow @bromano

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Wright Runstad plans to pursue a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for the entire Spring District.

Planning such a large, multi-building development from the ground up allows for things like integrated storm water management. Water runoff will naturally filter into the ground through green roofs and landscape drainage features called bioswales, as opposed to draining into storm sewers for treatment. Johnson calls this a “real step forward in sustainable practices” that’s made possible by developing the entire neighborhood as a whole. (It also promises to help improve streams and wetlands in the area, which still host salmon but are characterized as “unhealthy” by the city of Bellevue.)

Other building features such as big windows for natural lighting and fresh air access, as opposed to air conditioning, are now de rigueur.

“Companies are no longer saying, ‘Oh, that’s neat,’” Johnson says. “They’re saying that’s a requirement because the people that they’re trying to attract to work there are saying, ‘I want to work in a sustainable environment.’”

Technology companies have long viewed their work environments as one more tool to win the “war for talent” as Johnson put it. It can often be the differentiator among competitors that can provide prospective employees high salaries and interesting work. But the definition of a quality, sought-after work environment has changed over the years.

Wright Runstad developed a large portion of Microsoft’s Redmond campus beginning in the mid-1980s with the iconic X-shaped buildings clustered around “Lake Bill.” They were designed to maximize the number of individual offices with closing doors and windows to the outside.

“To attract programmers then, the college campus feeling with a private office, that was the ticket,” Johnson says.

As companies transitioned away from that model, more emphasis was placed on “open plan” offices, which, in some cases was a nice way of describing row upon row of cubicles, the “cube farms” of the Dilbert comics.

“You had the CFO saying, ‘Let’s jam more people in here so we can lease less space,’” Johnson says.

Today, companies view collaboration and interaction as keys to innovation and success. They want spaces that encourage ad hoc teams to form and dissipate easily. Workers signal a need for privacy not by closing their doors, but by putting in their earbuds.

“We now have to have a variety of spaces,” said Susan Wagner, senior director of Microsoft’s real estate and facilities group in Puget Sound, at the EDC event last month. She described an ongoing “modernization” of the company’s buildings based on a decade of internal workplace research, and an array of configurations from traditional offices to open areas to hardware labs—not surprising, given the company’s 43,000 local employees—all with an eye toward fostering collaboration.

“We’re consciously trying to create those connection points… an area that [people] can collide,” she said.

The company is also incorporating amenities such as more locker rooms, bike cages, walking and running trails, medical services, meditation rooms, and other things that can contribute to employee health and wellness, and “the urbanization of suburban campuses,” Wagner said.

Artist's rendering of commercial buildings at the Spring District.

Artist’s rendering of commercial buildings at the Spring District.

Johnson has similar goals in mind for the Spring District.

“As we think about building, we’re thinking about maximum flexibility, big open spaces, more people on one floor so that people spend less time on elevators and more time walking past each other,” he says, adding that companies will pay more for that flexible, open space.

The first phase includes two commercial office buildings totaling close to half a million square feet and five to six apartment buildings planned for the southwest corner of the site, with about 320 units. Construction on the apartments is to begin in September.

The office buildings are designed and permitted, but Wright Runstad is waiting for an anchor tenant to begin construction. It’s also contemplating breaking ground on a speculative basis, with no signed lease with an anchor tenant, which would be a strong endorsement of local economic conditions.

“Given the energy that we see in the market overall—the tech sector in particular adding jobs—we’re in the process of evaluating [whether] we go ahead and start these even though we haven’t signed up a tenant,” Johnson says.

Whenever the work gets going, it will still take years of development before we know the results of the Spring District’s experiment in suburban urbanism.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] Follow @bromano

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