Global power Nortel shattered the mold with its new headquarters, moving 3,000 key knowledge workers from Class A high-rises to a reconverted, one-story, 1960s' factory in Brampton, a Toronto suburb.
What's more, it created a workplace that's a groundbreaking mini-city, complete with street names, neighborhoods, zoning laws, even a City Council. And "Nortel City" will save an anticipated quarter of a million dollars over the next decade.
"Nortel embraces change and rewards innovation," says David Dunn, Nortel real estate's director of global planning and design. "It demands effective solutions, yet nurtures an environment that enables us to stretch, take risks and constantly learn."
The 'City Metaphor'
The team then realized that the project was an opportunity to create a headquarters that reinforced to customers and employees Nortel's cultural evolution: its organization, work processes and technology.
"This was about more than consolidating bricks and mortar and intelligently reusing an asset," Dunn explains. "It was about creating a knowledge work environment focused on people and employee satisfaction. We understood that we could align the factory's reinvention with the company's global reinvention and core values."
Nortel Real Estate Vice President Roy Dohner presented top management with the vision of a reinvented factory and got the go-ahead. But after intensive feasibility studies and master planning, a mere 11 months were left in which to deliver the final product.
The draconian deadline was met, though. The Nortel team led by HOK's Houston office and general contractor Jackson-Lewis quickly converted 330,000 sq. ft. (30,657 sq. m.) of high bay manufacturing space into a "new wave" office environment. Nortel's employees finished move-in by December 1996.
An adjacent 120,000-sq.-ft. (11,148-sq.-m.) bay that still supports manufacturing is next in line for a makeover, which will complete the site's transformation to officing.
Already, though, the result is light years removed from typical factory conversions. Usually, manufacturing components are simply cleared out and replaced with an unsightly (and, many would argue, unproductive) sea of workstations -- Dilbert's worst nightmare.
Nortel instead created a workplace that many observers say sets new planning standards. Bill Valentine, HOK's co-chairman and design director, who's spent 35 years with the firm, raves, "This is a project of global and social significance that will redefine officing."
Layering Melds Old, New
Sitting at a residential community's edge, the facility's front is designed to create an emphatically non-monumental image, celebrating the recycled historic structure where Nortel built some of its most successful products.
The layered design, superimposing a glass wall over portions of the factory's front facade and exterior walls, "encourages the coexistence of old and new," explains HOK Senior Designer Kathrin Brunner. Inside the main entrance, bricks from the old factory punctuate the new deep-blue gypsum wall.
Further into Nortel City are 19 skylights punched into the 23-ft. (7-m.), sky-blue ceilings. They draw in natural light and facilitate employee orientation. (Centre zoning bylaws require construction along an east-west axis to utilize natural light.)
Then there's a 1,800-sq.-ft. (162-sq.-m.) open-roof Zen garden, which provides reflective space for employees and surprises visitors.
Speaking in Signs
Boulevards, loops, side streets, alleyways and shortcuts -- all clearly marked by color-coded signs and overhead banners -- connect the city's 3,000 "citizens" and link adjacent buildings. Key access streets are made of concrete and stone, while secondary routes are covered with vinyl.
Nortel City's heart stands at the intersection of Main Street (the north-south axis) and the Central Colonnade (the east-west axis), a year ago home to a robotics assembly line. All of the Centre's main intersections are designed to be gathering spots. Each includes public space, such as conference, food service and health facilities. Public areas are constructed of concrete blocks and stone, differentiating them from private spaces (e.g., offices), made of gypsum board.
Other public spaces include an array of coffee shops, retail stores, banking kiosks, a fitness center, a travel agency and a variety of piazzas, each themed around a Nortel core value. Nortel City is also dotted with different-sized "neighborhoods" -- work groups that need to communicate and interact. Through materials, patterns and colors, each neighborhood has a distinct identity. Each also has its own conference center, "privacy nodes," and unique neighborhood spaces like "war rooms" or lounge areas.
Picking Your Office
As a result, it's hard to name a current officing strategy Brampton Centre isn't using. Choice has produced a broad workplace range: from traditional cubicles and closed offices to open, process-driven team space. Some employees telecommute; others use hotel officing or one of many "touchdown stations" (telework centers) around the city. Visitors and "drop-in" workers use the 2,500-sq.-ft. (232-sq.-m.) Business Centre.
"We want to empower people with the ability to design and continuously adjust their workspace," Nortel's Joe Pereira explains. "Doesn't it stand to reason that an engaged individual will perform better?"
Nortel's human resources (HR) group took the most non-traditional approach. From the director level down, the group eliminated all private offices and panels for open-plan, movable, personalized furniture systems.
"We put them on a bus to downtown Toronto, and they went shopping for furniture at Herman Miller," Pereira says. "Now, a long waiting list of groups wants space that innovative."
In traditional offices, employees orient themselves by floor, department and work group. But Brampton Centre's massive one-story space demanded very different thinking. The result is the city's wayfinding and graphics system, which also humanizes the environment.
"Again, this was driven by our desire to make this a place for people," says Ray Lopinski, Nortel's project director. "That drove the architecture, which then drove the colors, finishes and graphics."
Embedded high-level details in colors, patterns, materials, signage and lighting help people find their way through the space, just as in any city. And identifiable names like "The People's Cafe" provide clear destinations and landmarks.
They Built It, They Came
After some initial reluctance to move from Class A to manufacturing space, many Nortel employees are now in a long waiting list to relocate.
And Brampton Centre will produce $250,000 in estimated savings over the next decade. Nortel real estate anticipates reduced costs for leasing, maintenance, support and travel, and increased productivity.
Subscribe to Site Selection Magazine