Saw the following on twitter from the always-awesome Dan Hill and couldn’t resist educating the public against their will:
For complete accuracy, here is the quote from the article mentioned:
The layout of bent rectangles, then, emerged out of the company’s insistence on a floor plan that would maximize what Radcliffe called “casual collisions of the work force.” No employee in the 1.1-million-square-foot complex will be more than a two-and-a-half-minute walk from any other, according to Radcliffe. “You can’t schedule innovation,” he said. “We want to create opportunities for people to have ideas and be able to turn to others right there and say, ‘What do you think of this?’”
First, the historical angle. In the history of the modern office block, optimizing for walk distance is one of the earliest common problems. It was one of the main design drivers behind the form of the Pentagon; despite containing 6.6 million square feet and 17.5 miles of corridors, one can walk between any two points in 7 minutes or less.
There have been multiple attempts over the years to more finely determine optimal walking solutions, the most notable of which was the work of Philip Tabor and Tom Willoughby at Cambridge University in 1972, using a combination of graph theory and a traveling salesman algorithm. This research ultimately concluded that quantifiably optimized architectural solutions were not possible (at least on nongraphic computer workstations in the early 70’s.) More important than this “negative result” was the reason this problem was chosen in the first place. It was chosen because it was a)straightforward, and b)didn’t require a computer with a screen (IBM having rejected their application for a graphical computer system as there were more “important” researchers ahead of them in line). Finally, the reason for looking at mathematical optimization in the first place was a little disingenuous – at that time at CU “hard science” projects were being worked on largely to qualify architectural work for scientific grant money. For a more detailed version of this story, I highly recommend the article “Fenland Tech” by Sean Keller.
Ultimately, the idea of walk optimization is a pretty silly one, not only because optimization of an architectural design unilaterally against a single criteria is a silly thing to do, but also because this problem has been solved non-architecturally, with intercoms and voicemail and faxes and email and videoconferencing and whatever else we think up to connect two people (as if we need more options).
However, I am certain that our good friends at NBBJ are aware, at least implicitly, of all of this. Indeed, if the following video is any indicator, Marc Syp et al were far more interested in daylighting than walk distance:
So why the quote? I suspect that what they were really speaking about walkability in the same way that we do when talking about walkable cities, a “walkable radius” between addresses. And given that directive, it seems feasible. 1.1 million square feet, at 4 stories, makes a circular building with a radius just shy of 300 feet. Given a 3.1 mph walk speed, this circle could be traversed in about 2 minutes and 15 seconds. And yes, I know we are discounting vertical transportation time, and yes, I do suppose that this problem is better solved using taxicab geometry rather than straight lines, but I think I’ve been pendantic enough already, don’t you?
So, boiled down, what this metric or goal is really stating is “please keep the buildings clustered relatively close together and place the entries to facilitate walking between them easily.” Which is not exactly Earth-shattering– in fact the idea of lively communal spaces adjacent to circulation seems to be a fairly common Silicon Valley theme, from Apple’s minimalist doughnut to my own employer’s work for Facebook, Gensler, Microsoft, and, more recently, Nvidia.
Put simply, what the above quote is attempting to relate is that the characteristics we value in cities, towns, and theme parks also come in quite handy in suburban office conglomerations. While GChat is great, incentivising physical movement not only promotes better health and increases the chances of serendipitous contact, but a face to face conversation has substantially better bandwidth and lower latency. It’s not dissimilar to this xkcd what if post on FedEx — no matter how fast the internet gets, you will always be able to move the contents of your brain from one place to another faster by walking it there.