Nortel Switches Cities

What makes a great city? How to transform the vast, empty factory – an anonymous-looking site formerly used for manufacturing telephone switches – into an attractive office space?


The year is 1995. The city is Toronto. At the front of the room, opening a three-day workshop on urban planning, is Kevin Sloan, a former professor of architecture at Syracuse University and, at the time, director of design for urban planning and landscape architecture at the Dallas office of Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum Inc. (HOK). On a screen, Sloan juxtaposes two settings that seem, at first look, to have nothing in common. One slide shows a town plan of Timgad, a city built according to the Roman urban template in 100 AD. The other shows the floor plan of a 600,000-square-foot factory built in 1963.


A class in urban planning at nearby York University? A presentation for Toronto’s city-planning department? In fact, the slide show kicked off an 18-month, $46 million headquarters-renovation program for Nortel, the $15.5 billion global telecommunications giant. The first slide posed a question: What makes a great city? The second slide posed a challenge: How to transform the vast, empty factory – an anonymous-looking site formerly used for manufacturing telephone switches – into an attractive office space? How to make the move to an industrial area in Brampton, a suburban community 25 miles northwest of Toronto, seem appealing to employees? And how to turn the new headquarters into a fitting representation of Nortel’s ongoing corporate transformation?

The answer: If you can’t put the building in the city, put the city into the building. Under the guidance of David Dunn, Nortel’s director of global workplace planning, what emerged was a colorful, energetic, horizontal, self-contained city.

Like ancient Roman cities, Nortel Brampton Centre has a recognizable plan: Two main arteries – Main Street and the Colonnade – form the crux of the street grid. More intimate pathways, modeled after residential roads, provide access to the diverse, color-coded neighborhoods that are home to Nortel’s departments. At the heart of this urban experience are the building’s shared amenities: seven indoor parks and a Zen garden; a full-service branch of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce; fitness and wellness centers, basketball and volleyball courts, and a physiotherapy area; a dry-cleaning service; and a wide array of cafés and restaurants.

“When people first heard this idea,” says Dunn, “they thought we were nuts.” Now that the renovation is complete and the city is populated, Brampton Centre is an undeniable success. Embedded in the project’s urban architecture are three principles for aligning workplace with work style.

The People Are the City

“At first, the reaction we got was ‘hell no, we won’t go,'” says Dunn. Nortel’s people had become accustomed to high-rise office space in high-rent locations. “There were a number of factors,” Dunn says. “It was in Brampton, and the people had the perception that the drive would take more time. They thought it was going to be an old, dingy, awful space.”

To counter the resistance, Dunn and his team launched a campaign to involve employees in the creation of the new city. A “consolidation team” of 200 people (a mix of Nortel employees and outside contractors) worked full-time on the project. An “employee advisory committee” of 20 people (two or three from each department, chosen from different levels of the company) functioned as a link to the headquarters employees. During the last six months of the project, employees could tour the facility to see the construction for themselves.


“After people moved in, they embraced the city almost immediately,” Dunn says. In employee surveys, 75% of respondents said that they were very satisfied with the city and its neighborhoods, and almost 50% said that their workplace satisfaction had increased since the move to the new headquarters.

The City Is the Company

“This was about more than consolidating bricks and mortar and reusing an asset in an intelligent way,” Dunn says. “We understood that we could align the factory’s reinvention with the company’s reinvention – and with our core values.” Today employees and customers who come to Brampton Centre can see tangible evidence not only of Nortel’s state-of-the-art technology but also of its state-of-the-art ways of working.

For example, at the intersection of Main Street and the Colonnade, the information-systems group set up the Cybershop, a display center for the latest Nortel products. Visitors can also don a $10,000 virtual-reality headset and use it to take an interactive roller-coaster ride through the company’s 1.5-million-page intranet. Directly across the street from the Cybershop is Homebase – an actual house that showcases Nortel’s home-office technology solutions. On display are configurations of desks, chairs, and computer systems that the company has approved for use by its telecommuting employees.

The Future Is Horizontal

“If you have a high-rise,” says Kathrin Brunner, who led the 22-person HOK design team, “you have an implied hierarchy. If you put everybody on a single floor, you can have an open workplace. And if you have dozens of departments on a single floor, you can easily form any number of teams.”

Perhaps the most important design message of an actual city comes across in the serendipitous meetings that take place in neighborhood cafés, on street corners, and at other unofficial gathering spots. Nortel’s city enables the same kinds of interactions: horizontal happenstances that reflect the design philosophy behind Brampton Centre. “The city draws people out and creates interactions that wouldn’t happen in other buildings,” says Eugene Roman, vice president of employee services. “Those interactions unlock people’s capabilities. I’m glad I’m not in the elevator business, because this city proves that vertical space simply isn’t as good as horizontal space.”

Lisa Chadderdon is a Fast Company staff writer. You can visit Nortel on the Web .