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REI’s new headquarters are like summer camp for grown-ups

Complete with blueberry bogs and a campfire.

REI’s new headquarters are like summer camp for grown-ups
An outdoor space used for meetings, relaxation and even testing products (as seen with the tent shown in the image). [Image: courtesy NBBJ]

In Bellevue’s Spring District, 20 minutes east of Seattle, a new type of workplace is emerging. Designers at the architecture firm NBBJ have meditated on what the ideal office of the future might look like, and have come up with this: streets in the sky, adaptable meeting spaces, and outdoorsy features like blueberry bogs and a campfire. This is the new headquarters for the outdoors company REI.

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REI is a co-op that sells outdoor equipment, so a workplace that prioritized sustainability and harmony between the Pacific Northwest’s landscape and the workspaces within the building was paramount. Currently, REI’s headquarters are based in nearby Kent, and more than 1,400 people work there; this July, employees have plans to fully move into the new eight-acre Bellevue campus.

An aerial rendering showing the entire building, including the rooftop gardens. To the left, is a new light-rail station, which opens in 2023 (connecting it to other parts of Bellevue, Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport). [Image: courtesy NBBJ]

“With REI, one of the things we discussed really early on was to create design drivers; one was ‘everything outdoors,’ so it was really important that the boundaries of indoor and outdoor were blurred,” says Mindy Levine-Archer, partner and architect at NBBJ that designed REI’s headquarters. “It was important that, at any time in the workday, you could either physically be outdoors or visually see outdoors.”

The workplace is essentially a series of walkways; the project surrounds two large outdoor courtyards, connected by bridges. The facade of the building is marked by large windows and garage doors, which roll up to invite natural light and a cooling breeze into the office. While most workspace designers agree that windows oriented to break up wallspace and allow light in are essential for employees today, REI’s office takes this a step further: large-scale doors don’t simulate the feeling of being outside, they ensure it.

One of the many outdoor garden areas, showing the connection between office and outside. The image shows some roll-up doors opened all the way, and one opened halfway. [Image: courtesy NBBJ]

Nikki Easterday, REI’s experience design manager who oversaw the design of the new campus, says that the natural environment played a large role in how they conceived of the space: “In Seattle, it rains all the time, so we made sure that corridors were open but covered so you can be outside but still do your work, and can walk between any meeting or office by walking outside, which is pretty amazing.”

One of NBBJ’s other design drivers was a concept called “80/20,” in which NBBJ designs most of the necessary infrastructure, but gives employees the freedom to customize the space. Within this framework, the architecture firm provided things such as conference rooms and pathways around the campus, but leaves certain details up to REI (like how to use the green space located on the building’s roof). “They get to modify their space on a regular basis to work with whatever they’re needing and wanting at a particular time,” Levine-Archer says. “We gave them the infrastructure to test whatever they might want, we gave them the structure they might need, and then they’re going to DIY it in the way they need . . . specifics are really something they’re going to be providing.”

A common area on the workplace levels show space for team meetings + customization, with direct views to colleagues in other parts of the building, outside etc. It also shows the roll-up windows. [Image: courtesy NBBJ]

Unsurprisingly for a company that promotes an active lifestyle, the headquarters have stairs in spades. “REI is stair culture: they like to move, they’re not sedentary, they want to move around a project as best they can,” Levine-Archer says. “We included additional stairs not necessarily required for exiting, but just to move around. You’re able to fluidly move around the project and get that exercise.”

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Work area near the lobby. Note the indoor fireplace, and also the large outdoor firepit, which is used for large company-wide gatherings. Employees can open up doors/windows to participate in these meetings, stand on the outdoor staircases, or stand around the firepit. [Image: courtesy NBBJ]

The surrounding environs were once a rich agricultural community. They’re only recently being built up through infrastructure like a transit system and large buildings such as this one. To retain the integrity of the Spring District, NBBJ opened trails that wind through the campus to the public, and worked to incorporate natural elements that spoke to the region’s history. “The agricultural community grew blueberries so it was important to bring that back . . . on the eastern portion of the project, which is a public thoroughfare, that’s where the blueberry bogs are located. So not only will REI have access to the bogs, but the public will as well,” says Levine-Archer. One of the campus’ courtyards, located on the first level, houses an overscale, outdoor campfire. “It becomes this great opportunity to do a gathering or a meeting or an announcement, and you can either go out on a bridge or an exterior stair and look down,” she says.

Even the furniture nods to the outdoors and is designed to reduce waste. “For workstations, they’re made out of oak butcher blocks . . . there’s not a lot of waste when you work with that material,” Easterday says. “We opened another campus about five or six years ago, and we picked a lot of furniture from there . . . it’s probably not the coolest furniture anymore, just because time changes design . . . but we’re mixing the old with a little new so we can get great life out of the old designs.” The headquarters also use reclaimed wood from dead trees and old bridge beams (which had to be torn down before the city built a new bridge) to make conference tables and chairs.

Headquarters often serve as advertisements for the companies they serve. REI’s new campus is no exception. But for a company whose business are the great outdoors, a sustainable design isn’t just a matter of self-promotion; it’s self-preservation.

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