Cover Story

Biophilia, which suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature 
and wildlife, has become a popular component to the way buildings are designed these days.  Science 
shows that incorporating nature in the workplace has a direct impact on the prevalence of 
absenteeism and loss of productivity.  Workplaces that incorporate natural elements into their 
environment see a rise in morale, health, efficiency, and overall happiness among staff.  In an era 
where access to outdoor spaces and natural elements are an increasingly important factor in a happy 
work environment, Amazon has really broken the mold with their innovative Seattle, Washington, headquarters.
Within Amazon’s sprawling downtown campus that takes up three city blocks of Seattle’s Denny Regrade neighborhood, The Spheres are three connected domes that serve as an employee workspace and lounge.  Simulating a neighborhood, rather than a corporation’s headquarters, Amazon’s campus focuses on the surrounding community, including ground-level access to the public to enjoy retail space, public art, and scheduled tours.
The Spheres may have only recently opened in 2018, but they have been meticulously designed, researched, and installed over the past five years.  Beginning in 2013, The Spheres were always meant to be an indoor garden.  After studying other sphere-like conservatories from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy, the idea for three geometric buildings evolved.  “We wanted to create something special,” said John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate.  “We wanted something iconic for our new campus and for Seattle.”
NBBJ, Seattle, was the design team behind the innovative new building, and they worked closely with fellow Seattle-based architecture landscape firm Site Workshop.  Known for disrupting the status quo and providing clients with meaningful buildings that inspire creativity and productivity, NBBJ harnessed their expertise to provide Amazon with a building that will influence lasting change within their company and the city it inhabits.  “The whole idea was to get people to think more creatively, maybe come up with a new idea they wouldn’t have if they were just in their office,” said Dale Alberda, the lead NBBJ architect on the project.
The design team took special care in sourcing the plants for The Spheres.  Botanical gardens, private growers, and universities initially supplied Amazon’s greenery, and the plants are continuously sustained in a greenhouse in nearby Woodinville, Washington.  Over 40,000 plants from 30 different countries fill up the building, including an impressive four-story, 4,000 sq.ft. living wall.  The largest plant that resides within The Spheres is a ficus rubiginosa, lovingly known as Rubi, who stands at 55’ tall, 22’ wide, and weighs nearly 36,000 lbs.  The spectacular collection and arrangement of the varied plants is a true testament to Amazon’s adherence to biophilia and workplace biodiversity.
Construction began in June 2015, which included an outer frame and interior concrete core.  A pentagonal hexecontahedron forms The Spheres’ steel frame, and each angle of the module is connected to a centralized hub.  This connection creates a fluid, modular pattern that was essentially assembled like a giant puzzle onsite.  The façade of The Spheres contains 2,643 panes of glass, and was completed in December 2016.  Since the living greenery within Amazon’s headquarters requires a significant amount of sunlight to survive, a largely glass façade was an undeniably good idea.  
In an attempt to mitigate higher temperatures that are typically associated with glass buildings, the panes that were chosen are ultra clear and energy efficient, with a film interlayer to keep out infrared wavelengths.  Amazon’s team went so far as to test the glass panes on their Woodinville greenhouse to test out light levels, temperature, and humidity.  Further enhancing its energy efficiency, The Spheres utilizes heat generated from the company’s data center to help maintain the optimal temperature needed to house the plants.  These extra precautions and testing prior to opening has allowed The Spheres to run as efficiently and comfortably as possible.
The Spheres are a far cry from the stuffy, fluorescent-lit offices in which many professionals spend their days.  Amazon employees can have a meeting in a treehouse, eat lunch on the banks of an indoor creek, and take a phone call in a room with walls made of vines.  As one of the largest employers in Seattle, Amazon works hard to recruit and retain top talent.  One way Amazon competes with other well-known offices, such as Google®’s Googleplex, Apple®’s Spaceship Park, and Facebook’s art-inspired headquarters, is by inviting the outdoors inside in an attempt to inspire, enliven, and nurture.  This urban arboretum in the heart of Seattle will hopefully inspire more companies and architects to incorporate biophilia and biodiversity into building designs across the globe.
Urban Jungle
An Inspiring & Refreshing Office 
Space in Downtown Seattle, Washington 
by Ali Turner, editorial assistant
Architectural West Magazine
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