Inside the Bird’s Nest: Google’s New Kirkland Office

Gov. Jay Inslee must have felt his presence alone didn’t communicate the importance of the event, so he took it upon himself to ensure those in attendance knew that Google’s expanded Kirkland campus, unveiled Tuesday to select guests and members of the media, is a big deal.

Gov. Jay Inslee receives a Google Cardboard tutorial during the unveiling of Google's new Kirkland office Tuesday. Photo by Joanna Kresge.

Gov. Jay Inslee receives a Google Cardboard tutorial during the unveiling of Google’s new Kirkland office Tuesday.

“This week, we have had two major milestones in the march of human progress,” Inslee said. “First, we discovered gravity waves and proved Albert Einstein was right, and second, we are building this sustainable, incredibly productive Google building in Kirkland, Washington.”

Inslee’s tongue-in-cheek opener delivered laughs, but the world’s second-most valuable company expanding its footprint in your state holds serious economic gravity. Alphabet, Google’s parent, has a market capitalization north of $485 billion (it briefly topped Apple this month on the list of most valuable companies), and it pumps $5.2 billion into Washington’s economy (according to Google). Now that company has 180,000 more square feet to play with in Kirkland, where more employees will work on Google’s cloud, Chrome, and who knows what other innovative products.

Google expanded with thoughtful gusto. “We really have what I would regard as honorable goals that transcend the sort of (office-design) repetition that comes with any other company,” Anthony Smith, the company’s director of real estate in the Americas, told me. “We have some fundamental goals that we try to live by, and we express those in the markets that we’re doing things.”

Those fundamental goals? Sustainability (few ribbon-cuttings include so much chatter about efficient HVAC systems), healthy employees (cafeterias are stocked with healthful food; exercise areas abound both indoors and out), community engagement (the campus is bisected by public space, courtesy of Google, and the company built a multi-use sports field for neighbor Lakeview Elementary) and a sense of place (sections of the office are themed as mountain, forest, valley, and sound), all in the name of productivity (why go home when all that is at work?).

Those ingredients manifest in the ultimate tech office. Smith explained the company’s new building like it was a cloud platform: “There’s a lot more user engagement, there’s a lot more ability to innovate on the spot. The great things from here will fuel the great things we do elsewhere.”

There was plenty for dignitaries to brag about Tuesday. That nifty chilled-beam HVAC? It’s apparently 52 percent more efficient than other top-of-the-line options. The roof’s full of sitting areas, succulents, and solar panels. A living wall is stuffed with lady ferns. Gorgeous wood furniture is made with wood reclaimed from the site, one that Google voluntarily cleaned up well beyond state contamination standards. In a basic sense, the office is both beautiful and inviting.

The design of Google's new Kirkland office includes elements of the natural world, like this huge bird nest. Photo by Joanna Kresge

The design of Google’s new Kirkland office includes elements of the natural world, like this huge bird nest.

Some amenities, in Silicon Valley fashion, border on the preposterous. A human-size nest, suspended on steel posts and fashioned out of nailed-together scrap wood, was the Instagram star of the ribbon cutting. Near the entrance to the nest was a sign that explained biophilia (“a human’s innate attraction to nature and natural systems”), which proved handy for humans who couldn’t understand why a big bird nest is in a workplace. (I didn’t notice any birdhouses outside, so biomimicry at Google goes only one way.) A “cave” in the “mountain” area of the office is a nice quiet place to nap. And the office’s filtration system, project overseer Mike Nolan proudly told members of the media, makes the office atmosphere cleaner than what’s outside. Rarefied air, indeed.

Such is reality in the tech sector, where offices have become a powerful recruiting and retention tool. Today’s tech workers, we’re told by the folks who recruit such people, want a company that aligns with their values and offices that facilitate fun. In response, companies of Google’s ilk are in an office-space arms race. Smith seemed mildly offended when I suggested that other tech firms have nice offices — “There’s a lot playing catch-up,” he said — even as all of Google’s major competitors — AmazonFacebookMicrosoft, and Apple — are making real-estate news themselves.

Gentrification arguments aside, Google employees aren’t the only ones who will benefit from the new office. More high-paying jobs will become available, and Kirkland residents have some nice public space where a dirty field used to be. There’s also the excitement of having a major, growing tech firm in town, especially one with the ambitions of Google.

“It’s kind of like having Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in your town,” Mayor Amy Walen said, “because magical and mysterious things happen.”

Perhaps that’s the function of the nest: Magical ideas need a place to hatch.

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