18, 2002 in THE JOURNAL OF NEW
Technology Roots Shaping Office Design
by Warren Kieding
NOT LONG AGO,
A FRIEND a friend recommended I pick up Tom
Wolfe's book of short essays, "Hooking Up." He said
there was a profile of Bob Noyce in it that would interest
"Who's Bob Noyce?" I asked.
He said he had no idea who Noyce was either until he read the piece. So I took his advice.
Noyce was the founder of Intel. He was also the founder of Silicon Valley, and arguably, the most influential technical mind of the last century. It was Noyce and his gang that refined and applied the use of the semiconductor, changing the course of electronics forever.
He was plying his trade of microelectronic research and development long before Bill Gates or Steve Jobs even dreamed of the personal computer.
So why should an early computer giant that hardly anybody knows about interest an architect? The reason, ironically, is that for all its super advanced technology, Intel's Silicon Valley offices were monuments of simplicity that blazed the trail for the open and flexible office culture of giants such as Microsoft, and later, hundreds of dot-coms across America.
Although the dot-coms mostly have imploded, their office designs are alive and well. But not in the grandiose, free-spending fashion of the 1990s.
What Noyce insisted upon in his Intel offices was sameness, equality, simplicity and flexibility. The Silicon Valley culture then was one of exceptionally hard work and empowerment.
Noyce's employees were given enormous autonomy to make decisions and to flourish in a wide-open, hyper-creative environment. And the facilities mirrored that culture.
Everyone from the lowliest assistant to Noyce had the same type of equipment and work space. There were no executive offices or fancy conference rooms. In fact, Intel was one big room in which everyone had an equal share of real estate. And nobody wore a suit.
Interaction was encouraged whenever and wherever necessary. Critical meetings would take place at a lunch table, around somebody's desk or in an aisle. The goal was to cut through the formalities of convention, make a decision and go on to the next challenge, right then and there.
This was in direct opposition to the Eastern establishment ways of doing business, which included enclosed offices with fine mahogany furniture; large, ostentatious conference rooms; secretaries for everyone; and three-martini lunches in the finest restaurants. The higher one's standing in the firm, the larger and more prestigious the office. It was - and still is - hierarchy in its purest form.
Fast-moving high-tech firms such as Apple and Microsoft embraced Noyce's Intel culture, with huge amounts of money to spend on, well, whatever they wanted to. So their facilities took on a more grandiose yet still-functional feel.
The dot-coms blew all of that right out of the water.
The birth of the dot-coms brought about an interesting confluence of culture and equipment. Over funded, high-technology firms required facilities to be designed not only for the newest office culture, but also to accommodate a complete change in office infrastructure and equipment.
By the end of the 1980s, furniture manufacturers had caught up with the dramatic cultural changes in the office. Advanced technology required new tools for the new Internet office. Mobile workstations had to be wired for plug-and-play adaptability. Walls (if there were any) had to be easily moveable and re-configured, if necessary.
There had to be raised flooring to accommodate more and heavier cabling. On-site cooling equipment and security for server rooms became a necessity for around-the-clock operations.
Every trade, manufacturer, consultant and architect had to become high tech, and speak the high-tech lingo in order to compete for this new client base. And interior design would reflect that as well.
Management no longer was separate from the work force, but integrated for on-the-fly consultation. "Huddle" rooms designed for a half-dozen people augmented larger conference areas. Lounge and break areas would punctuate office space to stimulate casual problem solving.
Workstations were grouped not row upon linear row, but in "neighborhoods," enjoined by common meeting areas. Ergonomics became critical to support the high mobility of desks and work tables. Adjustable task lighting and diffused overhead lights eased stress on the eye and improved monitor screen vision.
These are some of the enduring benefits of dot-com design that we're seeing in a hybrid form this year, even in establishment-type offices such as law and accounting firms.
The point is, Noyce saw something no one else recognized about assembling a group of high-tech minds. Intel's offices then weren't even low tech. They were "no tech." But they were a marvel of function and an enduring blueprint for today's workplace culture.
I am amazed more people don't know about Noyce and the Intel story. But I guess that's just the way he would have wanted it.