Architects Hitoshi Abe and Peter Ebner help 3M rethink the way its employees work, taking the company and its headquarters on a journey from the past to the future.
More than just Post-it notes and Scotch tape, 3M produces a vast array of items—electronic stethoscopes, solar mirror films, abrasives—and likes to think of itself as an innovative company. But until recently, its headquarters in St. Paul was stuck in the 1970s, its offices a throwback to an era when you programmed a computer with punch cards and used a slide carousel for presentations. This time warp separating appearance and reality sent the wrong message to both the company's staff and visitors to its offices.
In 2010, George Buckley, then 3M's president and CEO, brought in architects Hitoshi Abe and Peter Ebner to inject a new dynamism into the company's dowdy workplace. He had heard Ebner speak at a 3M event, and Ebner then asked Abe to work with him on the project. 3M's campus, with 50 midrise buildings, was too big for a complete overhaul, so the strategy was to jump-start change at critical locations within a five-building core. Abe and Ebner, who have separate practices but are colleagues at UCLA, needed to shake things up without undermining the company's successful work culture. “In our business, we often look to disruptive ventures to advance our goals,” says Stefan Gabriel, president of 3M New Ventures, who was deeply involved in the design project.
Reflecting the growing importance of collaboration in the way people work, 3M focused its effort on getting employees out of their cubicles and interacting more with each other. In 2000, Abe had developed a plan for Sony's headquarters in Tokyo. Although that project didn't move forward, it got him thinking about the new workplace. “In an age when we can work anywhere, how do we create physical places where people want to be and where they can be more productive?” asks the Los Angeles' and Sendai, Japan'based architect.
Abe and Ebner worked together on a master plan for the heart of the 3M campus, then divided responsibilities for renovating the interiors. When they started on the project, the five core buildings—identified in deadpan Midwestern fashion by numbers (220, 222, 223, 224, and 225)—surrounded a visitors parking lot and were connected on their second levels by enclosed skywalks. The architects proposed turning the parking lot into a landscaped plaza and creating a new main entrance on the south side of Building 220.
Moving visitor parking to lots just beyond the central core raised some eyebrows, but the scheme—wisely—didn't mess with employees' spots in the existing garage below the plaza. Though some 3M executives questioned the usefulness of a large outdoor space in a city with long winters, Abe convinced them of its importance. “The plaza is critical to the project,” states Abe, “because it ties everything together, and all the buildings look onto it.”
Abe, who designed the space, used planters to establish a series of outdoor rooms that encourage 3M employees to get out of their offices. Concrete benches attached to the planters and freestanding tables and chairs invite people to hang out or bring their laptops. Instead of specifying stone or concrete pavers, Abe used a 3M traffic tape that's usually applied to roads. Cut into black, white, and yellow triangles and parallelograms and laid onto concrete pavement, the tape creates a jazzy pattern inspired by Chinese puzzles called tangrams. Lighting on the underside of the planters and benches creates a warm glow in the evening.
Meanwhile, Ebner designed a new visitor entry sequence, including a winding drive, rolling landscape, and a crescent-shaped canopy that softens the sharp edges of Building 220, a 1962 structure by Ellerbe Becket that is the tallest on the campus. He also transformed the first two floors of the building, creating a sleek new reception area and a set of glass cubes that serve as meeting rooms facing the plaza. Between reception and the glass cubes, he inserted larger meeting rooms and a multifunction space that seats 350 people. On the second floor, he created a long open space for collaborative work on the plaza side of the building and furnished it with a 138-foot-long table.
“Building 220 was a bad copy of Mies,” says Ebner, “so I tried to give it a better Miesian spirit.” Opening up the interiors and elegantly detailing new elements, such as the glass cubes and a white stair to the second floor, were key parts of that strategy. “With Mies, you always get a sense of generosity at the entrance,” explains Ebner.
To balance the transparency of his spaces in Building 220, Ebner designed a small adjacent structure that's more opaque—a box with punched windows that replaces the old visitors' entry on the plaza side. Called the Exchange, it serves as a high-tech meeting room for video conferences and digital presentations.
While Ebner reconfigured Building 220 and the visitors' entry experience, Abe addressed Buildings 222, 223, 224, and 225 and the movement of employees into and through the complex. Given a lot of real estate and a limited budget, he determined that he could have the greatest impact by reimagining the second-story skywalks and the spaces feeding into them as places for social interaction, not just circulation.
In the past, employees arrived at a number of different locations and dispersed throughout the complex. To bring everyone together at the start and end of the day, Abe created a new entrance in Building 224 and closed most of the others. The Jetsons-meets-Zaha design immediately alerts personnel that this is not their father's 3M. As soon as they get through security, they now find a series of spaces furnished with various tables and chairs for casual and impromptu meetings. Instead of setting these spaces apart with walls or steps, the architect merely changed the flooring material and lowered the ceilings, which employ a 3M product that diffuses LED light to make a uniform, glowing surface and gives the appearance of skylights. (Abe and Ebner were challenged by the client to specify as many 3M products as possible, but apply them in inventive ways.)
Using the same futuristic vocabulary as he did at the entry, Abe carved out a “necklace” of social spaces flowing through the second floor of the old buildings and studded it with five color-coded “hubs” equipped with sleek, molded seating, interactive screens embedded in work surfaces, and suspended monitors displaying communications from 3M employees around the world. In Building 225, he designed a large caf' with lounges and training rooms around it—a cluster of spaces that serves as a magnet for workers from across the complex. “We used to have a set of buildings, connected by skyways, that felt like an airport,” recalls Ian Hardgrove, a 3M senior vice president. “Now we have this remarkable place that positions us as an innovative company.”
The project opened piecemeal from fall 2012 to spring 2013. By July 2013, 3M personnel were still adapting to the new architecture. Some of the hubs and social spaces were thick with people working in teams and on their own, while others—including the plaza—seemed under-utilized. So the company has started holding events in the outdoor space, including a farmers' market and afternoon jogs. While pieces of the complex may still evolve, the redesign as a whole demonstrates a new attitude on the part of 3M: that it is willing to take risks, bring in talent from different parts of the world, and integrate digital technologies into its mission. Good design can't fix everything, but it helps send the message of change.
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