Google’s New Campus Has Light, Fresh Air, Low Power Use

Google Inc. has begun construction of a new 1.1-million-square-foot headquarters that is just minutes by bicycle from its current Googleplex in Mountain View, California.

It’s the first time the company is building offices for itself rather than occupying an existing structure, and Google has promised to break new ground in environmental sustainability.

The goal of the complex is “to provide the healthiest environment possible,” said David Bennett, head of Google’s Green Team Operations and Innovations, in an interview.

The proposed campus of boomerang-shaped structures will occupy a 42-acre site called Bay View.

The design is by NBBJ of Seattle, a prolific but not notably innovative firm.

It has produced 9 ordinary-looking, glass-clad buildings of three-to-five stories. They snuggle around a network of intimate but messily arranged courtyards.

Though the buildings seem to wander aimlessly, their narrow ends face west and east to minimize heat and glare from the morning and afternoon sun.

Google hopes staffers will hatch new ideas while communing with elements of native habitat reintroduced by local landscape architect Cheryl Barton. She will also restore eight acres of bayside salt marshes that Google will open to the public.

The company has said it will clean all of its storm-water runoff as well as some waste water before releasing it into the bay. It’s a low-lying location. I hope they are thinking about rising sea levels.

Light Bath

Standard technology buildings are thick and square, herding engineers together in dispiriting rows far from windows. NBBJ shaped long buildings only 78 feet wide.

The narrow floor plan means that pool tables, couches, huddle rooms -- even conventional desks -- will be bathed in energy-saving daylight because windows will be so close for so many.

Natural light and fresh air are rare commodities in the tech workplace. Google will add these perks to the well-stocked cafeterias, game rooms and nap pods that make it a sought-after place to work.

Because the company encourages free-flowing collaboration and idea sharing, staffers will pedal or walk to gatherings across bridges that loop the campus three stories above the courtyards. The loops land at nodes that join buildings at their kinked hips.

They put almost everyone on the campus no more than one floor and 2.5 minutes’ walk from anyone else.

Project Cost

NBBJ hasn’t gracefully reconciled all of Google’s aspirations. I fear GPS will be needed to navigate this well-meaning muddle.

Google won’t disclose the project cost, but it’s not the heroic $5 billion high-tech palace Apple is building in nearby Cupertino.

So how green is Google? It’s worth comparing to the $18.5 million Bullitt Foundation, which opened its doors on Earth Day, April 22, in Seattle. The foundation, devoted to making the Pacific Northwest into a global model of environmental sustainability, got its diminutive 50,000-square-foot building off the electrical and sewer grid.

It follows the demanding ecological principals of the Living Building Challenge.

Energy Use

Architect Miller Hull, working with PAE Consulting Engineers, achieved a startlingly low 16 for Energy Use Intensity (a common measure of efficiency). The broad overhanging roof, crammed with solar panels, doesn’t generate much power in cloudy Seattle, so energy conservation does the hard work.

Google’s headquarters plans to have solar-panel arrays but expects an EUI of 62, partly because of its heavy use of computers. That’s still half the average for its current buildings.

A low-energy heating and cooling system will allow Google to supply 100 percent fresh air economically. (Most buildings introduce only a small percentage of fresh air.)

The focus on air quality goes with Google’s ambitious Healthy Materials Program. The company seeks to eliminate potentially harmful chemicals in building materials. This is no easy feat, since product manufacturers do not like to disclose the ingredients they use.

While Bullitt also avoids questionable chemicals, Google, with its huge market power, can transform the way building-materials are made.

Composting Toilets

Bullitt uses composting toilets, which means it puts no waste into the city’s sewage system. Google wasn’t ready for that.

So which is better? Bullitt intended to pioneer, and to show what’s possible. It’s already changing the marketplace by inspiring green-innovation districts in Seattle and elsewhere.

Google’s energy performance and commitment to workplace quality are impressive if not innovative. It’s bringing to the mainstream what was thought barely achievable a few years ago.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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