Innovations in workplace design have made the news headlines recently, as businesses working to stay competitive abandon private offices and assigned workstations for open, flexible environments and flattened organizational hierarchies.

A critical question for cities jockeying for position in an increasingly global marketplace is how these strategies will merge with another trend defining this era: rapid urbanization and the commensurate need for denser, more sustainable development. While the concept of the mixed-use “vertical neighborhoods” has gained traction in the exploding urban centers of Asia and the Middle East, translating the corporate campus into a vertical form, not to be confused with the classic headquarters tower, poses a different set of challenges, yet some solutions are emerging.

Through field-tested research over the past decade, NBBJ has developed the Synergy Tower concept, a vertical urban campus strategy driven by the principles of advanced workplace design. The competition-winning design for Tencent’s global headquarters in Shenzhen, China, selected earlier this year, is the latest iteration of this evolving concept. With a split-tower configuration, dynamic horizontal links, hybrid circulation, and vertical sky gardens, Tencent exploits the opportunities of its dense, urban setting to generate a dynamic workplace that bolsters its tenant’s market leadership.

The world’s third largest internet company, Tencent selected a prominent site within the Shenzhen High-tech Industrial Park for its new headquarters. The site is located in the city’s Nanshan district, where land costs and development patterns necessitated a high-rise approach. But the stacked floor plates and dominant central core of conventional towers could not support the company’s forward-thinking organizational practices. Instead, the design prioritizes user experience and environmental performance as key drivers of building form, splitting the program into two linked towers to provide Tencent with the advantages of a typical low-rise campus while retaining the civic stature that a tall building affords. 

Dividing the headquarters’ program between two towers invites daylight, ventilation and views into the project’s heart, where a series of stacked sky gardens and common areas line the facades between the two towers. Three sculptural bridges, unite the towers and interject horizontal ‘streetscapes’ at multiple, easy-to-access locations, creating an urban dynamic stories off the ground. Through this hybridized approach, the 2.9 million-square-foot complex integrates connectivity, climatic responsiveness, and long-term flexibility on multiple levels. 

Beyond providing the simple, highly flexible space that enables the workplace strategy, splitting the program into two towers offers many environmental performance benefits. The vertical gardens act as the building’s ‘lungs’ and bring filtered, natural light to the office floor plates, reducing energy demands. The height offset and slight rotation of the towers capture the site’s prevailing winds, ventilating the atria while minimizing exposure to direct sun to the east and west. To further control glare and heat-gain, the curtain wall incorporates a modular shading system that varies according to the degree of sun exposure along the facade. These passive strategies reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions by as much as 40 percent over a typical office tower. 

From an organizational perspective, the separate but linked configuration activates dynamic movement and exchange within the overall workplace. While conventional thinking would place Tencent’s extensive shared program — including retail, dining, transportation links, conference facilities and recreation space — at the complex’s lower levels, the design disperses these social spaces throughout the three transfer floors, bringing interactivity high into the building. The transfer floors wrap and permeate the towers, integrating social hubs with more formal work space. “Squares” and “plazas” throughout all the floors further promote chance encounters and community building.

The three transfer floors act as nodes within a larger transportation network that extends to the city. Employees move by main elevator from the building’s multi-modal transit hub (located on level B1) to a transfer floor, then use stairs and escalators to reach their destinations. By relating to the towers as a vertical campus, the central circulation breaks down the building hierarchy and therefore, any implied social hierarchy, aligning the headquarters with today’s flattening social and workplace structures.

Tencent’s workspaces are designed to quickly adapt to a range of team sizes and work styles. Zones for individual or collaborative work can be swapped or merged according to need, or expanded to join two to three floors connected by stairs, atria or bridges. The increased visibility between towers and transfer floors, as well as within the towers, strengthens the creative energy and sense of community that give today’s market innovators their competitive edge.

Driving Trends

Tencent and the Synergy Tower concept unite current thinking about the future of workplaces and cities in an era when the realities of both are rapidly changing. With more than half the human population now living in cities, the need to accommodate an ever-expanding urban workforce is urgent. Simultaneously, information technology and employee mobility are flattening organizational hierarchies in the interest of greater collaboration and innovation. A recent Wall Street Journal article, ‘Warming Up to the Officeless Office,’ sheds light on how cultural shifts towards a more technologically wired, collaborative workplace, as well as documented economic benefits, are driving these trends and are likely to endure. Simultaneously, research indicating that sustainable environments support a sustainable workforce grows stronger. Designing for ventilation, daylight, views, and healthy materials makes sense not only from a resource perspective, but from a performance one as well.

These shifts in workplace priorities have tangible spatial implications. The large, open floor plates of typical low-rise corporate campuses can be reconfigured into the flexible, open-plan offices favored by an increasing number of companies that want to facilitate communication and diversify work modes. However, such configurations don’t easily translate to existing tower typologies that have defined the urban workplace since the mid-20th century. Constructed from identical stacked floor plates wrapped in an impermeable envelope, these towers’ monolithic forms limit interaction between occupants, and between the building and its surrounding environment. Large central cores create a disjointed interior, while exterior enclosures function to isolate inside from outside. With limited connectivity within the building, the conventional high-rise hinders the communication, social interaction, and community-building that underpin the innovation valued by companies today.

The obstacles presented by center-core buildings are not insurmountable. Russell Investments’ new global headquarters in Seattle, Washington, designed by NBBJ and completed in 2010, offers an example of how existing, multi-tenant towers can meet advanced workplace needs. In such models, circulation spaces and shared-use amenities can provide critical hotspots that break down conventional barriers and foster encounters between employees.

Looking to accelerate its responsiveness and adaptability within an increasingly competitive global finance industry, Russell transformed its traditional cubicle setup to an open, collaborative work environment. Moving into a high-rise in downtown Seattle positioned Russell at the center of a highly educated workforce, with adjacency to other pioneering businesses. The tower’s large floor plate was another key factor in creating a more dynamic work environment.

With transparent and flexible conference rooms set around the core, and touchdown spaces, innovation hubs, and gathering areas throughout — all fully wired — the design fosters a seamless exchange of ideas and hastens decision making. A west-facing roof garden overlooking Puget Sound provides a spectacular, building-wide amenity, giving all tenants the opportunity to mingle, rejuvenate, and draw energy from the surroundings.

Despite such successful examples of integrating new workplace strategies into conventional towers, the need remains to further advance how we will build, and inhabit, our cities during this urban century and beyond.
The four principles of Synergy

Over the past decade, mixed-use vertical neighborhoods that aim to marry densification with humane, dynamic spaces for living and working has emerged as a compelling response to rapid urbanization especially in Asia and the Middle East. Tencent and the Synergy Tower concept more specifically address the intersection of urbanization and workplace priorities in the information age. More evolution than revolution, the model was developed through a series of earlier projects that explored and advanced the Synergy Tower’s four principles.

Hybrid Workplace.
 As an increasing number of studies indicate that chance encounters outside of daily routines engender a productive cross-pollination of ideas, the importance of “in between” or hybrid spaces grows. Research suggests that the knowledge transfer that occurs in such ‘third places’ — informal spaces for social interaction and community-building (vs. the ‘first’ and ‘second’ places of home and formal workplace, respectively) — is the most effective kind of learning, making it a critical element in successful workplace design.

Capitalizing on hybrid spaces requires a reconfiguration of the corporate campus from a segmented environment to an open, flexible one that harnesses density and mobility to spur interaction. Like a city streetscape, circulation, when integrated with program elements, can take advantage of the dynamism of passers-by. Open plans and flexible areas such as atria, lounges or cafes can also function as as-needed spaces for work or socializing. By emphasizing flexibility and informal, creative synergy, these spaces can stimulate productivity, brainstorming, and effective decision-making. 

In a high-rise form, the streetscape functions vertically through a combination of atria, stairs and bridges that help to minimize dependence on elevators, which instead work more like a transit system. Employees get off at the nearest “stop” then use other, less isolating modes to reach their destination.

Positive Polarization. Conventional center-core tower structures pose a particular challenge to concept of positive polarization, the concept of creating attraction through separation. Pulling the form and program apart into separate structures linked by atria and bridges brings light and views into the interior and creates space for people to see each other and engage. Physical connections such as bridges or other circulation and social magnets — such as dining facilities, fitness centers, libraries and cafes — draw employees from across different corporate divisions to meet and learn outside the formal workspace. This synergy unfolds in the interior and cultivates a continually engaging environment.

Flexibility. Underlying the new workplace are the ideas of agility and flexibility. Giving users the power to shift easily between work modes — from individual tasks to informal brainstorming to formal meetings — activates the workplace and supports productivity. Flexibility arises not from extravagant form but from clear, simple spatial arrangements that accommodate a range of amenities and allow for user-customization. Adjustable, localized lighting systems or reconfigurable seating areas are examples. The shift in emphasis from sculptural form to human performance and comfort allows workplace dynamism to grow from within, rather than being imposed from without, better ensuring a building’s long-term relevance. 

In the mobile workplace, flexibility can also arise from standardization, enabling users to seamlessly move between workstation configurations with minimal inconvenience. Providing employees with the freedom to configure their near environment allows organizations to retain the open, communal layouts that are conducive to collaboration and interaction. 

Effectiveness vs. Efficiency. Because conventional office design prioritizes efficiency — through the use of elevators to transfer between floors, or gridded workstation layouts, for example — it diminishes opportunities for the serendipitous exchange that can increase workplace effectiveness. Research findings also suggest that visual connectivity to other employees and activities, and to the exterior environment, enhances learning. 
Atria, for example, can act as vertical courtyards that open up visual and spatial links between floor plates, bolstering internal communication. They also provide varied settings for interaction and exchange, and help to reduce energy use by increasing natural light and ventilation. Focusing on what makes people effective rather than what makes the space efficient changes the terms of the cost-benefit analysis and enables new approaches to evaluating worth.

Next Generation Synergy

An ongoing synthesis of lessons learned, the Synergy Tower reconceives the high-rise as a critical and powerful response to the environmental, social and economic changes that accompany a predominately urbanized world. It offers a holistic approach in which program and tower design work in unison to support the full potential of the human endeavors taking place within, in a way that conserves resources and augments a city’s vitality.

But challenges remain. While shifts in organizational priorities and workplace design are driving demand for new work environments, these changes, developed primarily in low-rise corporate campuses, require innovative strategies for translation into a high-rise setting. 

The Synergy Tower and its precedents point to key areas for further research and development as emerging structural, building, and information technologies promise further advances in the not-too-distant future. Higher-performing materials, improved solar technology, and new mobile tools, for example, will continue to inform new solutions and design imperatives. 

Already, cloud and wireless technologies are minimizing space requirements, as equipment grows smaller, more mobile, and more easily shared among a greater number of people. Energy efficient glazing systems continue to increase in sophistication and affordability, minimizing heat gain while retaining visual transparency and connection. Composite materials that incorporate reinforcements such as carbon fiber have the capacity to stimulate further advances in the structural design of tall buildings. Sustainable building technologies for harnessing wind and solar power will continue to increase the energy efficiency and power generation capacities of high rises. These are just a few innovations that are expanding the potential for a new model of high rise that is more porous, transparent, and inter-connected.

As these advances in material, building system, and information technologies continue, so too will opportunities for refining the Synergy Tower concept, which will strive to:

  • Establish a new urban typology which redraws the development of human-based cities as vertical communities.
  • Enable innovation as the foundation of the idea economy through new kinds of spaces and environments.
  • Drive a denser, more productive urban growth pattern that preserves green edges and natural assets.
  • Forge a sustainable future by improving building performance across all measures‚ including resource efficiency, workplace productivity and satisfaction, and transportation links, among others.

Establishing human interaction and well-being as the core concern of architects, developers, business leaders and elected officials working in the urban realm increasingly proves to make good economic sense. By more effectively aligning people, industry, cities and the environment, the Synergy Tower works to maximize the social, environmental and economic advantages of high rise development.