Space ship and spa

R&D stands for research and decompression at Finnish firm's New England facility
August 11, 2010

Silicon Valley has changed the rules, if not the economics, of the workplace: irregular schedules, long hours, air-hockey tables, espresso 24/7 and casual everydays. It is a work environment derived from a longstanding Californian lifestyle deeply rooted in the unconventional. And it has spread, of course, beyond the tech firms.

But it is not a uniquely American development, except for the shorts and T-shirt couture. Scandinavian companies have long held the value of the employee on a pedestal, offering benefits such as generous amounts of vacation time, extended maternal and paternal family leave and on-site amenities like saunas and health clubs. At Nokia House Boston, North America meets Northern Europe in a 135,000-sq.-ft. facility designed to blend Finnish workplace principles into a New England setting.

"Respect for the individual is a hallmark of Finnish culture that Nokia holds onto," says Bob Canavan, senior manager of real estate for Nokia Americas, whether its offices are in Boston or Buenos Aires. While not all benefits transfer onto American soil, Nokia's corporate culture of employee-driven accommodations is central to the development and design of its facility in Burlington, Mass., and to its success in recruiting and retaining talented staffers.

Learning from Finland

Nokia House is of consequence not solely for its saunas and fitness equipment, but because it occupies a highly customized speculative office building. Designed by Symmes Maini & McKee Associates (SMMA), a Cambridge, Mass.-based A/E firm responsible for the base building, engineering and interiors, the four-story facility was developed by Burlington, Mass.-based owner/developer and general contractor The Gutierrez Co. specifically for Nokia, with an eye toward future tenants as well. Located in a Silicon Valley-like enclave of technology concerns 10 miles from Boston, Nokia House is the result of a cultural exchange that sent the design team to Finland for a brief but intensive immersion in the cultural and architectural landscape of the country and company.

According to Marie E. Fitzgerald, associate principal at SMMA who took part in the research trip, Nokia's corporate environment in Finland is characterized by natural light (in response to those long, dark Scandinavian winters), natural materials (a nod to Finland's great forest lands) and water elements (an ode to the country's many lakes and islands). Of the trip, she says: "We saw that Scandinavian design is more progressive than New England's."

All of these characteristics were to be translated into a suburban corporate-park building that houses research and development (R&D) and electronics laboratories, a conference center, a customer demonstration area, administrative offices and the health-oriented amenities typical of Nokia facilities. In response to the Scandinavian predilection for modern design that respects the natural environment, Nokia House Boston contains a water feature in its lobby, beneath a pedestrian bridge. Natural wood is evident in public spaces. And outside, Scotch pine trees, found throughout the Finnish countryside, are an integral landscape element.

Beyond the materials influences, Nokia's desire for collaborative work environments — where information and ideas are freely exchanged — is paramount. Common areas abound at Nokia: teaming rooms with white boards and lounge areas dot the floor plans, and a coffee bar, where employees can plug in their laptops and pour themselves a cup of caffeine, is found on each floor. An extra-large cafeteria does double duty, hosting professional and business groups in the evenings and providing meeting and exhibition space for Finnish-American cultural organizations.

There are few private offices — an effort to minimize hierarchy and maximize a sense of community. The large open-plan areas are positioned to take advantage of natural light. A "universal plan" with one standard size of workstation allows for easy reworking of layouts to accommodate changing business requirements.

To further customize the interior for Nokia, each floor has a curved and canted "feature wall" clad in figured and steamed European beech wood. The wood wall, which lines the main circulation route on each floor, has a dropped ceiling of perforated metal screen. Dark textured stone in the lobby is reintroduced along wood walls in public areas upstairs.

Healthy bodies, healthy minds

The collaborative, employee-oriented work environment is a significant draw for potential job candidates. The selection of Burlington as the site for Nokia House was designed to attract recent graduates of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Boston University and other sources of skilled workers in the Boston area. And the competition is fierce: neighbors include Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Genuity and Ericsson. "We try to create an environment that recognizes the value of employees to the corporation as a whole. We try to provide an efficient work environment with amenities that support individual work styles and tasks," explains Canavan, who is trained as an architect. The office, he adds, "is a home away from home."

Employees at this R&D center, like many of their high-tech counterparts, work unusual hours late into the night, early mornings and weekends. "They are highly motivated people," says Canavan, referring to an ethic of hard work balanced by leisure time and physical activity. Fitness amenities include a wellness center — with a full-time staff — that includes exercise machines, free weights, his-and-hers saunas and aerobics and nutrition classes. Billiards and table tennis are also offered.

Building on tradition

"We designed a Gutierrez building for them, but they kept saying 'No, it's not a Nokia building,'" explains Joseph Harrington, vice president of The Gutierrez Co., which owns the property. (Gutierrez Construction Co. Inc. was the general contractor.) Eventually the trip to Finland was arranged for the design team to get a better sense of what Nokia wanted. The challenge for Gutierrez was to use materials that would be acceptable to other tenants should Nokia move on when its lease expires. "We wanted to give Nokia what they wanted but keep in mind the need for future conversion." Use of wood, for example, was limited to public areas: entry foyer, lobby and main corridors. The central north-south corridor was designed so that each floor could be recast as multitenant space.

For Nokia, the standard-issue corporate park building simply would not do, says architect Steve Cunningham, SMMA project architect for the fit-up. Nokia's buildings, he says, typically have a "bright, light, high-tech look with metal and glass." A typical Gutierrez building, on the other hand, is clad in precast panels and has ribbon windows. For this project, "We took the same precast panels we usually use and did a very light sandblast to maintain a smooth, whiter finish," Harrington says. The design team also had to address the unique needs of highly sensitive R&D lab space. The labs, which occupy a large portion of the third floor, are humidified to eliminate static electricity; the designers used electrostatic dissipative tile throughout the space. In addition to environmental features, electronic card readers in stairways and elevators help a 24-hour guard meet security needs.

Like the glass and metal forms of Nokia's corporate headquarters in Espoo, Finland, the main entrance is marked by a collage of vertically oriented dark glass and corrugated-metal paneled walls. A crisply modern entrance canopy leads the way inside. The entrance also marks the main corridor that cuts through the building on a curving north-south axis. This "dramatic form," as Canavan sees it, is like a piece of the high-tech future slicing through the building. Behind the drama is a more boxy low-rise suburban office park building, but, he believes, "We have carved through it with materials and forms that are distinctly European."

Abby Bussel is a freelance writer and principal of Engine Books in New York City.