Boeing’s Building Boom

The office “tower” I find myself in is three stories high, 12 blocks long, 50 feet wide—and indoors. When I look out the window to my left, I see the inside of an aircraft hangar. A parade of Boeing 737s is creeping along below, at the imperceptible rate of two inches per minute. No matter where I wander through these offices, I hear the muted noise of manufacturing thrumming in the background. This office building is one of three inside a 760,000-square-foot hangar on the south shore of Lake Washington in the Seattle suburb of Renton. There are 2,500 employees working in them, and another 900 down on the factory floor.

Three-quarters of a million square feet, in case you were wondering, is really, really vast—it positively dwarfs the body of a 737, which is no small aircraft. Five planes at a time are lined up along a 300-foot-wide space from one end of the hangar to the other, with a great deal of space in between and on each side. You walk around in the hangar looking futilely for some reference point to help you make sense of the scale. The hangar is so gargantuan that NBBJ, the project’s architect, had to scale its model of each office row at one-sixteenth of an inch to the foot instead of the traditional one-eighth inch to the foot.

The Boeing Company’s hangar experiment is the latest step in its move to “lean manufacturing”—an aggressive streamlining of procedures that results in dramatically faster airplane production. In 2002, locked in a fierce global competition with Airbus, the company had a problem: its 737 was the most popular commercial airplane ever built, and it couldn’t keep up with demand. After the bodies were fabricated in Wichita, Kansas, and shipped to Renton by train, it took 22 days to fit them with everything they needed before they could take off for their customer’s airfield.

Often production was slowed by company communication problems. When something went wrong on the production line, a machinist would have to call or e-mail engineering, in a separate building some distance away, and eventually an engineer would visit the production line to see what was wrong. A plane could be held up for days.

Boeing machinists were assembling 737s in the same archaic facility the company had been using since 1941, while engineers, designers, executives, and 737 salespeople were spread out over four other buildings on Boeing’s Renton campus. The vice president in charge of 737 programs, Carolyn Corvi, had been thinking since the late 1980s about ways to speed things up by consolidating its disparate workforce. “The tragedy of classical manufacturing,” she says, “is that we keep the design guys separate from the guys who do the work.”

Though grim and dark, the hangar had plenty of available space and was ripe for renovation. When an earthquake severely damaged several buildings on the Renton campus in 2001, Corvi saw in the factory a potential new home for the company. The old hangar had two rows of planes under construction interspersed with three huge rows of columns supporting the roof, with airplane parts formerly stored in the spaces between the columns. Now efficiencies in parts delivery left all that space empty. So, Corvi reasoned, why not build 737 executive, engineer, and administrative offices in the vacant storage space? “I had been to the Starbucks world headquarters in Seattle,” she says, “and was struck by how they designed all their corporate office space to look like Starbucks retail stores. I thought that was a really cool idea. I wanted to capture what we do here at Boeing and make our offices an extension of that, a place where people really got excited about what we do.”

“There was incredible resistance to this idea,” Boeing program manager Mark Garvin says. But Corvi was determined to plow ahead, and Boeing hired Seattle’s NBBJ, the fourth-largest architectural firm in the world, to pull off a design that eventually would win over the hostile hearts of Boeing’s engineers and executives.

From NBBJ’s viewpoint, the project was as thrilling as it was fraught with peril. “When we heard what they wanted,” managing partner Scott Wyatt says, “we saw a huge opportunity for ‘transformational design’: design that transcends functional expectations, delivers impact—affecting lives, businesses, and attitudes profoundly—and helps people do better work.”

As NBBJ principal Lori Walker puts it, “This was a wonderful challenge. I mean, you can only design so many lawyers’ offices before you run out of great ideas. But this presented a whole set of marvelous problems.” For example, how do you move 2,500 more people into a facility designed for 900 mechanics? How do you convert a nearly one-million-square-foot horizontal space into one for denizens of an office tower? Most daunting was Boeing’s insistence that NBBJ redesign and rebuild the hangar while work went on uninterrupted. The whole thing was, in Garvin’s words, “a gigantic This Old House project.”

The essential design problem, according to Wyatt, was how to build a workplace bringing together “union blue-collar workers, nonunion white-collar engineers, sales, and corporate people—groups classically at odds with each other. We needed to give them a ‘design message’ every day about collaboration and the idea that every individual there was important.”

Work began in January 2003. NBBJ sought first of all to somehow bring an intimate human scale to a space big enough to build an airplane. Key to that was what Wyatt calls “the right to light”—bringing natural light into a space that traditionally shuts it out entirely. “Natural light has such an impact on morale,” he says. Next was to make everyone feel an important part of Boeing’s mission by “integrating the plane into everyone’s workplace. What does the scale of an airplane mean to a buyer? How can we make it so he can come and watch it being built while you’re sitting there in a meeting? We wanted to make sure everybody involved in a 737 never gets too far from the plane. We wanted to integrate the plane into everybody’s workplace.”

And finally, the team decided to tackle its biggest problem—making a factory floor home to white-collar office workers—by embracing what Corvi calls “industrial cool”—making the gritty factory floor and its atmosphere, in Walker’s words, “a feature. Make it cool to see and hear the plane being built while you’re working at your desk.”

The design effort, led by NBBJ principals Anne Cunningham and Walker, was finished in August 2004, with Boeing moving into the new hangar offices in December 2004. “There was,” Cunningham says, “no precedent for us to follow.” Walker adds, “We had to do a series of workshops to understand how planes are assembled, who works where in the process, what all the interfaces are. And Boeing wanted us to think about their employees being organized around the product instead of around the process.”

Cunningham and Walker—working with office consultant Steelcase—took as their most important mission the making of a “collaborative” workspace that broke down the “tradition of separation” at Boeing. To that end they conceived of the factory floor as the company “showroom,” and built the office-tower walls facing the floor out of translucent polycarbonate panels and transparent glazing. It was a way, in the words of Boeing’s Garvin, “of celebrating what we do. We make a direct connection between the planes and the knowledge behind them.”

Everything is designed around the notions of celebration and teamwork. Stairs lead from the factory floor up to “café/conference spaces,” with small kitchens, tables, chairs, presentation screens, and a good view of the factory floor. This connection between the white- and blue-collar worlds has become the predominant collaboration space between the two. You move through those places to suites of offices that extend the full 12-block length of the tower. Color-coding helps orient people (for example, green marks a space as a “small conference or phone room,” blue identifies larger conference rooms, and yellow indicates core elements such as restrooms), as do signs that identify areas of the building by names of cities 737s fly into, along with other signage that looks like that of commercial 737s. “We’re all 737 people here,” Garvin says, “so this motif makes the towers easily navigable.”

Much of the beauty of the towers stems from the use of recycled materials. Walls include panels of woven bamboo taken from Chinese packing crates that contained parts delivered to Boeing. Surplus fiber composite slabs, aluminum template sheets, translucent plastic tubing, and other scrap from the factory floor are used throughout in a way that both enhances the beauty of the towers and highlights the factory theme throughout the white-collar spaces. Angle irons are used to make door handles. And—in a sign of the mechanics’ enthusiasm for their new hangar—artwork made from spare parts hangs throughout, the result of close collaboration between NBBJ designers andBoeing mechanics.

The factory floor is a model of efficiency. The new hangar has streamlined manufacturing processes and sped up production. The ubiquitous factory noise along with the visual motifs are subtle reminders to everyone of where they are and why. And any time you like, you can take just a few steps to the side of your tower and look down at the work below. Near the end of my tour of the hangar, I walk by the office of the Boeing director of 737 manufacturing operations, William Loftis, who rises to greet me. Sweeping his arms wide, he looks out at the assembly line from his doorway and, in a clear vindication of Corvi’s vision and NBBJ’s execution, exclaims enthusiastically, “I got the best view in the place!”

Corvi, alas, isn’t as happy. After overseeing the hangar redesign, she was promoted. “It’s the greatest disappointment of my Boeing career,” she says mock ruefully. “I had to change jobs—now I’m in this creepy office building. I’ve got a great job—it’s just in the wrong place.”

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